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May 17 2019

“Nobody Talks Like That”

Pulp-FictionThis was an ongoing note from producers I had on a particularly difficult project. They became extreme micromanagers on almost every creative decision, which finally came down to analyzing every line of dialogue in the script. The crux of our disconnect finally came to a head one day when my producer said to me, “Your dialogue is just not realistic. Nobody talks like that.”

Nobody talks like that. Hmm.

This issue went on for many months.  It was crucial to these producers that my characters — characters in an animated movie, in a fantastical situation — always use vocabulary and phrases that EVERYONE would use. The dialogue had to be  “natural” and “common” and “relatable.” I’ll be honest — when I write, I never really think about this. I just go with my instincts and let things flow. So maybe I’m the one who doesn’t talk like everyone else.

Then so be it.

I take real issue with this note. So it’s worth talking about. My goal in writing dialogue is clearly different than these producers. If my dialogue makes my characters speak in a way that is different from everyone else, I wear that badge with honor. Because that means that not only are my characters unique and heightened and interesting, but so is my voice as a writer.

Ask Quentin Tarantino. Or John Hughes. Or Wes Anderson. Or Kevin Smith. Or Diablo Cody. Or Mindy Kaling. Or Judd Apatow. Or Tina Fey. Or Jordan Peele. Or Spike Lee. I COULD GO ON AND ON. These people are known for — and yes, accused of — making their characters talk in a unique way that “no one else does.”

And they. Are. Icons.

Liz LemonBut let’s set that aside and go even deeper to ask: Why do we go to the movies? What do we want from the people on screen? We want a heightened experience. We want profound speeches. We want fast wit. We want to be surprised by memorable, quotable words that WE NEVER HEAR FROM EACH OTHER IN REAL LIFE. Sorry I shouted that last part, but I feel strongly about it.

So yes, of course I strive to write natural dialogue. But no, I will NOT force my characters to talk like “normal people talk” by eliminating an interesting word choice, a clever punchline, or a more elegant turn of phrase. Because “normal” is boring. And that makes a writer’s voice flatline into something that has no punch at all.

I worked with these producers for months to find a middle ground, but we never really found it. It was an exhausting, frustrating process. And it resulted in what I would call very “middle of the road” scenes. Until producers allow writers and directors to truly be their strange, unique selves, they’ll never get “the good stuff” that they can’t quite put their finger on. They’ll never create the films we want to watch for years to come.

Marvel Studios' AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR..Tony Stark/Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) w/ Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch), Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Wong (Benedict Wong) in the background L to R. ..Photo: Film Frame..©Marvel Studios 2018

Dec 27 2017

The RIFF Generation

Top-10-Most-Funny-Youtube-Channels I know, you just saw a thing. But what was even funnier was the video parody you saw of the thing! Or the video that riffs about the five things wrong with that thing! So many videos with so many riffy McRiffsters riffing away that… you might entirely forget about the original thing you saw in the first place.

I’m really glad my childhood was never plagued with Internet fan videos like:
“Everything Wrong With ‘E.T.’,”
“10 Plot Holes in ‘Ferris Bueller,”
“The Way ‘Back To The Future’ SHOULD Have Ended,”
“The Worst Parts Of ‘Close Encounters,’” etc.

I will admit that many of these videos are amusing, but we seem to live in an eternal “riff culture“ now… Where it’s easier to riff on things we see than to make things ourselves. YouTube videos are rarely original content. They usually regurgitate stuff that already exists in pop culture. They are parodies, songs, re-edits, mash-ups, just taking what IS and twisting it. That’s a LOT of energy put into something that isn’t even an original thing.

Beware of the riffing. We are steadily becoming a culture that is just riffing on riffs on riffs. Parodies of parodies. I cringe when a parent tells me their four year-old watched “Hoodwinked” and it’s the first time they’ve ever heard the Red Riding Hood story. While I love when people see my movie, it shouldn’t be the first time a kid encounters that story. “Hoodwinked” is a RIFF on Red Riding Hood. Without knowledge of the original work, not only will you not enjoy the movie as much, you will not get the full impact of how we’ve subverted it.

So as we travel down the rabbit hole of an increasingly riff-centric culture, seek out the source material and fully enjoy it first. Many do not. Many know a great line in cinema (“Here’s looking at you, kid”) only because they’ve heard it parroted in a parody moment. Seek out the original. Seek out the source, the “root art form.” Even a new original is based on art that came before it. If we have a bigger vocabulary of old movies, books and TV, we can appreciate what the next artist is doing with the established tropes. As I watch my kids become media consumers, I am convinced that a lot of art is best consumed based on our accumulated vocabulary of the art that has come before it.

Challenge yourself to consume classic books, old movies and very old stories so that you can fully enjoy all the pop entertainment you see. Because almost all of it is built on what came before. If my kids have never heard of “The Wizard Of Oz” or “The Hobbit,” will they understand when Phineas and Ferb make an episode about it? If the high schoolers I am speaking to at a film camp don’t know what a “John Hughes Movie” is (and they didn’t), my theory is that they cannot fully enjoy the current teen comedies that pull from its DNA. Or maybe I’m just a grumpy old man who doesn’t like when kids enjoy a cover tune, not even knowing it’s a cover tune.

The other bad side effect of “Riff Culture” is that it emboldens the entitled audience member. It rewards those who poop on something rather than seek out a connection with it. I grew up in a time where you just didn’t like something. But now there’s 1000 YouTube channels that need some snarky content. And if you can push your opinion a little farther and say you “hated it,” or it was “the worst,” you’ve got a trendy show to shout it on!

LukeTheLastJediHey, I know… everybody’s got an opinion, and everyone’s entitled to it. But let me blow your mind: ART is not a democracy. A work of art is there for the audience to react to. But it is not meant to anticipate or navigate to the audience‘s whims. It is the result of an artist‘s take on the world. We can like it or not. But I’m tired of the snarky content that rides on its back.

When we encounter a piece of art, we should ask: “What is the artist trying to say?” Not: “How does this art serve my needs?“  We will absorb art more objectively and criticize more kindly, even when we don’t like it. The movies and shows we like and don’t like certainly define us. But even beyond that, the reasons WHY we don’t like something and the way we communicate it says a whole lot about us too.


Nov 17 2017


winona_ryder_stranger-_things.0.0This business is so cocky. The higher you go up the food chain, the more you hear from people who think they’ve got things figured out. But if you’re a creator, here’s the good news: William Goldman was right. “Nobody knows anything.” So many people forget that the entertainment industry is built on RISKS. On HUNCHES. On INSTINCTS and FEELINGS. And while success is helped by marketing and powerful distribution, it is ultimately in the hands of the audience. The people are going to like whatever they’re going to like. No one predicted the success of “Stranger Things.” Not Netflix, not the Duffer Brothers. It’s my favorite recent reminder that hits can still come from nowhere, decreed solely by the audience. We all collectively, with one voice, simply said “WE LIKE THIS! A LOT!” I know we are all swayed by the most popular artists and franchises. We’re already up to speed. We already “half like” a lot of pre-existing things. But when something is good and it’s in the right place at the right time, success can still come out of nowhere. That’s what creators have to hold on to.

Experts will forecast what’s next, based on trends, the past, and the data they have. But in the end, it means nothing. That’s also something to remember when you encounter a doomsayer. Someone will throw a wall of negativity at you, and give you a ton of reasons why your project has no chance. Again, remember: THEY DON’T KNOW. No one does!

Here’s two more recent examples that delight me:

2017_The_Wonder_Woman_Gal_Gadot_wide“Wonder Woman” starred an unknown female lead, with a director completely untested in the genre. It was also set 70 years in the past. A disgruntled Warner Brothers employee made a big stink a year earlier, spreading a story that they had visited the set and that the movie was “in trouble.” That it was “a mess.” I don’t know who this person was, or what role they held. But clearly, their prediction is now laughable. “Wonder Woman” broke record after record and is now one of the top grossing superhero movies of all time.

Taylor Swift Reputation ArtTaylor Swift has had a rough go of it in the press, in the gossip columns, and I guess feels misunderstood in a lot of ways. Before her much-anticipated album “Reputation,” she released the single “Look What You Made Me Do.” It was met with the snarkiest of snark online. The haters came out, the doomsayers threw their tomatoes. The shadow over Swift was so great that Entertainment Weekly ran a story the week of the album’s release, hypothesizing how big of a PR backlash she might have to endure if and when the album is further ripped to shreds by the public. I mean, they hadn’t HEARD the album or anything, or interviewed Taylor Swift at all. No, the whole article was just interviews with “Publicity Crisis experts” at three different PR firms. They recommended all kinds of damage control Swift might need upon the album’s release, with quotes like “Lightning doesn’t strike twice, not in a ‘1989’ way.”

Bold predictions! This article hit the stands two days after the release of “Reputation.” And as you probably know, it sold 1 million copies in four days and smashed records, including “Fastest Album to Reach Number One.” It did that in just six minutes. As of this blog, it’s the number one selling album of 2017. Top of the year. And it’s November.

No one. Knows. Anything.

And no one certainly knows what’s next. So make what you love, what you want to see, what moves you, what your instincts tell you. Because the only way you’ll know what’s NEXT is if you make it.


Jun 14 2017

Plot: It’s not the “what,” it’s the “how”

Proposal“The story is too predictable.” This is one of those big notes that plagues many writers. One of the biggest problems when telling a story is to decide how much information you are giving the audience, and when. Too little information is confusing, and will irritate your audience. Too much information up front makes the story boring and predictable.

Plot is a road map to characters making discoveries about each other and themselves. Plot is the road that we all take a ride down and gain empathy, excitement, and shock from all the twists and turns. But sometimes the road just has to get you to the next point, and we all know what that point is. The audience knows, you know.

I just finished a rewrite on a romantic comedy and I will tell you folks, it is virtually impossible to make a rom com “unpredictable.” Oh sure, you can come up with all kinds of surprising obstacles between the two lovers, but just try to make the audience believe, even for a second, that the two leads are not going to end up together. You can’t! It’s inherent to the genre! It’s why the audience bought tickets. They KNOW that girl on the poster is going to end up with that GUY on the poster. There are rare cases where they don’t (“My Best Friend’s Wedding”), but 99 percent of the time, if Kathryn Heigl doesn’t end up with Patrick Dempsey, those people are gonna riot!

Same with action movies. Do you REALLY think Dwayne Johnson is going to die? Do you really think Vin Diesel is not going to drive a Camaro straight into the face of the Eurotrash terrorist? Of course he is. The Transformers will ALWAYS defeat the Deceptions. So what do we do with this inevitability? My solution is to focus on something else. HOW we get there.

Plot is mostly the “what” of a story. “What” happens? “What,” then “what,” then “what” else? But if you’ve seen “Arrival,” a few minutes into that movie, you don’t care that you have seen alien ships arrive on Earth a thousand times before. You are transfixed by HOW they do it. If you knew that the Alliance was definitely going to blow up Starkiller Base, why didn’t you just walk out of “The Force Awakens?” Because you loved HOW they figured out how to do it. Or HOW the characters united to accomplish the task. A good director or a good writer becomes a valued commodity because they can take ANY “what”… that is, any plot… and tell it like no once else could. Some people complained that “Avatar” was just “Pocahontas” in space. So what? You got to see it told by a master with technology that was unprecedented. “La La Land” is not the first movie to show starving artists falling in and out of love as they try to make it in Hollywood. There are dozens of movies with a very similar plot.  But NONE of them executed that plot through the lens that Damien Chazelle did, as a musical.

Your talent as a storyteller depends on HOW you tell that story. Don’t get fixated on what story it is, or if that story has been told before. Because there are really only a handful of stories in the history of stories. If you get that awful note that your script is “too predictable,” maybe it’s not the story’s fault. Maybe it’s how you’ve told it. That’s where you can surprise… even if Kathryn Heigl gets married one more time.

Mar 9 2017

Beware of the HIGH CONCEPT

04_independence_day_bluray I’ll be really honest: I want to make big, loud, fun popcorn movies. I want to give an audience an escape. I would not be sad if my film merited a series of collector’s cups from Burger King. Selling out? On the contrary, I think part of the celebration of movies is the other fun stuff that comes with it. Toys, games, spinoffs, all of that can be a really great way to “live” inside the movies we love so much. But the dark side to that is that getting them made is all driven by the ever-looming, ever-elusive HIGH CONCEPT.

The High Concept is the story idea that is so simple, so big, and so unusual that it can be described in one sentence. Or one line on a poster. It’s one of those ideas that when you hear it, you think, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Exterminators who exterminate ghosts. A private school for wizards. A theme park of dinosaurs. He was dead the whole time!!

But beware. The High Concept is a great way to sell something, but it cannot be your goal. Stories have to get interesting and take little turns and be personal to you. Otherwise you are going to have a really hard time telling them. If you fixate too much on the High Concept, you will lose sight of the actual story. I’m sure we can all think of a movie that had a great premise and even a great trailer full of amazing images, but the actual 90 minute experience did not deliver. I’ve fallen victim to the lure of the High Concept, so I thought I should warn you. I used to think I could write about ANYTHING if a producer hired me to do so. Robot Babysitter? Rescue team of talking dolphins? Farm animals start a rock band? You bet. By the way, all of those projects are real.

space-buddiesBut I have learned over many years that… You cannot TRY to care about something if you don’t.

I should tell you the story of “The Diary.” At the beginning of my career, I partnered with some friends in a production company and we were taking meetings all over town. We were hot and interesting and new and several producers wanted to be in business with us. Great! But they wanted us to bring them a really clear “high concept.” So my partners and I spent a few weeks white boarding and brainstorming all of our best log lines and came up with a list of about 40 ideas. Of those 40 ideas, we debated and voted until we carved those down to 10 ideas. Then we took those 10 and loose-pitched them to a prominent producer. He picked three of those. We wrote extended two-page treatments of all three and then he picked the ONE. The ONE he thought was the MOST LIKELY to sell. The ONE that had the most potential “traction” in the marketplace. It doesn’t matter what the idea ultimately was, but we called it “The Diary” (Spoiler: it had to do with a diary).

After all of this development, it was decided that I was the one in our group who should write this. I was raring to do it. I sat down and started the long and painstaking process of outlining the entire plot. It was a 15 page outline. I got notes on that. I rewrote the outline several times. Then after a couple months, it became clear that… I just didn’t care about this story at all. Not one bit. I kept trying to like it and get invested in our “perfect concept”… but no. It wasn’t one of the ideas I had put up on the white board, and it wasn’t one I really had a stake in. Sitting down to write it was like doing homework. And you might think, “Well buck up, be a professional. Do your homework!” But imagine doing the SAME homework assignment every day, all day, for months. Then imagine it is the one subject you hate. Why do that to yourself? And how good will a piece of art be — even commercial art — if you can’t find some way to be inspired as you make it? I will tell you, at least for me, it can’t be done. And there have been times when I desperately needed the job. But once you get the job, you’ve got to know you can DO the job. Executing a script has to come from somewhere deeper inside you than a need to pay your bills.

And you cannot confuse the High Concept with a PLOT. Plot is the complicated path your characters take. It is hidden underneath the High Concept. And you’d better have one. You can’t just entertain people for 90 minutes by playing off your one-sentance idea. Studio heads and marketing departments love to talk about the High Concept. But they don’t have to worry about the story. If you’re the filmmaker… you do.

GulliverThere has to be a personal story inside the Big Concept. Or you won’t get it to the finish line. So if you have one of those loud, bold, simple ideas, just make sure that inside that candy-coated shell is something really important to you that you really want to say. Because you’ll need that little spark on days when you don’t feel like writing. Or on days when you are completely grid-locked by the annoying details of finishing the draft. Notes will be coming at you, months will turn into a year, and you’ll have to LOVE that thing you are writing.

Now that’s not to say that a transforming robot or a superhero can’t be a passion project. You’ve just got to find the thing that makes it matter to you. Once you figure that out, the high concept on YOUR poster is: “WHAT HAPPENS WHEN A WRITER GETS EXCITED ABOUT WHAT THEY’RE WRITING?” Even if that script doesn’t make a billion dollars, the ending is still a happy one.


Jan 28 2017

Hey Producers…

On SetMany filmmakers talk about the tension of creative vs. money. But there is also tension between Director and Producer. Producers are certainly invaluable. They usually raise the budget. They maintain the budget. They hire the crew and sometimes find the writer and director. Many projects originate with the producer. Movies would not get made without them. But now that I’ve sung their praises, I have to admit that there are a lot of days where I’m at odds with them. The producer has notes for the script. They have ideas for the music. They think one take is better than another take. Many producers fancy themselves as creative producers and want to “help” the director. I’ve debated a single line of dialogue with a producer, or a single joke, over days and days. They think it’s not funny, I think it is. When we come to one of those creative forks in the road, I really need to say…

HEY PRODUCERS: I love all the stuff that you do. It’s the stuff I hate to do. And in turn, I do a lot of stuff you don’t have the patience for either. You’ve hired me for one thing — my instincts. Making touchy-feely choices is my job. You push me to justify my choices, and that can be good for me. It can make be rethink, adjust, and sometimes make a better choice. But you can also be the “Overthinker” that messes up the clear line of communication I have with my instincts. When you ask me why I put the camera over there, or why I wrote that line, or why I want to cut a scene, I want you to imagine me… doing your job. It would be ludicrous. Imagine me questioning each line item in your budget, or revising your production schedule, or helping you write the business plan. I would never try to do your job. So why are you trying to do mine?

Let’s all admit it. We all have agendas. That’s okay! Some people talk about agendas as if they’re evil. But they’re inevitable. My agenda is a happy audience, or artistic satisfaction. The marketing team’s agenda is a movie that sells. The producer’s agenda is a movie that’s cheap and makes a large profit. The crew’s agenda is a good resume  to get them a better job after this one. Be aware of these agendas and accept them. No agenda is bad… they just serve each individual. Hopefully, all of these people share the greater agenda of making a good movie. But the job a person has changes their focus. It’s just a fact.

Chaplin SetSo Producers: Acknowledge your agenda. Then you do your job and I’ll do mine. I promise I’ll never recommend some course of action in your arena. I’ll leave it to you. Then maybe you can agree to not stand over me in the edit room and suggest a wider camera shot or a different title font. Just tell me what your concerns are, what you don’t like. Then let me do my thing. When my plumbing doesn’t work, I don’t question the plumber’s choice of wrench or turn my head sideways and say, “Mmmm, are you sure you want to run that pipe there?” No. He’s the expert. I hired him to… plumb. Or whatever he calls it.

Producers, I could never do your job. So please trust me to do mine. Conflict will happen between us, and good art can come from it.  But when we come to an impasse on a creative choice, be brave… let the creative one take the creative risk.*


*This blog is in no way addressed to the good producers out there. You know who you are.

Dec 19 2016

Rogue One: The Beauty of a Big Brand


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.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story L to R: (Felicity Jones) & (Diego Luna) Ph: Film Frame ©Lucasfilm LFL

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.

Dec 15 2016

Just Start

Blank paper with pen

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.

dscf6680001I’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.

Oct 13 2016

To The Creators

paint-the-airMany 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!

Back view image of young businessman standing against business sketch

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.

oscar-croppedThat 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.big-idea1

Oct 1 2016

Do You Really Want To Pitch?

pitchIf 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.

creed-xlargeFrom 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.


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.


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.


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.

monty-python-now-for-something-completely-differentFOLLOW 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.


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.

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