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Posts Tagged ‘Hollywood’

“The main thing in writing a movie is to have a good ending.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie (The Usual Suspects)

Thelma & Louise

Thelma & Louise

In terms of the Academy Awards, the morning of the Oscar-nominations in January and the night of the Oscar Awards in March make fitting Hollywood bookends. And it’s a time where the drama isn’t left on the big screen as the debating begins about which movies and people will win alongside speculation on why other movies and people were snubbed.

And some of the best writing happens the night of the Academy Awards like when Thelma & Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri said holding her Oscar statue, “For everyone who wanted to see a happy ending for Thelma and Louise, to me this is it.”

Yesterday after a long conversation with Jason McKinnon of Screenwriting Spark I decided to pull together 50 screenwriting posts that feature Oscar-winners (in no particular order).

By the way, to download some of the most recent Oscar-nominated screenplays check out the links at Screencraft and Go Into The Story.

1) The Shakespeare of Hollywood (And the first screenwriter to win an Oscar)

2) Screenwriter Christopher McQuarrie

3) Writing Quote #9 (Chayefsky)

4) Screenwriting Quote #110 (Paul Haggis)

5)  Screenwriting Quote #143 (Elia Kazan) “Have your central character in every scene…”

6) Screenwriting Quote #173 (Akiva Goldsman)

7) Screenwriter Ernest R. Tidyman

8) Screenwriter/Director Richard Brooks

9) Screenwriting Quote #44 (John Patrick Shanley)

10) Screenwriting Quote #38 (John Huston)

11) Screenwriting Quote #3 (Charlie Kaufman)

12) Screenwriting Quote #179 (Chris Terrio) 

13) Screenwriting Quote #148 (Edward Zwick)

14) Screenwriting Quote #161 (Frank Pierson)

15) Screenwriting Quote #54 (Walt Disney) Who’s won more Oscars than anyone.

16) Screenwriting Quote #139 (Stephen Gaghan)

17) Writer Budd Schulberg (1914-2009)

18) Horton Foote (1916-2009)

19) Screenwriting “To Kill A Mockingbird”

20) Writing “Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid”

21) Filmmaking Quote #19 (Robert Towne) “Filmmaking is dictated by fear…”

22) Filmmaking Quote #14 (Robert Benton)

23) Writing Quote #33 (Tom Stoppard)

24) The Making of Woody Allen in 10 Simple Steps

25) James L. Brooks on Chayefsky

26) Writing Quote #26 (Waldo Salt)

27) Woman of Steel (Diablo Cody)

28) Insanely Great Endings 

29) Tarantino on Leonard

30) Eric Roth on Theme & Loneliness

31) Sorkin’s Emotional Drive

32) Filmmaking Quote #27 (Frank Capra) “I thought drama was when actors cried. But drama is when the audience cries.” 

33) Writing “Thelma & Louise”

34) Writing “Good Will Hunting”

35) Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl in Ohio (Francis Ford Coppola)

36) “Network” Notes by Paddy Chayefsky

37) First screenplay, Oscar—Precious

38) Filmmaking Quote #34 (Ben Affleck)

39) 4 Weeks + 8 Years = 1 Oscar ” “Once you start writing, go like hell—but don’t fire till you’re ready.”—William Goldman

40) Preparing for an Oscar Speech (David  Seidler-Style)

41) The Oscars & Screenwriting East of L.A.

42) First Screenplay= 9 Oscar Nominations

43) Jailbait, Rejection & Screenwriter Mark Boal’s Start

44) The Oscars Minnesota-Style

45) The Job of Writing Quote by Oscar-winner Steven Zaillian (Schindler’s List)

46) Writing and Directing “Out of Africa”

47) The First Academy Awards

48) Writing “A Beautiful Mind” “I was the worst writer in my seventh grade class.”—Akiva Goldsman

49) Screenwriting the Pixar Way (Part 2)

50) How to Become a Successful Screenwriter (Tip #41)—Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine)

Related links:
Best Screenplay Oscar Winners A to Z at Biography.com
Oscar Winning Screenplays 1928 to present at SimplyScripts

Scott W. Smith

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“[Screenwriting] was a chore [mostly] because you’ve got several bosses. You’re not just writing for yourself. I write for myself. I’m the only one I have to please. When I have to please a producer and a director and so on, then I’m just taking in writing, doing what they want me to do.

There was a time when I had to do it, ‘cuz I needed the money. I wasn’t very proud of the pictures, but it was just something I had to do. There was no way to talk [executives] into anything. You’d have a story conference on a Friday afternoon, and they’d give all this stuff, all their ideas, [and] you’d go back to your hotel room, sit there looking at the wall and writing it, and then Monday you’d meet ‘em again, and they’d forgotten all the bullshit they’d told you Friday.”
Elmore Leonard
WGA, West article Always Writing by Dylan Callaghan

Hollywood Hacks & Shipwrecks
Hollywood=Factory Town (Michael Arndt)
One Benefit of Being Outside Hollywood (Robert Rodriguez)
Elmore Leonard (1925-2013)

Scott W. Smith

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“In many ways, though, my life has remained much as it was in 2000. I still rent the same one-bedroom walk-up in Brooklyn, and I still spend my days sitting in a chair and staring at a computer (though the chair is more comfortable and the computer is nicer). The main difference is I don’t worry about having to get a day job. (Not yet, anyway).”
Screenwriter Michael Ardnt
(Writing in 2006 soon after the release of Little Miss Sunshine)

Chaplin, Charlie (Modern Times

“I live in New York, I still rent an apartment in New York, and I taught myself to write living in New York. There is a tiny, tiny little industry there where I can be reading scripts there, but the idea of going to Los Angeles and being a struggling screenwriter in Los Angeles—I just couldn’t do it. It was just too much for me to take. And in a way, I don’t think I would have written Little Miss Sunshine if I’d been living in Los Angeles, just because it’s such a factory town, you know. I hesitated for a long time to write this movie just because I knew it’s such an odd and idiosyncratic movie—and so low budget, and so small scale—that it didn’t seem like anybody was going to be interested in making it. And I think you just internalize the values of that environment. I’m going to move back to New York after I finish with Pixar [writing Toy Story 3] and I hope I stay there. 
Oscar-winning screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine)
2007 talk at Cody’s Books (Before he won his Oscar and before Toy Story 3 was released)

Related Post:

Hollywood Hacks & Shipwrecks
The Outsider Advantage
One Benefit of Being Outside of Hollywood
Why You Shouldn’t Move to L.A.
What’s it Like to Be a Struggling Writer in L.A.

Scott W. Smith

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“When did you last see a movie that engaged your mind a week or a month later?…When crap drives out class, our taste grow coarser and the life of the imagination grows smaller.”
Stephen King
What’s Next For Pop Culture?

Recently I looked at what movies were playing at a four-plex theater by my house and couldn’t help but notice (thanks to the app I was using) something they all had in common—very low Rotten Tomatoes scores (28%, 24%, 16%, 12%). Doesn’t really matter what films they were, they were just typical Hollywood movies. Go back a few years, or look forward in a few years and there’s a good chance you see a repeated pattern. The big question is why haven’t Hollywood movies evolved?

Here’s a barrage of soundbite reviews of those movies at the four-plex:

“The comedy equivalent of mud-wrestling without the mud.”
“Uninspired trudge.”
“Unfunny, predictable, and vulgar.”
“Filled with the sentimental schmaltz.”
“Hallmark romance that ranges from the dull to the ridiculous.”
“Forget dialogue, character development, or logic.”

So why did those films get made? Why did they get made in the past? And why will they get made in the future?

The easy to answer—money.

Movie 24% and movie 16% both spent at least one week #1 at the box office and movie 12% was written by one of the most financially successful writers in history. (My wife did go to movie 12% but left before the movie was over when it got “too cheesy.” But Hollywood got the ticket sale.)

Hollywood is in the money-making business. And it’s trying to make movies that people want to see, so they can make a profit. Business 101. It’s the same reason all those trite reality TV shows that people complain about are on the air.

This all reminds me of a writing class I had in L.A. back in the ’80s taught by a playwright/screenwriter who told us that Sidney Sheldon (1917-2007) was not a good writer—but that Sheldon was a rich and famous writer. He went on to make his case against Sheldon known for his many novels, Broadway plays, movies, and for creating the TV shows Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie.  The teacher concluded his talk saying that though he considered Sidney Sheldon a hack he wished he could write like Sidney Sheldon.

I’m not an expert on Sheldon, though I confess to enjoying both Hart to Hart and I Dream of Jeannie as a kid. (I don’t remember any storylines, but I remember Stefanie Powers and Barbera Eden well.) But I don’t think Sheldon was a hack. A hack to me doesn’t really care what he writes. I don’t remember the teacher’s name either, but that class was a memorable moment that’s stuck with me.

Looking at the work of other writers and filmmakers is often a mix of subjectivity, objectivity, education, temperament, envy and jealousy. I always think it’s best to judge any artist by their best work. And to be fair, Sheldon did win an Academy Award for writing The Bachelor and the Bobby-Sock (1947), won a Tony, received a nomination for an Emmy, was a New York Times best-selling author, and is listed as the seventh best-selling fiction author of all time—ahead of even J.K. Rowling and Dr. Seuss.

But it is surprising why Hollywood films as a whole aren’t better. All of the other crafts related to filmmaking have overall arguably evolved significantly. (Cinematography, editing, special effects, sound effects, acting, set design, etc.,etc.) The reason some say those crafts are better is technology has improved and they had a great tradition to build on. But the types of movies that get made don’t really seem to improve. Certainly screenwriters also have opportunities to build (not just try to duplicate) on a body of work that went before them.

Who do we blame? Screenwriters? Audiences? Studios?

“The logic behind the Hollywood development process for a motion picture goes something like this: no matter where you are making movies in the world , if you are producing a product for a mass audience, the various funnels through which your story (the entertainment you are creating) must pass will narrow in order to appeal to the most people waiting on the other side. Typically, mass audiences reduce characters to white hat/good guy and black hat/bad guy. Consequently they like the familiarity and comfort of a twice told tale…The trick for the Hollywood writer is to create a script that is intensely personal, yet still manages to resonate with a mass audience by virtue of its universal theme.”
Michael Lent
Breakfast with Sharks
Page 4

The good news if you want to—and have the desire, skill, and opportunity— to write those poorly reviewed films that pull in a big mass audiences—you can make a lot of money. (Like all that money spent at fast food restaurants and Thomas Kinkade paintings, maybe not the most nourishing things but someone’s making money.)  These days writers who aim a little higher tend to find refuge in independent films or cable TV. Or you can turn to teaching where you can breakdown why the Sidney Sheldon of the day is a hack and where one professor at a well-known film school reportedly said, “I prepare students for unemployment.”

To really end this post on a positive note.;What about those handful of great Hollywood films made every year? Perhaps Frank Darabont explained it best when he said Hollywood is like a big shipwreck, and while most of the ship sinks to the bottom of the ocean, every once in a while a couple of pieces of wood made it to shore.

And 2012 was actually a pretty solid year, wasn’t it? Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, Silver Linings Playbook are just three well-done Oscar-nominated films that crowd the top of the Hollywood pyramid. In every level of production there is a pyramid. The best thing you can do wherever you are on the pyramid is to focus on what you do best and hope your work can find an audience. First with a small audience of investors (a studio, an investment group,  kickstarter) and then with a larger audience that brings a return on investment (ROI).

But if you can do that with a little heart and soul, there’s a few of us that would appreciate it.

P.S. Sidney Sheldon was raised in Chicago during the depression and attended Northwestern so I’ll see if I can find some interviews so he can get some stage time to defend himself. But since he was raised during the depression I imagine he may just say, “I wasn’t trying to be Shakespeare or Hemingway— just looking for a way to feed my family and pay some bills.”

Scott W. Smith

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“I was a city health inspector in Boston. Do the necessary work to pay your bills and take care of your family, and you’ll get there. Talent has a way of workin’ itself out. Hollywood will find you. Eventually.”
Screenwriter James L. White (Ray)

Workin 9 to 5
What a way to make a livin’
Barely gettin by
It’s all takin’
And no givin’

9 to 5
Grammy-winning, number one song written by Dolly Parton

Before screenwriter Colin Higgins bought a house in Beverly Hills, he once had a job cleaning pools there. Higgins had a great run in the 70s & 80s writing Silver Streak, Foul Play, Nine to Five, and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

But in the book Tales from the Script, UCLA professor Richard Walter tells the story of how Higgins once hoped to win a Goldwyn screenwriting competition so he could quit his day job and write full-time for a year. He ended up getting second in the competition so he had to keep his day job which in turned launched his career. Here’s how Walter’s tell the story;

“(Colin Higgins) went to work for a swimming pool cleaning company. And the very first pool that he’s cleaning is in the flats in Beverly Hills–great big, fancy house. As he’s vacuuming the pool, sitting under a beach umbrella at the pool is a guy who clearly owns the house and he’s reading a screenplay. They get to chatting , and Colin tells him about this script that won the Goldwyn prize. And this producer agrees to read it, and ends up producing it. It’s Harold and Maude. So you just have to stay open to the surprises.”

Now keep in mind that when Higgins was cleaning pools he had already served in the United States Merchant Marines, had an English degree from Stanford and an MFA in screenwriting from UCLA. In fact, he wrote Harold and Maude as his thesis. So don’t think he was just a pool guy who BS’ed his way into a screenwriting career. But once again, another story to add to my “bump-in factor” file.

Scott W. Smith


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“Film makers can’t get enough of Adolf Hitler. I think it’s because he’s the perfect villain.” Arnold Pistorius

Once upon a time in Hollywood…1941-1976

So in a sweeping look at American film history today we’re going to clip off 35 years.  Again one of the reasons for this brief look back at film history is to see how change has been a constant throughout the business and to see how we are in another major shift.

Hollywood had enjoyed its greatest decade through the 1930s in the short history of the film industry. (Some still believe that era was the greatest movie decade of all-time.)

1940 & 1941 continued the Golden Era of cinema. But then on December 7, 1941 the world changed for Americans with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The United States was coming off The Great Depression which started with the crash of Wall Street in 1929.

Hollywood actors and directors lended a hand in making training and propaganda films . And then there were movies about the war and its lingering effects back in the states.

So Proudly We Hail, 1943
Best Years of Our Lives, 1946

But I think the biggest lingering effect of Hitler and the Nazi’s is it created a world of fear. I’m not sure we’ve ever recovered from the idea that one man could cause so much pain and destruction in the modern world.

“The motion pictures made during World War II deeply affected Steven Spielberg, and movies about the war remain fertile ground for numerous filmmakers during subsequent decades. One reason for the continued popularity of these sages, and for movies about different wars as well, is the panoply of visual pleasures such conflicts offer.” “Citizen Spielberg”: by Lester D. Friedman

Europe exported existential thought and a new wave of movies that we free morality standards in the American film industry.

Much has been written about the prosperity that followed World War II, but many films reflected a period of questioning human existence and sometimes landing on nihilism or some for of despair. And themes that followed from World War II were prevalent for at least the next 30 years—and maybe until the present day. (The names and fears have just changed over the years)

Look at some of the top films of the 50s:

Rebel Without a Cause
On the Waterfront
Sunset Boulevard
Rear Window
War of the Worlds
Death of a Salesman

Sci-Fi films with end of the world themes were popular:
It Came From Outer Space
The Thing
The Invasion of the Body Snatchers
The Day the Earth Stood Still
Them

Hilter may have been gone but there were plenty of worries beyond wondering how Jerry Mathers was going to break in his baseball glove on Leave it to Beaver. (The Korean War, Soviets, the Bomb, communists, etc.)

And then into the 60s President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr were shot and killed, there were riots in Chicago,  L.A. and other cities. Viet Nam War.  And if things werem’t bad enough TIME Magazine’s cover on April 8, 1966 asked, “Is God Dead?”

Some of the more well known movies of the 60s were:

Dr, Strangelove; or how I stopped learning to Love the Bomb
They Don’t Shoot Horses Do They?
Easy Rider
Psycho
Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Bonnie & Clyde
Cool-Hand Luke
Midnight Cowboy
2001 A Space Odyssey
The Wild Bunch
The Manchurian Candidate

The pessimistic trend  continued into the early 1970s in politics with Viet Nam & Watergate as well as at the movies:

M*A*S*H
One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
Deliverance
Five Easy Pieces
The Last Picture Show
The Godfather
Chinatown

Sure you had Disney movies and light musicals during all these years but these films represent much of the best films of the era.

Bruce became the catalyst for change. Bruce was a mechanical shark on the set of the 1975 film JAWS who didn’t work as well as desired.  But he worked well in the edit bay and the $7 million film went on to make over $400 million worldwide. Sure there was blood and guts, but it had a happy ending.

The tent pole movie was born (or maybe just perfected). And once that genie was out of the bottle everybody in Hollywood was shooting for the  $100 million boxoffice goal.  By this time Viet Nam was over and Americans were ready to get on with life and the bicentennial celebration of the United States in 1976.

And Rocky was there toward the end of the year to give audiences something to cheer about. I do believe the one-two punch of JAWS & Rocky had a huge impact on the future of the film business. More thills per minute and a somewhat happy ending that would make a lot of money.

Once Upon a Time in Hollywood (Part 5)

Scott W. Smith

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Once Upon a Time…between 1890-1927.

The history of movies did not begin in Hollywood, California. After decades of advances in photographic techniques in the nineteenth century an inventor born in Milan, Ohio and raised (and homeschooled) in Port Huron, Michigan developed the motion picture system as we know it today. Thomas Edison (and his assistant  William K.L. Dickson) worked together on the new invention that changed the way people viewed entertainment.

Work took Edison to Canada & Kentucky before he would eventually land in New Jersey and his inventions earned him the nickname “The Wizard of Menlo Park.” (Dickson is also known to film historians as the filmmaker Fred Ott’s Sneeze in 1894.)

Edison held patents on over 900 of his inventions including the incandescent light bulb, the phonograph and around 1890 the film camera as we know it. Dickson developed the kinetograph, a sprocket camera and George Eastman (of Eastman-Kodak fame) developed the 35mm film that would pass through the camera and capture multiple images quickly.  (A technique commonly used for the last 100+ years in the film industry.)

The main problem with the early camera was it was so large it had to be permanently housed in a studio built in West Orange, New Jersey specifically for it. The studio had a track in it that allowed them to rotate camera positions to capture light coming from an opening in a room.

It’s important to look back at the early developments in film history to how Hollywood became Hollywood as we know it and why recent inventions have shifted the direction for the future of the film industry.

In the years leading up to 1900 the popularity of film grew rapidly. First using machines that allowed people to individually watch short films and evolving to nickelodeons in 1905 that projected the film images in storefronts that allowed small groups of people to watch the same film together. Within two years there were close to 4,000 nickelodeon theaters in the U.S.

New films had to be made quickly as audiences grew. And film moved from showing vaudeville acts such as juggling to telling stories. These films were usually less than ten minutes in length and made in a couple days. In 1903 Edwin S. Porter made the 12-minute film The Great Train Robbery which was seen as groundbreaking for its use of indoor/outdoor shots and use of cross cutting.  The film toured the country for years.

This all set the stage for a stage actor and playwright named D.W. Griffith in 1908 to make the film The Adventures of Dollie. Films began to grow in length as well as artistic merdits—as well becoming more economically viable.

Griffith changed the direction of the film industry in 1915 with the release of the longest and most expensive film ever made, The Birth of a Nation. The $100,000 film made $50 million dollars at the box office.

Distribution rights and patent infringements all played a roll in this emerging and profitable new industry.  New Jersey, New York (as well as Chicago and Jacksonville) all played a roll in the early development of movies. The New York area and Chicago were a natural start because that’s where the stage talent was located and Jacksonville for its warmer weather and sunshine. But there would be a shift in the film industry. (A common theme we’ll see.)

The industry eventually landed in southern California because of its combination of sunshine, warm weather and the diversity of nearby locations such as mountains, deserts, oceans, cities, open ranch land—and cheap labor. Remember places like New York and Chicago had a long established theater and vaudeville companies that were very popular. Experienced talent does not come cheap. (But producers were just as interested in producing cost efficient films as producers today. So a new industry was born on the backs of those with little or no experience in the new industry. Sound familiar?)

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica by 1915 there were 15,000 people working in the film industry and 60% was located in southern California. During this time films were all black and white and silent. The format worked well for the antics of Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and the beauty and talent of Mary Pickford.

But that would all change as well in 1927 as talkies came on the scene as we’ll learn in Once Upon a Time… (part 3).


Scott W. Smith

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