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Posts Tagged ‘Tom Peters’

A couple of weeks ago I was in Des Moines on a project and came across a book by Hugh MacLeod (@gapingavoid) called Ignore everybody; And 39 Other Keys to Creativity. And I landed on this little sentence of his that I’ve mulled over ever since:

“Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.”
Hugh MacLeod

It reminds me of Tom Peters‘ advice to “Go where the hotspots aren’t.” Back in 2003–after living my entire life in either Orlando, Miami or Los Angeles—I moved to Cedar Falls, Iowa. My friends who thought I was crazy started to change their tune when the state and area started showing up in lists such as “top ten places to start a business,” “best small towns to live in,” and  “healthiest places to live.” And to top it off there is a good creative heartbeat in Iowa.

MacLeod was once a “struggling young copywriter living in a YMCA” when he started to doodle on the back of business cards. Those cards turned into the blog/website gapingavoid.com. (He first went online in 2001 and according to a 2005 article he was getting 1 million views a month.)  Now he’s a successful author, speaker, artist, actor with several companies under his belt.

Of course, you don’t have to physically move to Iowa (or Marfa, Texas) to avoid crowds, but be creative and find room in your little red wagon to carry that thought around for a while —”Don’t try to stand out from the crowd; avoid crowds altogether.”

Related post: “A Sea of Sameness”

Scott W. Smith

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“The ‘surplus society’ has a surplus of similar companies, employing similar people, with similar educational backgrounds, coming up with similar ideas, producing similar things, with similar prices and similar quality.”
Kjell Nordstrom and Jonas Ridderstrale, Funky Business

We live in a culture that is swimming in “a sea of sameness.” I’m not sure who coined that phrase “a sea of sameness,” but I first heard it from Tom Peters many years ago. The phrase instantly resonated with me because it was so easy to look at the world around me and see that it was true—from fast food restaurants, to automobiles, to Hollywood movies.

The big question is once you notice “the sea of sameness” around you, what do you do about it? If you like the sameness of the life you are living and are surrounded by then there is no dilemma. But if you no longer care to conform to the “sea of sameness” then the only sane thing for you to do is step off the track you’re running on. Rebel. Change.

“If you don’t like change, you’re going to like irrelevance even less.”
General Eric Shinseki, Chief of Staff, U.S. Army

Of course, the courage to change may take years…or something you do today. (Or at least take the first step towards.)

“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.”
Howard Beale
Network, written by Paddy Chayefsky

You can apply that where you will, but since this is a blog on screenwriting that’s where we should look. Are the stories you’re writing the stories you are dying to tell? Here’s how screenwriters Gill Dennis and James Mangold laid it out in the script Walk the Line where record producer Sam Phillips gives some advice to a young Johnny Cash who had just performed a lackluster gospel song for him in hopes of landing a recording contract:

“If you was hit by a truck and you were lying out there in the gutter dying and you had time to sing one song. One song people would remember before you’re dirt. One song that would let God know what you felt about your time here on earth—one song that would sum you up, you telling me that’s the song you’d sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune that we hear on the radio all day, about your peace within, and how it’s real, about how you’re going to shout it. Or would you sing something different? Something real. Something you felt.  Cause I’m telling you right now, that’s the kind of song people want to hear. That’s the kind of song that truly saves people. “
Walk the Line

I hope that’s the kind of script you’re working on now. (Or you at least have a file started.)

Scott W. Smith



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“The world needs a new culture around creativity…Being Creative makes this planet a better place.”
Chase Jarvis

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth…”
Genesis 1

About ten years ago I read a Tom Peters quote that off the top of my head was something like;  “Sometimes to rejuvenate yourself creatively, you need to move to another climate or another culture.” Seven years ago I moved to Iowa (“Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—I took the one less traveled by”—Frost) and that has made all the difference. Long story short, it turned out to be the change I needed to rejuvenate myself creatively. In a sense it was a step back from the track I had been on.

I had been on the traditional track, doing traditional things, with a traditional mindset. Even the places I lived were somewhat traditional for somebody with a creative mindset—Miami, Los Angeles, Orlando. And along the way I got to work with some good people on good productions, traveled a good bit, and kept up with the creative changes by embracing new technology as it came my way, like shooting stills and video digitally and going from editing film on a Steenbeck flatbed to editing with an AVID. (And now FCP, Motion, Soundtrack, etc., etc.)

But I ways also looking for something different. Something that tapped into that creative ideal I had when I was 18-years-old. Along the way I was also reading Malcolm Gladwell, Daniel Pink, and Seth Godin. Turns out the same people Chase Jarvis*, a Seattle-based photographer, has been reading. Jarvis is a piece of the puzzle of bridging the gap between the old traditional creative guard and a new way of doing things that is well on its way. This new thing, this wave of change, Jarvis calls “social art.”

What is social art? Jarvis says, “I can’t say exactly what it is, but I can tell you that it’s creating content and context. It’s interdisciplinary, it’s participatory, it’s interactive, and it’s symbiotic. Everybody can win. Most importantly I think social art is incomplete if there’s not another person on the end of the pipe in some way, shape or form participating in that art with you. “ (Have you ever written a screenplay that didn’t get produced? Yeah, me too. That’s a good example of an incomplete art.)

Social art could be a communal dinner where someone is sharing their art of cooking, while another is sharing a song, and others are showing photographs, paintings, and films. What a wonderful world, right?

And despite all of the negativity associated with the Internet there is an amazing amount of sharing of creative content. Dare I say communities connecting via Facebook, Twitter, You Tube and the like. Today people are connecting and freely sharing information with the same zeal that the old tradional guard tried to hide.

Last week Jarvis spoke in New York City at the Photo Plus Expo and said, “I’m asking you to put yourself at the center of a new art, a social art where you’re creating something and sharing it with those around you…Take more picture, be fearless, put yourself out there, shoot more films, build tools—the iPhone app is a great tool, and educate. At the end of the day what I’m talking about is the democratization of creativity.”

It’s an exciting time to be in the creative arts. I have a first hand view of young creative people (some with no traditional arts education) who are carving out niches taking pictures, producing music videos, making films, painting, creating animation, and designing graphics and websites. And they’re earning a living not even aware of the fading traditional way of doing things.

“This is the most exciting time in the history of the world to be a photographer…It’s the first time in the history of the world that content creators are also distributors. Anybody in this room, if you took a picture of me in the hallway you have— within five minutes—you can have a blog, a Facebook account, Twitter and be sharing your work. The content creators are the content distributors. And the best thing about this is we don’t have to ask anybody’s permission.

Until now everything previous to this you had to have permission if you wanted to show your work on any sort of scale. Sure you could show your work to your friends, you could walk around New York with a portfolio, walk into five ad agencies in a day, sure—that’s that scale. You needed permission from the gallerist, you needed permission from the magazine editor, the photo editor, you needed to get tapped, selected by the ad agency to be able to show your work on any sort of scale. Those days are over. Any person in here can share what they create, with scale, right now.”
Chase Jarvis
PDN PhotoPlusNewYork

This may not be the most exciting time in the history of the world to be a traditional screenwriter. But to be a screenwriter with a “social art” mindset it’s an incredible time. Imagine writing a script, doing an online reading, gathering a following, rasing money through a Kickstarter campaign, making your film, generating interest via your blog,  and distributing it via DVD sales on your website and iTunes rentals and sales. That is not the future, these are tools that are at your disposal right now.

Over the weekend we’ll look at how writer/director/actor Edward Burns is a great model for independent filmmakers. For his latest film,  Nice Guy Johnny, Edwards is both the creator and the distributor.

*Jarvis has a blog and you can follow him on Twitter @chasejarvis.

Scott W. Smith

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“Live each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”
 
                                                          Henry David Thoreau

“I lost passion. I felt a little unfulfilled and empty.”
                                                           Jim Brandenburg

                                                           Photographer & cameraman
                                                           (Reflecting on his 90-day journey)                       

We normally associate renewal with springtime but I think fall is a wonderful time to undergo creative renewal and would like to talk to you about a great story of an artist who used the 90 days of fall to undergo a creative transformation.

Today marks the first day of fall. Before I moved to Iowa a few years ago fall had little impact on my life. That third week of September was usually just another summer day in Florida and California. But here in the Midwest the change is amazing to watch. Just this week I was riding my bike and couldn’t help but notice the fallen leaves on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail.  Soon there will be an explosion of color in the trees and coolness in the air.

Several hundred miles north in Ely, Minnesota near the Canadian border I’m sure fall is well on the way. That is where photographer Jim Brandenburg calls home. Several years ago when Brandenburg was on contract with National Geographic he found himself in a place that many dream of. Traveling the world in search of great images that people would admire and appreciate.

Yet the schedule was grueling as he traveled away from his family 50 to 70% of the year. After 20 years he decided that he need a time of creative renewal. I have read that National Geographic photo assignments average 550 rolls of film and that a 1,000 is not unheard of.  (A thousand rolls of 36-exposure film is 36,000 shots.)

It’s been said that every assignment for National Geographic is like getting up to bat expecting to hit a grand slam home run. 

Brandenburg said of the schedule “the day is never done. You start early and don’t stop until you are exhausted or you are absolutely sure you got that photograph. And I had been through that cycle for 20 years and I was getting weary.”

So he began to look for way to find creative renewal knowing that he’d either find a breakthrough or do something different with his life. 

So Brandenburg’s idea for creative renewal was to take the fall of 1994 and only shoot one shot a day. If he stayed the course he would shoot less than three rolls of film. He explains it as sort of a Zen experiment in ascetic discipline. To search everyday for the one photograph that needed to be taken.

Brandenburg said, “I was looking for something elusive, an idea or a process, or a spiritual direction of some kind.”

“If your mind isn’t clouded by unnecessary things. This is the best season of your life.”
                                                                    Wu-Men                  

It’s reminiscent of the stories of photographer Ansel Adams who in the 1930s would take his 8X10 camera deep into Yosemite. Because he was limited on how much film he could take he would often camp out and just watch the sun one day as preparation for shooting the next day. There is a reason we still admire Adams work today.

And there is a reason I’m bringing up Brandenburg. His special project that was meant for just himself eventually became a National Geographic spread that showed every single shot making it the largest single photo essay in National Geographic history. 

(Side note: You can view all of Brandenburg photo from his journey on his website www.jimbrandenburg.com. Because of copyright issues I did not use a photo of his at the top of this post. But that photo was inspired by Brandenburg as I took my camera on an early morning bike ride yesterday after reviewing Brandenburg’s photos for this blog. Creative renewal is contagious.)

Brandenburg’s photo eventually became his best selling book and a DVD followed in which Brandenburg recounts the creative process and the struggles he had along the way. Chased by the Light; A Photographic Journey with Jim Brandenburg is a wonderful documentary full of insights into the creative process. Rarely do you find such an elegant exposition of the creative process and I think there is something here that all writers and artists can gleam from.

 

On the DVD Brandenburg talks about some of the experiences of his self-assigned experiment that was never intended to be seen by others. Some times he would set out before dark and walk many miles. At day 23 he thought about abandoning the project because he thought he had failed. But he remembered the old saying, “There are no rewards without risks.”

Day after day he waited for the right moment to that that one picture of an eagle, wolves, deer, ravens, loons, trees or whatever else captured his imagination. 

His last photograph was December 31, 1994 at 1:40 AM. The photos then sat in a drawer for two years until National Geographic Senior Editor John Echave saw them and then published them in November 1997 as a 90 photo feature. 

Brandenburg continues to shoot. He has also taken steps to protect the land “that nurtured and renewed” his creative spirit  Brandenburg and his wife Judy have set aside with The Trust for Public Land 640 arces of Ravenwood forest to be preserved in perpetuity. 

The Brandenburg’s are also involved with preserving the tallgrass prairies of Jim’s youth at Touch the Sky Prairie Preserve in Rock Country, Minnesota.

If you’re ever in the Lavern or Ely, Minnesota be sure to check out the Brandenburg Gallery or see more of his work online at www.jimbrandenburg.com.

There are other ways to seek creative renewal. Tom Peters says that some times you need to move another country or climate to rejuvenate yourself. No one said creative renewal would be easy or practical. (Heck, how do you think I ended up living in Iowa?) Let me tell you another story of renewal.  

When I was in film school back in Los Angeles in the 80s I sometimes assisted fashion photographer Art Pasquali.  Art not only had the coolest last name but lived in his studio in downtown LA with two doberman pinschers and flew gliders in his downtime from shooting beautiful people. 

After shooting for 20 years Pasquali bought a sailboat and sailed away from LA-LA land, down to Mexico, through the Panama Canal and eventually found his way to the Cayman Islands where he stopped for a Corona and has called it home ever since.  

Brandenburg and Pasquali’s stories are exceptional which is why I bring them up. Deep down change and renewal is going to take more than turning off the TV for a week. If you’re a writer it may be taking up photography or writing in a genre or style that you’ve never tried. If you’ve never written a screenplay maybe that’s what you do in the next 90 days. (All you have to do is average a page a day.) 

Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings didn’t hit her stride as a writer (or publish a novel) until she moved to rural Florida which would provide her inspiration for her novel The Yearling for which she won a Pulitzer Prize and was made into a movie staring Gregory Peck. Martin Ritt directed the excellent Cross Creek that tells the unusual life story of Rawlings.

Perhaps you just need to take a small step in your creative renewal. Here is Julia Cameron’s suggestion in her book The Artist’s Way:

“Spending time in solitude with your artist child is essential to self-nurturing. A long country walk, a solitary expedition to the beach for a sunset or a sunrise, a sortie out to a strange church to hear gospel music, to an ethnic neighborhood to taste foreign sights and sounds–your artist might enjoy any of these. Or your artist might like to go bowling.”

I hope these stories and ideas provide some inspiration for you as fall starts. When is the best time to start your creative renewal? I’ll defer to Karen Lamb; “A year from now you may wish you had started today.”

 

Photo & Text Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Be a student so long as you still have something to learn, and this will mean all your life.”
                                                                           Clay P. Bedford 

“There’s really no way around it. Learning any new skill involves relatively brief spurts of progress, each of which is followed by a slight decline to a plateau somewhat higher in most cases than that which preceded it.”
                                                                            George Leonard
                                                                            Mastery 

 

Can you imagine being a student in Hong Kong and taking a class where you watch a live video feed online from the United States? Last year I produced a video for a client that is using that technology and I was blown away. Think of the money saved by the fellow in Hong Kong who is willing to wake up at 3AM instead of uprooting his life to attend college here in the states. 

Over a decade ago as the Internet began to make serious inroads into the mainstream some proclaimed that eventually there would be little need for college as we traditionally know it. If that day is coming it’s still a long way off. But online education is exploding and I want to tell you about one company that I think is the single best site for creatives trying to keep up with the technology.

When I moved to Iowa back in ’03 it became clear that the overall media industry was changing. What wasn’t clear was how creative professionals would adjust to the changes. In film school we were told that you didn’t want to be a “jack-of-all trades and a master-of-none.”

But today If you go to Monster or Mandy you might see a job like this: “We’re looking for a producer/director/writer/cameraman/editor who knows AVID/FCP Suite/After Effects/Photoshop/Illustrator/Pro Tools/web compression/music composition, and a basic understanding of JAVA and open heart surgery are helpful. MBA preferred. Must be able to bench press 376 pounds. I exaggerate–slightly.

Who does all of this you ask. Every other kid coming out of college, that’s who. The mindset now is you are expected to be a master-of-all trades. While not being masters I have been amazed at the versatility of some of the young people in or just out of college that I’ve worked with. (Heck, an eighth grader came by last year to show me a documentary he did on Buddy Holly.) So where does that leave all of us who have been out of college a while (or never even went to college)? 

Which brings me to reason I have become an evangelist for Lynda.com

Tom Peters says that if you want to rejuvenate yourself move to another climate or culture than you are used to–just to shake your life up a bit. Moving to Iowa from Florida fit both of those parameters for me. And one thing I found here was because the production budgets weren’t as high as the big cities that creative people here had to wear many hats.

I realized to survive and compete I had to put on a few more hats. That’s what led me to Lynda.com. First I looked a one-day workshop in Chicago and all the expenses related to it and figured it would cost me around $500. And how much would I retain in that one-day blast? That led me to a company where I bought 36 hours of Final Cut Pro DVD instructions for around $350. Saved a little money from the one day seminar and got a lot more instruction plus I could learn at my own pace. What could be better?

Then I found out about Lynda.com’s online tutorials. Very user friendly and packed with more than 29,000 video tutorials of online training in 445 courses. You can watch thousands of segments free but if you dive into a subscription (which I recommend) it’s only $25. a month or $250 a year. (If you’d like download the exercise files to work on it’s $375. a year.)  

This is an unpaid and unsolicited endorsement of a website that can change your life. I have benefited from other training places (Creative Cow, Ripple Training, LAFCPUG, DMTS DVX User) and enjoy a trip to the Maine Media Workshops in Rockport like anyone else (I once ate a table with legendary photographers Arnold Newman and Mary Ellen Mark), but I find Lynda.com the best place to learn how to use creative software. Which is why I return to it again and again.

They kind of redefine learning for creative people. The instructions are broken down into small chucks usually between 2 and 10 minutes so you don’t feel like you have to spend an hour or two straight on a tutorial. 

I’ve done lynda.com tutorials in airports and hotels, late at night and early in the morning–it’s simply a solid and convenient way to learn. If have trouble grasping some of the technology as I do you just play the segment again. 

Sometimes it will help you out of a jam. Last year I had a friend working on a DVD for a national client and he called me at night asking where that place was that did online tutorials that I was always talking about. He found what he was looking for at Lynda.com.

Once 14 year olds realize they can get this training online they can begin to redeem time spent playing video games. They won’t have time for college because they’ll already be working pros who, at least in technical knowledge, surpass most college professors with a Ph.D.

Lynda.com is also perfect for aging boomers and retirees who feel like they’ve missed the technological boat but still have the urge to create. In fact, if you’re in that category you have to check out Lynda.com’s creative inspiration segments with photographer 70-something Douglas Kirkland. (Yes, I am aware that people still create with pen and paper, typewriters, and paint–but work with me here.)

Douglas photographed Marilyn Monroe when he was 25 and went on to shoot a who’s who list of celebrities including Jack Nicholson, Francis Ford Coppola and Orson Wells. He’s in his early seventies now and still working and reinventing himself. He was in his 50′s before he embraced digital photography thanks in part to Lynda Weinman herself. In an interview he spoke about people his age saying they were glad they were retiring before they had to learn all this digital stuff. But Douglas didn’t understand that mentality and embraced the new world and all that it offered him creatively. After all Douglas says, “You can’t live on what you did yesterday.”

I remember reading an Ansel Adams quote from later in his life where he said that the one regret that he had was that he wasn’t going to be around to see the digital changes.

If you believe in “the rise of the creative class” and that there is a “war for talent” you will embrace the changes around you. Have a passion for what you do and learn the tools that will free you to create more boldly.

I tell my editor friends to start shooting (even if it’s just their kids), I tell my cameramen friends to start editing (even if it’s just their demo reel), and I’m telling you (Mr. or Mrs. Screenwriter) that if you pick up a camera and start editing you can begin to make steps to seeing whole new possibilites for your writing.

You won’t be multi-talented Robert Rodrigez out of the gate (or perhaps ever) but remember the famous John Wooden quote, “Do not let what you cannot do interfere you from doing what you can do.” Think in terms small steps. Lynda.com can help you with many of those steps.

Will it replace college? I don’t think so. We need football teams to root for, a place where students can escape their parents who pay tens of thousands of dollars so they can party, and places where successful alumni can donate money to have buildings named after them. So, no, Lynda.com will not replace college–but it’s well on its way to replace how we learn.

You don’t have to move to Iowa to shake your life up. Just try Lynda.com for a month.

P.S. Just to prove my point here is the word by word ad for a group in St. Louis that is looking for a “writer with shooting and editing skills:” 

The duties for this position include (but are not limited to):

* Script writing
* Producing
* Directing
* Editing (rough-cutting on long form projects and complete editing on shorter videos)
* Some Graphics work
* Production work – running camera, recording audio
* Building and organizing sets
* Anything else required that goes into creating high quality productions from start to finish.

You do not need to know how to do everything, but you must have some sort of background in film or video and the ability to learn new skills extremely quickly. If you already think of yourself as a Swiss army knife, you may be the right person for this job.
 

Copyright ©2008 Scott W. Smith

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“Everybody lives by selling something.”      Robert Louis Stevenson

“Tell stories! Great Speechifying = Great Storytelling. Period.”    Tom Peters

Stephanie Palmer’s Q&A on her book “Good in a Room” generated the second highest views to this site. (Right behind “The Juno-Iowa Connection” after Diablo Cody won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay.) So I thought it would be worth exploring a little more in detail.

According to Stephanie (a former MGM executive):  “Good in a room” is a Hollywood term referring to creative people who excel pitching at high-stakes meeting. 

 

Outside of Hollywood being “good in a room” may be pitching an investor in your project. In advertising circles around the world it may be trying to get a client excited about your creative ideas.

Let’s not kid ourselves, public speaking is part of being good in a room. The thing that many people list as their #1 fear. If you’re a writer who pumps out great thoughts and people send you a check without you having to get out of your bathrobe then you can probably afford to skip learning to be a public speaker.

For everyone else it’s a great skill to learn. But can one to learn to be a good speaker? Some of the answers found in the post “Can Writing Be Taught?” apply here.

First speaking is like writing, the more you do it the better you will become. A friend who is a fitness instructor told me years ago that the key to staying is shape is, “It has to be a lifestyle.” The results aren’t pretty when we try to jog a mile after a year or two layoff. But how can you practice public speaking?

One of the best places to go to learn and practice public speaking is joining Toastmasters International. I moved to L.A. when I was 21 and the first thing I did was follow everyone’s advice and buy a Thomas Bros Road guide for LA and Orange counties. (I used to drive 30,000 miles a year in those days and those spiral bound detailed map books were gold. I imagine these days in an GPS/Mapquest age those books are less in demand.)

But the first thing I wish someone would have told me to do was to join Toastmasters. It took years of prompting in Tom Peters books before I finally visited a club Toastmasters meeting and then (after a couple of years on the sideline) to join. I now have been a member of a Toastmaster group for two years and it has been a wonderful experience and I recently received my Competent Communicator certificate for completing ten 5-10 minute talks.

Here’s what Peters’ writes in his book Brand you 50 (50 Ways to Transform Yourself):
Join Toastmasters. You are your own P.R. “Agency.” 

Building a local reputation is part and parcel of building Brand You. That means using any opportunity to…Tell Your Story.

 

Tame your (v-e-r-y natural!) fear of public speaking. There are doubtless lots of strategies for this. I am an unabashed Toastmaster fan. Toastmasters is a bit too structured for me, but that’s the smallest annoyance. It is the premier self-help organization  that has led hundreds of thousands to master Self-Presentation.

Toastmasters is a safe place to begin improving your speaking skills and with dues under $30. a year it’s one great investment. I am amazed to watch how people improve in just a couple of weeks. There are Toastmaster groups around the world…even in Iowa. There are probably several groups in your area that meet at all different times to fit into your schedule.

(Just learned from writer Lisa Klink’s blog that there is a Toastmaster flyer on display up at the WGA offices in Los Angeles. Could be an excellent networking opportunity for those in L.A.)

But Stephanie points out that being good in a room is more than just being a good speaker and pitching your ideas. It’s about building rapport. She says that in her experience as a studio executive the buyers are asking themselves if they want to spend a couple of years of their life working with you on a project.

“The Ultimate goal of ANY pitch is to establish an ongoing relationship with the person you are pitching…when I hear a two-minute pitch, I’m also checking out if this is the kind of person I’d like to do business with.”
Shelia Hanahan Taylor, Practical Pictures

Obviously your story must be solid but it helps if you’re likable as well. Stephanie lists three secrets for building rapport:

Secret 1: Allow yourself to really care about the other person and to be curious about who he or she is. Empathic interest creates trust.

Secret 2: Common ground cannot be faked or fudged. Rapport requires honesty.

Secret 3: The warmth that signifies true rapport is not something you can force. 

She unpacks these more in detail in her book so make sure you pick up a copy “Good in Room” and join Toastmasters as well. And embrace the fact that you are a salesperson. If you want to see a novice screenwriter be brilliant in a room find a DVD of the first season of Project Greenlight and watch how first time director Pete Jones does a master sales job on Ben Afflack, Matt Damon and Chris Moore as he pitched his story Stolen Summer which they did produce.

Where did Pete learn to be a salesman? He sold insurance in Chicago. (Always pushing for that Midwest angle, aren’t I?)

Speaking of Midwest angles —  in the latest Script Magazine (Vol. 14/Number 2) there is a photo of Kevin Costner from Field of Dreams.

Scott W. Smith

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“IS THIS HEAVEN?”

 

 

(That movie was filmed about an hour away from where I’m typing this blog and you can tour the Field of Dreams Movie Site from April through December.) Anyway, the photo of Costner in a baseball pitcher’s windup is in an article by Lee Zahavi-Jessup titled Perfect Pitch. It’s a solid article and a good read.

Zahavi-Jessup writes, “With a strong pitch, the writer is allowed an opportunity to display the brilliance, efficiency and creative prevalent in his 120-page screenplay in a focused and concise fashion.”  That takes practice.

I’ve also noticed online pitches starting to pop up and I don’t think that’s a trend that will fade away. I believe it will open the door for more writers outside LA to be able to pitch their stories. If all this seems too much to grasp remember the Milton Glazer quote, “Art is work.”

 

“A lot of the time it’s essential that you have some P.T. Barnum in your personality. That is, you have to know how to sell.

                                                        Andrew Marlow (screenwriter, Air Force One)

Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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“So many gurus and so few good writers. Where are all these lessons going?”
Larry Gelbart (Tootsie)

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Here’s the straight story. There are many screenwriting gurus out there and I thought I’d warn you about them. Actually, I just need to warn you about your addiction to them.

Back in November I was doing a video shoot in the Bay area and the fellow I was interviewing said he had a friend who worked at George Lucus’ Industrial Light & Magic (ILM) who might be able to give me a tour if I was interested. (Is there a reason I wouldn’t be interested?)  I took the photo of Yoda at the ILM headquarters at the Presidio in San Francisco a couple of hours later during my Forrest Gump-like experience. Who doesn’t want a wise and powerful mentor to help guide them from the dark side? The trouble is always knowing who to trust.

A couple of years ago I spent seven months of my life producing real estate and financial infomercials. As far as infomercials go, these were big budget fares that were well done.

I’ve had worse gigs and definitely ones that paid less. It was a good experience as I worked with a talented group of people and learned a ton of production techniques. A common question my friends asked about the shows I was working on was “Are they true?”

Well, they weren’t really false, but they didn’t quite tell the whole truth. For instance the sound bite you heard on TV was, “I made $10,000 on my first deal.” What was edited out was this guy explaining how it took him two years to put together his first real estate deal. Another fellow said it was not uncommon for him to make 100 lowball real estate offers before one got accepted.

Infomercials never touch on how hard it is to make money because infomercials work emotionally on how easy things are to do. They skip showing the scenes of Rocky running up the stairs and pounding the beef.  Instead they pound the testimonials of how much money people say they have made until you hear what you want to hear. The executive producer where I worked was fond of saying, “There is no such thing as over-the-top in infomercials.”

Most of my work was focused on the success stories. Two-minute vignettes that showed how a person or couple used such and such products and became wealthy. In the business this is called a zero to hero story. (I have that in a folder of potential titles for a future script.)

A zero to hero is someone who was down on their luck, went to a seminar or ordered books and audio products and applied the principles and in a short time became wealthy. Who among us doesn’t yearn for the magic formula?

The history of this in our country goes way back to Ponce de Leon looking for the fountain of youth in St. Augustine.  Come to think of it, in another time and place weren’t Adam and Eve just looking for a little more knowledge?

Infomercials have a tremendous failure rate and the ones that do succeed focus on just a few categories:

1)Kitchen & Cooking (George Forman Grill)

2)Beauty & Fitness (Chuck Norris and the Total Body Gym)

3)Self-improvement (Tony Robbins)

4)Making Money (Rich Dad, Poor Dad)

5)Leisure (Time –Life Music)

Basically they touch on our deepest longings in life to look good, feel healthy, and have money. You want to believe the infomercials, that’s why they work.

Here’s the problem as it applies to screenwriting seminars. We want to believe they will give us the missing link and make us a better writer.  Many writers are like crack addicts thinking the next book, workshop, audio series, writing software will make them a better writer. Just one more hit off the pipe and we’ll quit.

There may be a kernel of truth in books and seminars (my blogs are intended to pull out those kernels for you) but the fact is if you are reading or searching more for the secret of writing more than you are writing then you are heading down the wrong path.

John August the screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (and a Drake graduate here in Iowa) wrote this on his website blog , “The truth is, there’s no magic formula for writing a great script. (Or for that matter, a commercial one.) Anyone who tries to convince you that theirs is the One True Way is deluding themselves and you.”

Robert McKee who wrote the book Story is the main screenwriting guru.  On his website he lists the number of major award winners and nominees who were his former students. (Of course, he taught at USC so many professors there could make the same claim. And those that have been to his workshop, I imagine have learned from other guru’s workshops and books as well.) But his advertising materials imply that he is the reason for their success and if you attend his class you’ll be walking down the aisle to accept your Academy Award.

After all,  didn’t one of his students Akiva Goldsman do just that? Well, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of A Beautiful Mind does credits McKee’s class with helping him make the transition from novelist to screenwriter. But the fact is Goldsman has a MFA from NYU and was, by his own admission, a failed novelist for 10 years. And if he started writing as a teenager he probably had many teachers who he learned from, but more importantly he was writing. (Getting in his 10,000 hours of education and practice long before he took a three-day seminar with McKee.)

There’s a glaring problem in respect to gurus and I’m not the first to point it out. Take McKee for instance, he’s not only not won an Academy Award he’s never had a feature screenplay of his produced. Ever. Zero. If it was all formula you think he’d have had one hit movie made in his lifetime.  McKee’s is an academic and people with Ph.Ds are analytical by nature. McKee is brilliant in telling students why a film works. Many critics can do so just as well, they just don’t have the theatrics or business acumen that McKee has to become a screenwriting guru.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that McKee is a bad writer or that he hasn’t sold any scripts before, or that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. I’m just stating a fact and making an observation. With McKee there is a disconnect, a gap between what he knows and what he’s done. (I’m sure if one of his feature scripts gets made, he’ll die a happy man. But then again, if it’s not a good movie it could damage his whole legacy.)

August writes, “To read his brochure, you’d think that everyone in Hollywood has taken McKee’s course, but the truth is, I don’t know anyone who has. Wherever I hear his name brought up, it makes these tiny hairs rise on the back of my neck, because it usually means the speaker is going to cite some piece of screenwriting gospel, or use some cleaver word like “counter-theme.”

McKee does such a through job of breaking down Casablanca you think that its writers attended his seminar, until you realize the movie was made before he was born. He also does a several hour breakdown of Chinatown.

“I’ve never met McKee and have nothing against him, but to read his bio it’s clear that he’s not a very successful screenwriter and never really was,“ August continues on his blog, “That’s not to say he can’t be a great teacher, just as many great film critics are not filmmakers, nor do I think that there’s anything wrong with a screenwriting class per se, especially if it helps you get off your ass and write. But I would rather have dental surgery than go through a structural analysis of CHINATOWN.”

That is the fundamental difference between successful screenwriting gurus and successful writers. It’s like the engineer who builds the car and knows how it works and the race car driver who takes that engineering feat and does something amazing with it. But there is a tension there, and it’s rare to find a person who can do both well.

In fact, if you took the five top screenwriting gurus you might find five produced films between them. Maybe. And of those five films, you would have five films that were little known and/or poorly reviewed. That’s why they’re doing seminars, because there is more money to be made teaching this stuff than writing screenplays. (Or more nicely put, their real gift is in teaching.) And the flip side is even if the working screenwriter took the time off writing to do a seminar the chances are it wouldn’t be very good. (Joe Eszterhas has been a screenwriting box office rock star, but I’d recommend McKee’s book Story over the one Eszterhas wrote to help screenwriters (The Devil’s Guide to Hollywood).

In the book Screenplay; Writing the Picture (Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs) make this observation:
“It is interesting to note that few Hollywood screenwriting gurus have ever sold a movie (and Aristotle never wrote a play). This is because the ability to structure a story and the ability to analyze the structure of a story are two totally different talents. They come from different parts of the brain…Good writers seldom have an analytical understanding of what they do or how they do it. Instead they have a practical understanding of dramatic techniques.”

 

And screenwriters learn those practical techniques in a class, seminar or book and if that teacher finds a larger audience he or she becomes a guru. It’s a beautiful thing. Just don’t kid your self into thinking that the guru is the answer. Writing and rewriting is the answer. If you forget that you are lost and can become dependent on a guru…and then the next guru.

 

McKee is so popular in some circles he could form a cult if he wanted to. Americans love gurus. I’m a fan of business guru Tom Peters, marketing guru Seth Godin, and even McKee himself.

I attended one of McKee’s first public seminars on screenwriting. The year was 1984 or ’85 in Los Angeles. (Back when he was a guru in training. And back when he didn’t just read from his book as I hear he does today.) I was a recent film school grad, working as a photographer, and studying acting and hungry for my break in the industry and didn’t blink at the cost that at that time equaled a week’s salary. In fact, I still have the tapes from that seminar and have listened to them many times over the years.

McKee’s insights into screenwriting were more articulate than anyone I had ever heard speak on film. It is a class that I recommend to this day, but it’s best if you have at least a script or two under your belt. Because there is a danger there. As Morpheus says in The Matrix, “There is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path.”

Speaking of gurus did you see where Maharishi Mahesh Yogi died earlier this month?

He was famous for (temporarily) being the guru to the Beatles in the 60’s and bringing Transcendental Meditation (TM) to this country in the 50’s.  Few people realize that in 1974 he started a college in Fairfield, Iowa that is still there today.

Fairfield is one of the most interesting places in the US. Mother Earth News called it one of the “12 Great Places You’ve Never Hear Of.” The article said, “Your image of southeast Iowa probably doesn’t include the world’s premier ayurvedic health spa, more restaurants per capita than San Francisco or 25 art galleries on the downtown square but these are some of the many features of Fairfield, a surprisingly sustainable and cosmopolitan town.” (It’s also about an hour away from the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop that keeps coming up on this blog.)

Fairfield is also home to Hawthorne Communications whose founder Timothy Hawthorne literally wrote the book on infomercials. After I moved to Iowa and was looking for production work there I naturally met with Hawthorne. No work came out of it but he was kind enough to give me a copy of his out-of-print book “The Complete Guide to Infomercial Marketing”  that he told me was fetching $125. on ebay.

And to bring this full circle back to movies, David Lynch was a follower of the Maharishi and makes occasional trips to Fairfield. I’m sure there is some connection there and his directing The Straight Story featuring Richard Farnsworth as an elderly man who drives a riding lawn mower from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother. (Watch that film again and ask yourself how Lynch’s practicing TM for 30 years effects that material. And I dare you to watch the Catholic-influenced Koyaanisqatsi in the same night.)

There is no doubt that Lynch is an artist and one of America’s most original filmmakers. The “I am not an animal” scene from The Elephant Man is one of the most moving scenes recorded on film.  From the first time I saw Eraserhead in a college film class my perception of what movies could be was altered.

But I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag by saying that Lynch’s work at times can be a little hard to understand.

I believe enough in cross-pollination to think that a trip to Fairfield might do McKee some good and if Lynch could sit though McKee’s seminar it might also do him an ounce of good.  I’d pay to watch those guys in a room debating story structure and the roll of screenwriting gurus.

By the way, anyone interested in employment or an internship at ILM check out this section of their website: www.ilm.com/employment.html

Photo and text © Copyright 2008 Scott W. Smith

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