Archive for April, 2009

“The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”
                                                  Mark Twain

Recently I came across the Miss Congeniality script that contained only the dialogue. Apparently Miss Congeniality is one of those scripts that is hard to find online so someone took the time to play the DVD and just write out the spoken words. No scene heading , no scene descriptions, no parenthericals — not even a single character’s name. Just dialogue.

The dang thing reads like a Twitter screenplay. A line here, a line there. (If you are unfamiliar with Twitter, another social marketing tool, you can get a quick overview by checking out a video on You Tube called Twitter in Plain English.) I bet since Twitter has been around for a few years now that somebody has already written a screenplay via Twitter. (At least a short film.) 

But the thing that stood out as I looked at the Miss Congeniality dialogue only version is that it weighs in at only 9274 words. (I think I’ve written blogs of more than 9274 words.) So anybody intimidated about writing a screenplay just needs to think it terms of writing less than 10,000 words. Write a thousand words a day and you’ll have a script in 10 days. Of course, the key thing is finding the right 10,000 words. 

And while there are a few other things that go into a screenplay the well known Hollywood concept of a screenplay page having “lots of white” applies here as no one is looking for large blocks of black letters full of descriptions and actions. Sparse dialogue rules. Looking and reading some of the top screenplays ever produced makes the process look deceptively easy, because as you flip them you often just see a lot of white on the page.

Here’s an example from the Miss Congeniality script that if I recall correctly was in the trailer for the movie:

“What is the one most important thing our society needs?”
“That would be harsher punishment for parole violators, Stan….And, world peace.”

That’s part of the 9274 spoken words that resulted in $212,742,720 at the box office.


Scott W. Smith


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They say that in this day and age you don’t hear about many people investing 30 years at a career with one company. Of course, that’s a two way street as not many companies seem to desire investing 30 years in an employee. That’s what makes Mark Zoradi’s journey all the more compelling. He began working for Disney in 1980 and today he is the President of the Walt Disney Studios Motion Picture Group. 

I don’t know if the below quote from an interview Zoradi recently did with Phil Cooke is his motto or not, but it’s probably played a key role in his 29-year career at Disney.

“Always over-deliver. If you consistently over-deliver in your work and expectations, people will want you on their team.” 
                                      Mark Zoradi
                                      President of the Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures Group

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“Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.”
Emily Dickinson

So last week I was sitting down at the Rio Hotel in Las Vegas waiting for the Los Angeles Final Cut Pro User Group (LAFCPUG) to start their Super Meet and started a conversation with a man next to me who turned out to be a Hemingway-like character.

Dirck Halstead started his career in photojournalism at the age of 17. He was the youngest combat photographer for LIFE magazine, a roving photographer in the U.S. Army, spent 15 years as photographer for UPI covering stories around the world including winning the Robert Capa Gold Medal for his images of  the fall of Saigon during the Vietnam War. And I’m just getting warmed up.

Let me just defer to an online bio: “Halstead accepted an independent contract with TIME magazine in 1972. Covering the White House for the next 29 years, he was one of only six photographers asked to accompany Richard Nixon on his historic trip to China in that same year. His photographs have appeared on 47 TIME covers. During this period he was also a “Special Photographer” on many films, producing ad material used by major Hollywood studios.”

Have you ever heard the song The Last Mango in Paris by Jimmy Buffett?

                    He said I ate the last mango in Paris
Took the last plane out of Saigon
I took the first fast boat to China
And Jimmy there’s still so much to be done 

Halstead is that kind of guy (if not literally that guy). And after his adventures with LIFE, UPI, and TIME there was still so much to be done. Back in the early 90s he was a pioneer in helping still photojournalist make the transition into shooting video. Now in his 70s Halstead is the editor and publisher for The Digital Journalist  and a senior fellow in photojournalism at The Center for American History at the University of Texas in Austin. In 2007 he was honored by The University of Missouri with the Missouri Honor Medal for Distinguished Service in Journalism.

And I bet he’d still say, “There’s still so much to be done.”

All that to say there is power in the bump in factor. While I was at NAB Show last week I also bumped into a producer friend from Michigan, a cameraman from Des Moines who owns a RED camera, and a editor friend from Orlando. How does this all apply to screenwriting?

Your talent and skill will keep you in the room once you get there but sometimes you need a little help from the bump in factor to open the door. I once landed a gig writing 12 radio dramas because I was editing a project at a post house and bumped into a producer who had an immediate need for a writer. Here’s what Melissa Mathison (who was once married to Harrison Ford) told Susan Bullington Katz in Conversations with Screenwriters:

“I was with Harrison on Raiders of the Lost Ark, and halfway through the shoot, we were all in Tunisia, and Steven Spielberg asked me if I would be interested in writing a children’s movie about a man from outer space. And I thought that sounded like a really wonderful idea.”

The screenplay she wrote was E.T.:The Extra-Terrestrial.

Granted being married to Harrison Ford improves the prospects of who you can bump into but you never know who’s next to you while you wait in line. Which leads me back to Halstead. If you’re interested in improving you visual storytelling Halstead is hosting The Platypus Workshops this year in Oregon and Maine.

Related Post: The Bump In Factor (Take 2)

Scott W. Smith

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Every year when the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) meet in Vegas it’s a great time to get look at the latest, greatest production equipment. The big dogs like Sony, Panasonic and AVID have large impressive display areas. This year there were 1,600 companies and 900,000 square feet of exhibit space. 

With only a few days to soak it all in you have to pick and chose what you want to focus on. (Or how much walking your feet can take.) It’s more technical than creative, but it does allow creative people to notice trends. And from a screenwriting & independent filmmaking perspective one trend I see is the shift toward smaller and smaller equipment. 

For instance the above photo is the Canon ESO 5D Mark II (If you hang with the technical people you know they love to talk in numbers).  It’s a digital still photo camera that also shoots stunning 1080i video. It is seen here with a Redrock matte box and rails to make it look like a mini Panavision camera. This camera is amazing and signals yet another shift in digital technology. When the camera was released last year it got a lot of attention from photographers and cameramen. A film called Searching for Sonny is said to be the first feature film shot with the Canon.

Over the last couple days I’ve written a lot about the future of filmmaking and the rise of webisodes and the like of online storytelling. I’ve quoted people like Spielberg and Lucas who see more and more emphasis toward web films. Sure it may be five or ten years before this comes to fruition but it is coming.

Keep in mind You Tube is not even five years old and already has more content produced on it than the entire history of television. You Tube has the power to help transform an unknown 47-year old singer from Britain into a world wide celebrity in a matter of days. In just a few weeks the Susan Boyle video has been viewed more than 43 million times. (Before she sang she said, “I’ve always wanted to perform before a large audience.”  Cheers to Susan for hanging on to her dreams all these years.)

It would be possible to take this little Canon camera and shoot a musical starring Miss Boyle and have it be in the theaters (or online) in weeks taking advantage of the media buzz. This is how fast things are moving. This should be encouraging for screenwriters and filmmakers who have seen their projects in development hell for years before dying a slow death.

One of the things that helped turn out some of the greatest films in the 30s and 40s was that they were just making a heck of a lot of films.  Without TV, DVD and the Internet, people back in the day flocked to movies on a regular basis — sometimes to double features. That’s why John Ford directed 144 films.

Think of the learning that could occur if writers and directors were making that many pictures over a lifetime. The problem for the last 30 years is Hollywood has been focused on big tent pole movies searching for the next blockbuster film. But I predict that as the Internet floodgate opens up there will be a return to more character driven stories providing many opportunities for writers, actors, and filmmakers like has never been seen before.

Sure there will still be a pyramid of talent, but as someone has said that pyramid is going to be a lot bigger.  And there will be less need to live in L.A. to be a part of the pyramid.


Photo & text copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore.”

“Digital downloads! Internet video-on-demand! This is the future!”
                                                        Phil Alden Robinson
                                                        Director/screenwriter of Field of Dreams


In the last couple days I’ve written about webisode and Internet and the opportunities it is bringing screenwriters and filmmakers. But last night I had the antithesis of watching a two-minute web story alone on a 15″ laptop screen. I had a shared experience of watching The Wizard of Oz on the big screen with more  than 1,000 people accompanied live by a full orchestra.

It was quite an experience. Something even audiences 70 years ago when the movie was released didn’t get to experience. The Midwest premiere of Oz with Orchestra was performed by the Waterloo-Cedar Falls Symphony under the direction of conductor Jason Weinberger. 

But as popular and magical an evening as it was, watching movies with live orchestras is not going to be a regular movie going experience if for no other reason as it is cost prohibitive. So here we are back in the land of the Internet.

Back in 2003 one place made the proclamation about watching movies online “someday all movies will be watched this way.”  Now there are several places like Netflicks and iTunes where you can legally download movies free or for a price. And who knows how many places there are to illeagally download movies? In fact, before the much anticipated film  X-Men Origins: Wolverine release next week it has been estimated that over 2 million people have already watched an  illegal download of the movie.

 I don’t know what all of this means for the movie industry so I thought I’d see what the Wizard of Hollywood had to say about all of this. Here’s what  Steven Spielberg told Katie Couric on the NBC Today Show back in 1999, “I think that the Internet is going to effect the most profound change on the entertainment industries combined. And we’re all gonna be tuning into the most popular Internet show in the world, which will be coming from some place in Des Moines.”

I hope he’s wrong. I hope that Internet show is coming from Cedar Falls, Iowa. (And I hope it’s being produced by River Run Productions.)

Oh, you don’t think Spielberg is the Wizard of Hollywood? Let’s go back a couple years ago when George Lucas according to Vanity Fair said in effect that the secret to the future is a large quantity of small, web-distributed movies; and the habit of moviegoing will be a thing of the past.

I wouldn’t bet against Spielberg and Lucas. But however inventive films are viewed in the future, scripts still need to be written the old fashioned way — word by word.

Oz trivia: Did you know that not only Dorothy had Midwest roots but so did the actress who played here? Judy Garland was born and raised in Grand Rapids, Minnesota and her childhood home is now the Judy Garland Museum.  The Minnesota town also is in its fourth decade of having a Judy Garland Festival each June. 

And if you’d like a different experience to watching the film that AFI has ranked as the number one fantasy movie, I’ve heard the The Wizard of Oz actually syncs up pretty good to Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon if you begin the CD on the third lion roar at the start. Really, who discovers these things? 


Scott W. Smith


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One of the reoccurring themes of this blog is that big things can come from small places. Most people don’t normally connect Granville, Ohio to Hollywood because…well, because they’ve never heard of Granville, Ohio. But there is a small liberal arts school there that was founded in 1831 and is now known as Denison University and it has produced a surprising amount of entertainment talent. (As well as legendary Ohio St. football coach Woody Hayes.)

Denison University is located in a rural area 27 miles east of Columbus, Ohio and happens to include as its alumni actress Jennifer Garner (AliasJuno) , actor Steve Carell (The Office, The 40 Year old Virgin)  Oscar-nominated screenwriter Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries), Emmy and Tony-winning actor Hal Holbrook (Wall Street, Into the Wild) and former Disney CEO Michael Eisner.

Since I’ve been writing about webisodes the last few days I’d like to focus on Eisner today. He graduated from Denison in 1964 with a degree in English and worked his way up to become president and CEO of Paramount Pictures in 1984. He moved over to Disney in 1984 and remained CEO until he resigned in 2005. (As a quirky side note my wife worked as a temp secretary for Eisner and Disney executive Frank Wells back in the mid-eighties. Part of my so close–so far away story.)

Since leaving Disney, Eisner has been busy with various entertainment ventures including the independent media studio Vuguru. Here’s been an early innovator of bringing web-based scripted programs not only to the internet but also working a deal with Verizon Wireless for V CAST video-enabled phones. One of the online programs he is connected to is The-All-For-Nots about an indie rock band.

A while back Eisner was asked by NewTeeVee what specifically attracted him about web content:

“I don’t look at it as web content. It is being distributed in a different mode. Hopefully [people] will forget whether it’s sitting on their lap or on a screen or on a desk, they’ll just be engaged in what the characters are saying. I don’t care about the technology, except that it opens up eyes to content.”
                                                                                               Michael Eisner 


Related posts: Screenwriting and the Little Fat Girl from Ohio 
                       Screenwriting and Liberal Arts
                       Screenwriting from Sunset Blvd.

Updates: Just last week Steve Carrell retuned to Denison University to celebrate the 30th anniversary of Burpee’s Seedy Theatrical Company — an improvisational group he was a part of as a student.

Denison University also has a Department of Cinema. 


Scott W. Smith

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Webisode Examples

The first webisode I ever saw was back in 2004 and it featured Jerry Seinfeld and Superman in what essentially was product placement for American Express. The four minute story was directed by Barry Levinson (Rain Man, Diner)  and was reported to have a budget around $1 million.  If you haven’t seen it check out A Uniform Used to Mean Something as a great example of a well made webisode.

Most webisodes aren’t as well done as that one, but then again most don’t have Jerry Seinfeld, Superman, Barry Levinson and a million dollars. But there are some good ones out there that are getting deals and I thought I’d point out some examples to show you where this is all heading and to once again show you other opportunities for screenwriters and filmmakers.

Goodnight Burbank (Which calls itself “The World’s First Character-Driven Comedy Created for the Internet.”)

Sam Has Seven Friends – 80 webisodes 90 seconds each were self financed in 2006 that eventually at one time was getting 10,000 downloads a day on iTunes. It eventually got the attention of former Disney CEO Michael Eisner  who made a deal and then hired the producers to create the webisode Prom Queen for his company Vuguru. (Eisner alone being in the game should be an indication of where webisodes are heading.
Wall Strip (“Where pop culture meets stock culture.”)

According to Tim Street who I heard speak at NAB in Las Vegas this week there are plenty of crappy webisodes out there but the good ones have an opportunity for acquisition deals. So don’t focus on all the junk out there but on telling good stories. And if you get your websiodes produced even if you don’t get a deal you are building production relationships and honing your craft. 


Scott W. Smith

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It’s been a long time since I’ve been on my feet as much as I have in the last two days walking around NAB looking at a variety of production equipment. So I cherished those breaks where I was able to sit and listen to speakers. Yesterday I watched an interview with Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point, Outliers) who I have quoted on this blog before. And I also heard Tim Street a producer and social marketer. 

Street gave a sweeping overview of some success stories of online programs and webisodes which represent a new era of opportunities for screenwriters. Many of these shows have budgets above independent feature films and have viewers into the millions. Finding ways to monetize these ventures is still a guessing game for all involved, but I thought you’d be encouraged to know that there are people writing and producing online stories that are making money. 

According to Street Gemini Division represents the best of websiodes. It’s about an undercover NYPD vice cop based on an original story by Brent Friedman and created by  by Electric Farm Entertainment.  Each episode is five to seven minutes long and stars Rosario Dawson. I believe the budget for the first 50 programs they are producing is in the $1.75 million range. They have many deals in the works with sponsors. 

Like any TV program the key to success is to generate millions of viewers. No easy task, but one where screenwriting places a key roll because nothing hits an emotional cord like a good story. Millions of viewers opens the doors for marketing and licensing opportunities. Street talked about some of the deals where the producers sold the web rights but maintained the TV and DVD distribution rights. This is all new territory but is going to do nothing but grow. Newspapers are shrinking and traditional TV is unsure of the future of advertising dollars.  But the future looks bright for the Internet.

The great thing from a screenwriting perspective is can put you in the driver seat. Less dependent on agents and the system that can take years to bring your work to the screen– if at all.. Just think of the ideas that Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption) could have produced online verses the three years he spent on writing and developing that Indiana Jones script that got scrapped.

This won’t be for everyone, but for those of you have creative friends (actors, directors, editors, camera people) this can give you an opportunity to pull your resources together and create some pilots that generate some opportunities for all of you. That’s what writer/actress Felicia Day did with her award winning online sitcom The Guild

This really is a brave new world for screenwriters out L.A. because potential partners are interested in you having one thing…a great idea with the potential for millions of viewers. So start working on a two or three minute pilot that could grow into a webisode series and see where it leads.


Scott W. Smith

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Here’s a riddle — from my hotel room last night I could see the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building and a pyramid. Where am I? Right, Las Vegas. I’m here for the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) convention which is traditionally where all the big TV and video equipment is brought together under one roof.

Yesterday for the first time I was able to get my hands on the RED camera which is the first digital camera that is starting to compete with the quality of of film.  I was also able to shake hands with Garrett Brown who invented the Stedicam which he used on many films including The Shinning and to get the famous running up the steps shot in Rocky.  Every day on films, TV programs, sporting events and music videos you see his invention at work as the camera glides across the screen.

The last time I was in Vegas I saw them shooting part of Miss Congeniality II: Armed & Fabulous. All I remember is Sandra Bullock was running around in a stage outfit at I believe in an area around the Venetian Hotel. There aren’t many things more boring than watching a film being shot.

I didn’t see Miss Congeniality II but I did see the first one and thought it was a fun movie. One of the screenwriters of Miss Congeniality was Marc Lawrence. Lawrence was also a writer on the TV show Family Ties that starred Michael J. Fox.

It’s obvious from listening to the Miss Congeniality commentary with Sandra Bullock and Marc Lawrence that they have kind of a tag time style of actor–writer relationship. I found this quote in an interview where Lawrence talked about how they work together:

“We have a shorthand with each other. I know what makes her laugh and most things she does make me laugh. She’s an extraordinarily natural physical comedienne. You either give Sandy some physical business or she’ll make it up on her own, and that provides a balance to the dialogue. Plus she has the gift of being absolutely credible, which gives me license to take the material further out. She’s a great barometer of what’s real and what isn’t, and she’ll tell you if it doesn’t feel right. We’re truly opposites in many ways. She’s an incredibly optimistic, energetic and positive person and I’m, well…not.” 

May you all find a Sandra Bullock in your life to help your writing come alive.


Scott W. Smith

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“Inspiration is hard work.”
W.P. Kinsella  


Today marks the 20th anniversary of the Field of Dreams release. Since I’ve mentioned the movie and the screenwriter/director Phil Alden Robinson a time or two before I thought I’d write about it from a perspective that may be fresh for you.

The original story was a short story called Shoeless Joe Jackson Comes to Iowa. It written by W.P. Kinsella who was 45 when it was published in 1980 . Kinsella was born in Canada and homeschooled. (“I’m one of these people who woke up at age five knowing how to read and write.”) He later graduated from the University of Victoria Writing Department and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Kinsella said in one interview, “Iowa gave me two years of freedom to write, and I was beginning Shoeless Joe when I received my MFA.”

Kinsella also taught at Iowa from 1976-1978. Kinsella didn’t start attending college until he was 35 years old. Before turning to college & a career writing he worked a “variety of jobs such as claims investigator, government clerk, and restaurant owner” according to an article by Alan Twigg.

After Shoeless Joe was written and published as a novel, its success allowed Kinsella to write full time. The novel was turned into The Field of Dreams movie and released on April 21, 1989. It was nominated for three Oscars including best picture and best adapted screenplay.

In 1997 Kinsella was hit by a car while walking and I’ve read that ended his writing career. 


Scott W. Smith

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