Archive for April, 2009

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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Yesterday I was reading David Bordwell’s book The Way Hollywood Tells It which as the subtitle says is a look at Story and Style in Modern Movies. Bordwell taught film studies for several decades at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. (I think he recently retired.) Roger Ebert has said, “David Bordwell is our best writer on the cinema. I find this book simply astonishing.”

There is much I’d like to write about Bordwell’s book but the one thing I want to mention today is his research on the average length of a movie scene. Over the years of watching movies and reading scripts I had come up with a rough estimate of most movie scenes in American movies lasting between 1 and 3 minutes in length. (I covered this some in “Screenwriting by Numbers.”)

Well, Bordwell has come up with a more definitive answer and points to when this shift began.

“From 1930 to 1960, most films averaged 2 to 4 minutes per scene, and many scenes ran 4 minutes or more… In films made after 1961 most scenes run between 1.5 and 3 minutes. The practice reflects the contemporary screenwriter’s rule of thumb that a scene should consume no more than two or three pages (with a page counting as a minute of screen time). The average two-hour script, many manuals suggest, should contain forty to sixty scenes. In more recent years, the tempo has become even faster. All the Pretty Horses (2000) averages 76 seconds per scene, while Singles (1992) averages a mere 66 seconds. One reason for this acceleration would seem to be the new habit of getting into and out of the scenes quickly.”

David Bordwell
Page 57-58

My guess is the average length of the scenes in Crank: High Voltage that opened this weekend is probably pretty quick.

For more information about Bordwell check out his website on cinema.

Update 2/11/2011: Can’t you have a 5-6 minute scene that just has two people talking? Of course, The Social Network started with a 5-6 minute scene and was nominated for an Oscar. To pull off a 5-6 minute scene of two people talking it helps if your name is Aaron Sorkin.

Scott W. Smith

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“I don’t believe the American public will believe, itself, what comes up on that panavision screen next March.”
James Dickey in a letter to a friend
while the movie Deliverance was being shot

Since I mentioned both director John Boorman and Liberal Arts in the last few days that lead me to the writer of Deliverance, James Dickey. It took Dickey ten years to write the novel and he also wrote the screenplay for the 1972 movie that would be his only feature film release. (Though he did also write the TV version of Jack London’s The Call of the Wild.) 

Dickey was born and raised in the Atlanta area and was an athlete in high school and began writing poetry while serving in the Army during World War II flying combat missions in the South Pacific. He didn’t want the girls back home to forget him. After the war he attended Vanderbilt and earned a B.A. in philosophy and minored in astronomy and then went on to earn an M.A. in English.

After school he taught at what is now Rice University before being recalled to active duty in the U.S. Air Force due to the Korean War. He later worked as a copywriter in Atlanta and in New York where he said he was “selling his soul to the devil in the daytime and buying it back at night.”

He published his first book of poetry in 1960 and appointed in 1966 he as the Poet Laureate Consultant to the Library of Congress.  In 1977 he was invited to read his poem “The Strength of Fields” at President Jimmy Carter’s inauguration. And just to top off an interesting life, he played Sheriff Bullard in Deliverance. 

Though Dickey’s popularity exploded after the movie Deliverance was released he taught and wrote poetry until he died in 1997. His limited role with Hollywood  may have something to do with the stories of the behind the scene drama of the Deliverance location shoot that sometimes matched the drama on-screen of Burt Reynolds and his buddies little boating adventure. In short, Dickey was banned from the set.

Dickey was like many a classic southern writer – greatly talented and greatly flawed. Given to drink and sometimes hard to get along with Dickey was an exaggerator and liar on par with the father in the movie Big Fish. (While Dickey was in many flight missions over the South Pacific during World War II he was never the pilot he claimed to be.)

Dickey’s oldest son, Christopher Dickey, an accomplished writer and speaker (who also has a website and blog) , wrote the book Summer of Deliverance about his father and the film. (Christopher worked on the film including standing in as Ned Beatty’s character in the famous pig scene.)

Christopher also has done us all a favor by setting up the blog, James Dickey: Deep Deliverance, devoted to his father and his writings. And where I found this quote from a You Tube link where James says in a distinctly slow southern draw:

“To anyone who reads my work, I would like to have it deepen him and make him more aware of possibilities… of the mystery of things, and the strangeness of the creation — the universe. Although as much as I write about death, disease, and mutilation, and so I on, I essentially consider myself an affirmative poet. I remember hearing that Beethoven once said, ‘He who truly knows my music can never know unhappiness again.’ I would like to think it had some effect of that sort.” 

And as a side note here’s something interesting to ponder from one of Dickey’s letters, “I heard from John Boorman day before yesterday, and he says Marlon Brando is definitely going to play Lewis (Burt’s character) in the film version of Deliverance. I certainly hope so, for that would bring Nicholson in, and after that the rest would be easy, provided we don’t get Brando’s and Nicholson’s heads bashed in on some of those rocks up in north Georgia, which is quite easy to do.”

Scott W. Smith

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Calvin College Bridge

I took the above photo at Calvin College after my screenwriting talks this week. It’s part of Calvin’s Crossing, a pedestrian bridge designed by architect Frank Gorman that spans a little over a football field in length connecting the main parts of campus with the DeVos Communications Center over one of the busiest roads in Grand Rapids.

While the bridge has a practical purpose for Calvin students, it’s a fitting metaphor for all writers, filmmakers, and video producers. Too often creative folks distance themselves from the other disciplines of life. (You could call it a superiority complex.) In fact, there is a growing trend for young filmmakers to just go to film schools that only teach film and digital video production. (Technical skills are always easier to develop than writing. Which is why there are many beautifully photographed movies with shallow stories.)

At Calvin the communication center is where the video and radio studios, the video and film theater, and the video editing suites are all located. But Calvin is a liberal arts school so students head over the bridge to fill their minds with art, literature, languages, philosophy, politics, history, mathematics, religion and science with an emphasis on knowledge and truth rather than livelihood.

The knock on a liberal arts education has always been in line with it doesn’t prepare you for any job except to maybe teach. But if you look at the info where liberal arts grads end up you might conclude that liberal arts majors are prepared for just about every job. Margaret W. Crane wrote in the article For the Love of Learning, “a liberal arts background prepares you to think, analyze, and contribute meaningfully to the world around you.” 

While speaking at Calvin this week one of the things I mentioned was when I was a student at the University of Miami a professor told us film school students that you don’t go to school to learn to make films, you go to school to learn what make films about.

Screenwriter/director Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver) did go to UCLA for his Master’s work in film studies, but he did his undergraduate work with an emphasis in pre-seminary at Calvin College. While later rejecting the doctrine, he has credited Calvin College with teaching him to think.

When Suzanne O’Malley, who’s written for the TV show Law & Order, taught a seminar a couple years ago at Yale College called “Writing Hour Long Television Drama” where the class came together to write a 47-minute television program. Something a little different at the liberal arts college.

“We’re drawing from The New York Times, from Shakespeare, from Sun Tzu, from [John Lewis] Gaddis, one of the professors here, looking at all different kinds of serious work and blending that into our plot and story line,” she said in a Yale Daily News article by Andrew Bartholomew.

And just to connect all the dots. Yale is actually made up of 12 residential colleges and the one O’Malley taught at was Calhoun College, which is actually where actress Jodie Foster graduated from with a B.A. (with honors) in literature — after she was nominated for best supporting actress in Taxi Driver. She went on to win two Oscars after graduating from Yale. (Maybe a liberal arts degree should be a requirement for all child actors.)

So at least for Schrader and Foster their undergraduate liberal arts backgrounds haven’t hurt their now pushing 40 year careers in Hollywood.

Even if you’re out of school (or never went to school) read and study widely because it will add richness to your writing and your life.

Text and photo copyright 2009 Scott W. Smith

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The great thing about traveling is it allows you to toss new stuff into your creative blender. To learn new things and to see new things. For instance, though I have traveled to all 50 states here in the U.S. I did something yesterday that was a first for me and a nice surprise. In flying from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Minneapolis, Minnesota yesterday I flew over Lake Michigan.

Not a big thing, but after being landlocked all winter — looking out at the blue water and the blue ski was a nice change of scenery. Enough so that I pulled out my little digital camera and took the above shot. (The blue under the wing is actually the lake.)

One thing I learned while in Michigan was five time nominated producer/director/writer John Boorman has written several books. (“Money Into Light: The Emerald Forest: A Diary,” “Bright Dreams, Hard Knocks,” and “Adventures of a Suburban Boy.”)

Boorman is most known for his films Deliverance, Hope and Glory, and Excalibur. And at age seventy-three he is still at it, currently in production in an animated version of the quintessential Midwestern tail The Wizard of Oz.

Just this morning I found a quote from Boorman that is apparently well known but that I had never heard or read:

“What is passion? It is surely the becoming of a person. Are we not, for most of our lives, marking time? Most of our being is at rest, unlived. In passion, the body and the spirit seek expression outside of self. Passion is all that is other from self. Sex is only interesting when it releases passion. The more extreme and the more expressed that passion is, the more unbearable does life seem without it. It reminds us that if passion dies or is denied, we are partly dead and that soon, come what may, we will be wholly so.”
    John Boorman

So I came back from Michigan with a new vision to read Boorman’s books and see the films of his I haven’t seen and revisit those I have.


Scott W. Smith

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