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“I never wanted to write a screenplay. To me, writing is this wonderful, indulgent activity where you just fill the page with words.”
Oscar-winning screenwriter Diablo Cody
Iconcinema.com

Three years ago today I created my first blog post ever (Life Beyond Hollywood). I started out with a little Diablo Cody inspiration and a modest goal to consolidated my writing notes gathered over the years from film school, books, magazines, seminars & workshops in hopes of it becoming a 50,000 word book—and perhaps helping a fellow writer or two.

Three years later I’ve written 832 posts and over 300,000 words. (With roughly 833 estimated typos, which I blame on posting daily without a copy editor. Like Jimmy Buffett I’m not aiming for perfection—just trying to “capture the magic.”) I’m now in the process of distilling those 832 posts into three books which will be much more refined.

Actually the idea of a book predates the blog. Since I had read quite a few film and video books by Michael Weise Books, and  had just read Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat at the end of ’07 (which they published, and I thought was great)  I sent them a book proposal toward the end of 2007 and got this email back from Ken Lee:

Please email me your table of contents and a sample chapter

Thanks

Ken

Ken and I traded emails a few times and I ended up sending him three or four chapters and we spoke on the phone a couple of times and he asked me to think about what I’d like to write and blog about over the next five years. At the end of the day, while there was no deal with Michael Weise Books, this blog in part was an indirect result of my communication with Ken. (If you’re looking for a theme to write about “Success out of Failure” is a great concept because everyone can identify with losing their locker like Rocky did in that first film.)

At the same time I had written those first four chapters I started to read about Diablo Cody’s story about writing the Juno screenplay in Minneapolis, her blogging, and having gone to college at the University of Iowa. Lightning struck. A couple of people showed me the ropes on how to start a blog and four days after seeing the movie Juno I launched my first post exactly three years ago today.

I even traded a few emails in January of 2008 with Blake as his blog was one of the first screenwriting blogs I ever read. In fact, I just found this email from him that ended with: “Best to you in ‘the great 2008′ and yes, I am happy to help in any way I can.” Miss ya Blake, but long live your books & influence.

Later that year, in October of 2008, the Screenwriting from Iowa blog won a Regional Emmy (Minneapolis) in the category of advanced media. A few months later Diablo Cody walked away with an Oscar for writing Juno. Fun.

“I’ve never read a screenwriting book. I’m really superstitious about it too. I don’t even want to look at them. All I did was I went and bought the shooting script of  ‘Ghost World’ at Barnes and Noble and read it just to see how it should look on the page because I like that movie.”
Diablo Cody

The day after my first post I received this email  from Scott Cawelti, an English professor and writer at the University of Northern Iowa: “Ready for a collaboration?” It took a little time, but we recently finished a spec screenplay, have done a couple re-writes, and are just now shopping it. (As a quirky sidenote, Scott was once in a band with Robert Waller who wrote The Bridges of Madison County.)

There was early support from Mystery Man on Film. For the record I think Mystery Man’s post The Raider’s Story Conference is the single best thing you’ll find on the Internet on the process of storytelling. (Make sure to follow the link to the 125 page transcript of Lucas, Spielberg and Kasden as they discuss what became Raiders of the Lost Ark.) I was also encouraged by emails from readers and fellow blogger Scott Myers at Go Into the Story.

Last year the shout out by Diablo Cody on Twitter as well as the TomCruise.com plug were bonuses and will keep me going another year. And I hope some things I write encourage you in your own quest as a writer. In the coming days I’ll have some posts based on interviews I did with UCLA screenwriting professor Richard Walter and screenwriter Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinney, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels). This blog has brought me into contact with producers and writers in LA that would be hard for me to connect with otherwise. So if you have a blog in mind, go for it.

But for now let me say thanks for stopping by, best wishes on your own writing and if you need a little inspiration today I hope this helps:

“I can actually give you a really specific bit of advice that I give to everyone. I would not be where I am, I would not be any sort of professional writer if I had not self-published. We live in a day and age where there’s so many opportunities for writers and filmmakers with YouTube to self-publish, to make their own work available without having to go through the rejection letters and the middleman and, you know, it used to be that you were, that if you wanted to share your work with other people, I mean, you had to go through so many channels and jump through so many hoops. And now, you can just put it out there. You know, the internet is a miraculous thing, so just share as much as you can self-publish blog, you know, podcast, whatever you need to do, just make sure that you are not withholding your (unintelligible) from the world because we have so many opportunities now.”

Diablo Cody
NPR transcript Feb  2009

I never would have dreamed that I’d write 823 posts in three years, but that’s what happened. The Writers Store has an article online that talks about Jerry Seinfeld’s method for success where he marks on a calender with a red “X” over everyday he writes new material. Each “X” forms a chain and his goal is to not break that chain. You want to talk a day or two off every week from writing, that’s fine (and healthy) but do your best to have at least 20 “X’s” on your calender each month.

Writers write.

Related Posts: Juno Has Another Baby (Emmy)

Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt

The Juno—Iowa Connection

Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours

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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Via a Twitter prompt by director Edward Burns (@edward_burns) I just discovered Ghetto Film School. It fits well with the blog here…Screenwriting from Iowa, and other unlikely places.  I think the ghetto qualifies as an unlikely place to write screenplays and make films. The Ghetto Film School (GFS) was founded in 2000 by Joe Hall. Based in New York City their mission is, “to educate, develop and celebrate the next generation of great American storytellers.”

So far more than 400 students have participated in the 15 month film program. The not-for-profit school has a well-connected Board of Directors, Filmmaker Council, and Advisory Board that includes Mark Wahlberg, Edward Burns, Spike Jonze, Lee Daniels, and Evan Shapiro (President of IFC TV and Sundance Channel).

In a recent article in The New York Times Joe Hall said, “We get people who apply from everywhere, but our commitment is to the Bronx in particular and the city in general.” In the TImes article written by Larry Rohter he quotes director David O. Russell (Three Kings) as saying of the work of The Ghetto Film School, “It’s an inspiring thing to do. Hollywood is so unreal and weird that you really cherish experiences that are real and down-to-earth with people who have compelling stories to tell.”

That sounds like a good plan to me. From the farm to the ghetto, from military bases to retirement homes, I believe there are many, “people who have compelling stories to tell.”

Scott W. Smith

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“I think the moment you try to make something for kids, you are making something really cruddy that even kids don’t want to watch most of the time.”
Lee Unkrich, Toy Story 3 director

Chagrin Falls, Ohio has actually popped up a few times on my posts. Mostly because that’s the area where screenwriter Joe Eszterhas moved to in part because he believed it was a better place than Malibu to raise his family.

I’ve been to Chagrin Falls a couple of times and the Cleveland suburb appears to be an idyllic place to grow up. Newsweek has named Chagrin Falls High School several times as one of the top 100 high schools in the country. And grow up in Chagrin Falls and graduate from Chagrin Falls High School is exactly what Toy Story 3 director Lee Unkrich did.

Long before Unkrich co-directed the Pixar films Finding NemoMonsters, Inc. and Toy Story 2, he joined the Cleveland Play House as an 11-year-old and spent four years working on children’s shows.Unkrich told Clint O’Connor of The Plain Dealer of his four years of performing children’s plays and musicals in Cleveland,  “I loved it. We got to put on our shows on the big sets and on the big stages.”

An interesting (and Toy Story-connected) side note is since Lee Unkrich was born in 1967 and began doing theater in Cleveland when he was 11, that means he started in 1978. In 1978-79 there was a young actor in Cleveland cutting his chops performing Shakespeare (and moving sets) with the Great Lakes Theater Festival, where artistic director Vincent Dowling had lured the student away from California.

That student was Tom Hanks who would go on two win two Best Actor  Academy Awards as well as be a a few other films, including providing the voice for Woody in the Toy Story movies. That’s right, before he starred in the TV show Bosom Buddies in 1980, Hanks was performing Hamlet night after night in Cleveland, Ohio.

“[I have] an artistic bent, almost a philosophy, which I learned for the first time onstage in Cleveland.”
Tom Hanks

Unkrich graduated from high school in 1985 and headed to USC to attend film school where he graduated in 1990. He won some awards for his short films, edited some TV programs, and eventually joined Pixar in 1994.

In an article in The Columbus Dispatch Unkrich was interviewed by Nick Chordas:

Chordas: Does it feel as if you’ve come a long way from Chagrin Falls?

Unkrich: It does. I headed off from Chagrin Falls with dreams of making movies, although I don’t think I really understood what that meant then. But, yes, I do have to pinch myself that I’m here doing this now.

My mom still lives in Chagrin Falls, and she’ll be at the premiere on Hollywood Boulevard. I’m sure it will be a thrill for both of us.

You can follow Unkrich on Twitter @leeunkrich .

P.S. Pixar’s Bob Peterson (who directed Up) is from Wooster, Ohio. And next door in Michigan, they can claim the voice of Buzz Lightyear provided by Tim Allen.  Allen went to high school in Birmingham, Michigan, earned a degree in TV from Western Michigan University, and started his stand up comedy routine in Detroit.

Some of the “Screenwriting from Iowa” related posts on Ohio:

Screenwriting & the Little Fat Girl in Ohio
Screenwriting Quote #129 (Bob Peterson)
Rod Serling’s Ohio Epiphany
First Screenplay=9 Oscar Nominations
Youngstown’s Hollywood Connection
Screenwriting Quote #116 (Chris Colunbus)
William Goldman Stands Alone
Screenwriting Quote #72 (Michael Eisner)
Screenwriting from Sunset Blvd.

And though I haven’t written about him yet, writer/director Jim Jarmusch is from the Akron, Ohio area. For what it’s worth, Jarmusch’s fascinating film Stranger Than Paradise was released in 1984—the same year that basketball’s “King James,” LeBron James, was born in Akron.

Scott W. Smith

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Recently I came across a post called Selling Screenplays From Outside L.A.? by Hal Croasmun where at an event he says he asked the question, “Is it possible to create a screenwriting career from outside L.A.?” to 16 L.A. producers and two agents.  Croasmun writes;

Up until recently, the typical answer to the “selling from outside L.A.” question was “The odds are against you.”  But this year, there was a change.

QUESTION:  Can writers sell scripts from outside L.A.?

15 producers said YES.

1 producer and both agents said NO.

QUESTION:  Have you optioned or bought a script from outside L.A.?

8 producers said YES.

3 producers had already made movies with writers from outside the U.S.

It’s not a perfect score, but it means that it is possible for a writer to succeed from anywhere in the World.

Honestly, when I started the blog Screenwriting from Iowa…or wherever you live outside L.A. just over two-year ago the title was a little tongue in cheek mixed with a little bravado. I picked the place that gets picked upon as representing the middle of nowhere. Iowa is the poster child for obscurity, yet a deeper look reveals that it has produced some amazing creative talent. And Iowa is just a springboard to show the writers who have come from all over the world and found success to one degree or another.

But it’s also given me a front row seat to watch the film industry slowly evolve into being more open to embracing writers from outside Los Angeles. Mix that with low-cost, high quality digital cameras and the proliferation of non-linear editing systems with self-distributed micro-films and film incentives popping up all over the world and this is one exciting time for screenwriters.

Croasmun on his Screenwriting U website has an excellent post called 15 Ways to Sell Screenplays Online which includes in a Twitter link to 87 Producers you can follow. I’m not going to say that this all started with Diablo Cody and her blog, but I think it’s safe to say to her Oscar success was a sign of a signficant change in an industry that doesn’t change quickly.

The secret Hollywood handshake has always been a great script. And now thanks to the Internet it is easier than ever to connect to agents and producers. Of course, writing a great script is just as hard as ever. Happy writing.

Scott W. Smith

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“I learned a lot about the process of filmmaking and that if you’re totally persistent and want to follow through with something, you’ll get it done.”
Oren Peli

For Halloween day I’ll step away from my Once Upon a Time in Hollywood posts to interject an update about the movie Paranormal Activities. The seven day results fro Friday October 23 through Thursday October 29 had Paranormal Activities number one at the box office.   I wouldn’t call it paranormal but that is highly unusual. Especially for a movie that opened five weeks ago and had yet to have a number one week.

That’s the power of word of mouth and a great marketing plan.  On halloween night the film will also pass the $70 million mark. Keep in mind that the budget has been said to be between 10,000-15,000. No typos there. Less than most used cars. I saw the movie this week and they keep the budget down by shooting in just one location (the writer/directors house) and using just four actors (two of which are on the screen for just a couple minutes). And one of the actors doubled most of the time as the cameraman using just  a $3,000 video camera.

So the film made for $15,000 bringing in $70 million in the box office according to several sources is now the new box office record holder as the most profitable movie ever made. Ever. A film made by the  39-year old Oren Peli, a first time filmmaker who was born in Israel and living in San Diego. (Passing the decade old record set by The Blair Witch Project.)

I’d like to say it was in the spirit of what I’ve been writing about for two years hear at Screenwriting from Iowa. Something big happening by an outsider to the Hollywood film industry. The only problem is there wasn’t a screenplay written—at least in the traditional sense.

“There was no dialogue. There was only an outline of the story, the actors never received any script. They didn’t know about anything they were getting into. All they knew is they were going to do something about a haunted house and basically discovered everything as they were shooting. There were no lines for them to follow. Everything was spontaneous.”
Oren Peli
shocktillyoudrop.com

The film was shot in just seven days in 2006, but took 10 months to go through the 70 hours of footage. The first version of the film was made in 2007 and several different versions were completed and tested a various film festivals. The film hit the jackpot when a DVD found its way to Steven Spielberg. DreamWorks picked up the film first with the intention of Spielberg remaking the film but then it was decided that that wasn’t needed. Like The Blair Witch Project hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent to enhance the film that eventually made the theater. But essentially it’s the film Peli made for $15,000.

They did a masterful of using social media, most notably Facebook, Twitter and MySpace. While the success of Paranormal Activities is off the charts and against all odds, I think you will see more of its ilk in the future. Not just horror films, but films in general where lovers of film tap into the resources that are out there and make a film that finds an audience. I’ll talk more about those resources tomorrow in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood… (Part 9).

Scott W. Smith

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One thing that is not going down in price is the cost of going to movies. While you can buy a classic movie on DVD for $5, going to a mediocre one in the theaters can cost just about twice as much. And by the time you add drinks, snacks, gas (and sometimes parking), a family of four can spend over $70 bucks going to a single movie.

Heck, for $70 you can make a movie these days. A feature film, too. That’s how much Welsh director Marc Price spent making his film Colin which made it to the Cannes Film Festival last month. According to an interview with CNN the film took 18 months to shoot and most of the money according to Price went to, “A crowbar and a couple of tapes, some tea and coffee.” Remember when low-budget filmmaking used to be a couple hundred thousand dollars?

Blame it on the Blair Witch guys and their $40,000 film, Kevin Smith’s Clerks for $27,500, then Robert Rodriguez and his sub- $10,000 film El mariachi. Welcome to filmmaking in the new economics. If you can get your hands on the latest cameras that shoot digitally you should be able to cut the tape costs out and maybe cut Price’s budget in half.

The film’s press release says, “Without funding the filmmaker’s goal to make an explosive feature length production fuelled by the creativity and inventiveness of those involved that would not be restricted in any way by lack of funding.”

Casting was done through Facebook and MySpace where 50 people answered the call to “Who wants to be a zombie?”And what sets this film apart from other no budget films is that it not only played at Cannes, but it may be the first one to pick up a distribution deal. It’s another piece of a growing trend.

Another piece of new school filmmaking is Twitter. A couple months ago I said someone was going to write a screenplay on Twitter. Well…Killer Green is reported to be the first screenplay written on Twitter to have been optioned. Writer David Niall Wilson began the script in February 2009 and it was optioned this month by Ambergris Films. Wilson has been writing since the mid-80s and has had over 150 short stories published. He lives in North Carolina and you can follow him on twitter @David_N_Wilson.

Interesting things happening outside L.A.

Things a lot more interesting and original than The Proposal which happens to be number one at the box office this weekend. Really, is that the best that Hollywood can do? Think of the years it takes to sift through thousands of scripts to find the few that will be produced by a studio. Think of all of the creative, talented, and experienced cast and crew that it takes to make a film. The tens of millions of dollars that it takes to produce a Hollywood feature. And we get …The Proposal.

A movie that Rolling Stone critic Peter Travis wrote, “A romantic comedy so numbing it feels like Novocaine,” and that Michael Phillips at the Chicago Tribune wrote, “The problem is not the acting. The problem is what these actors are required to say and do.”

Now Sandra Bullock could make eating an apple interesting to watch for an hour and a half, my point is simply this – The Proposal reflects the best Hollywood has to offer. My case for this whole blog is the cure — fresh scripts and movies from places far from L.A.

Nov.’09 Update: Story in New York Post of guy who started to Twitter funny thing his dads says and lands a TV deal.

March ’11 Update: In 2010, CBS began airing the sitcom  $#*! My Dad Says starring William Shatner based on the Twitter feed @ShitMyDadSays written by Justin Halpern (and which I referenced in November ’09).

Scott W. Smith

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“Twitter is on its way to becoming the next killer app.”
                                                                         Time Magazine 

 

I’m so behind the times (and Time magazine). Yesterday I mentioned something about screenwriting and Twitter and now I find out that just last month Southwest Airlines asked Twitter followers to help them write the first Southwest Airlines Script. Here are the results. (It’s not art, but remember that one of the first images caught on film in 1894 was Fred Ott’s Sneeze. That’s the kind of stuff you learn in film school.)

But now I’m catching up; http://twitter.com/scottwsmith_com

For a list of Hollywood producers, directors, screenwriters and actors using twitter go to /Film.

And congrats to actor/director (an Iowa-native) Ashton Kutcher  on just last week being the first Twitter member to have 1 million followers. (And for pledging $100,000 if he won to fight Malaria. “I’m calling to have a check made out for $100,000 to the Malaria No More Fund,” wrote Kutcher. Second place was media giant CNN. I don’t know how much a threat swine flu is to North America (and, yes, in Iowa we don’t care for that name), but I do know the foundations are shifting in how we are processing our news and entertainment. 

And just to totally try to keep up with the changes, I know The New York Times called Twitter “One of the fastest-growing phenomena on the Internet,.” but just yesterday Michael Liedtke at Yahoo announced that Twitter quitters outnumber those flocking to Twitter. 

 

Scott W. Smith

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“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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