Sunday, July 27, 2014

I walked away from a three-picture deal, and it was the best decision of my life

The following true Hollyweird story is long and detailed, and I debated whether or not to share it because the filmmaking community is small and I'm not trying to call out people, even if they deserve it. However, I think it's important for budding writers to be aware of how unscrupulous people will try to take advantage of them, and I also think it's important for people to realize that abuse in a professional or any setting should never be tolerated.

LIFE AFTER BLUECAT
In 2010, I was a finalist of The BlueCat Screenplay Contest for my script The Physicist, a family drama about a Chinese-American family adjusting to life in a small town in Kansas. The story was very personal to me because I was raised Chinese-American in a small town in Kansas, and my script was an ode to my childhood and my town.

After my finalist placement was announced, the head of Bluecat, Gordy Hoffman, met with me for coffee to give me script advice. He was blunt with what I needed to fix, and he said that once I made changes, he thought that I should make the film. He gave me some information about how to put an indie movie together and his suggestion about how much he thought it would cost. His advice was reasonable and he was encouraging, but after the meeting, I knew deep down that I was not going to make my own film that year. Because of my debt from film school, the idea of asking people and spending a large sum of money scared me. The Physicist would metaphorically sit on a shelf and collect dust.

MERCEDES IS THE MAN WHO WILL MAKE MY HOLLYWOOD DREAMS COME TRUE!
About a year later, I was contacted by a man, who I will refer to as Mercedes. Mercedes told me that he was a director looking for Chinese-American writers and scripts. He had contacts in China who were only interested in Chinese or Chinese-American content, and he had learned about me because of my placement with Bluecat and through an Asian-American organization where we were both members. He said that he wanted to speak with me about writing feature scripts for him for deferred payment, and as per his request, I sent him The Physicist as a writing sample.

Shortly after, I met with Mercedes at his production company, and he told me that he had directed one short film that starred Asian-American actors I recognized. He then told me that his producing partner had made several films that had gone straight to video. He and I connected with our passion for the need to create quality Asian-American stories, and I liked that he seemed hungry to make a name for himself as a director the way that I was hungry to prove myself as a writer. He shared with me that he wanted to direct The Physicist, that he wanted me to rewrite his Asian-American script, and that he wanted me to write a third script based off a pitch from a Chinese production company. He then showed me a budget breakdown and his proposal for his Asian-American script, and in the proposal, he included the actors who would star in the film. One actress was someone I had met years ago, and I really respected her. If she was signed on to be involved, then I definitely wanted to be a part of the project.

Overall, after our meeting, I was ecstatic. I was only two years out of film school, and I had proven my talent with screenplay contests and now I was being offered a three-picture deal.

"This would be a good opportunity for all of us, but it's dependent on funding," he said, "But if you're a team player, then I think we can make this happen." He then stressed to me how important it was that everyone he worked with was a "team player" because he was passionate about filmmaking and only wanted to surround himself with passionate people. He told me that even though I was the writer, he wanted to keep me updated with the producing aspects of the films, and I thought that was cool.

YOU CAN'T MAKE A MOVIE WITHOUT FUNDING
Our next step was to get the funding from the film investors from China. Mercedes, his producing partner, and I had dinner one night with the investors. The few there who could speak English told me more about what their company did, and I told them about my background. They thought my life story of growing up in Kansas was fascinating, and then Mercedes showed them information about my books, my film school education, and writing awards. They seemed impressed, and they gave me their business cards before the night was over.

The next day, Mercedes gave me the call that changed everything. The investors had liked Mercedes and his partner's business plan and they had liked me. They wanted to fully fund Mercedes' three projects: The Physicist, his original script, and the script based off the pitch from the Chinese company. Mercedes wanted me to start working right away on the pitch script's treatment, and I asked him when he would give me a contract to sign. He stated that he would get me a contract later, but that the Chinese investors were only in town for a short while and that they needed a treatment before they left. Wanting to be a team player, I quickly wrote what he wanted, and he submitted my work to them. He told me that they were satisfied with what I did but that they would probably have more notes. I brought up  the contract again, and he stated that he would probably budget $1,000 for each script. I was shocked at how low this was, considering how demanding he was with my time and how this number was a discrepancy from the budget breakdown he had shown me in our first meeting. I asked him if the upfront payment was low but that I would be getting a share of profits if the movies did well. "Um, no," he said. I was confused because I thought that was the whole point of deferred payment. People got shitty upfronts in the gamble that something paid well in the future. "You're not sounding passionate," Mercedes said. "I don't like how you're only caring about money."

"But are other people getting a portion of the profits?" I asked.

"Yeah," he said, "But they've been investing a lot more than you, so it's fair that they'd earn more."

I was upset, but I didn't know how to argue with him considering how I already done so much work for free. He then told me that he had one final meeting with the head of the Chinese financing company before everyone left town. Even though I wasn't invited to go to the meeting in person, Mercedes wanted me to be involved. I asked if a translator would be there, and he said probably not but Mercedes needed to speak with me in case the head of the company had notes about the story.

"What time are you meeting?" I asked.

"We're going to go out on Sunday and then we'll have the talk afterwards," Mercedes said.

"So what time is that?" I asked.

"I'm not sure. Just stay by the phone."

During this period of time, I had a boyfriend who was a talent assistant, and I asked him if this kind of scheduling was normal. "Absolutely not," he said. My boyfriend and I had a date planned for Sunday, and he thought it was weird that I wanted to cancel my plans to sit around, waiting for a phone meeting. Needless to say, I ended up agreeing with him, and we went out. During those hours, never once did I receive a phone call.

"MAYBE IT'S THAT YOU'RE TOO YOUNG AND THIS SITUATION IS NEW FOR YOU"

Later that night, my boyfriend and I returned back to my place, and we got ready for bed. That's when my phone rang.

"Are you fucking kidding me?" my boyfriend said.

"Should I answer it?"

"He calls you at night on a Sunday to be on a phone call in a language you barely understand?"

My boyfriend was tired, but the logic from his crankiness could not be ignored. Plus, I worked an office job that I needed to be at the next day.

"I don't know if I should answer it..." I said.

"No one sane conducts business like this!"

By the time we got done debating, my phone stopped ringing, and I received notice that I had a voicemail.

"Just go to sleep," my boyfriend said. "Deal with it in the morning like a normal person."

I should’ve listened to my boyfriend, but I still wanted to be a team player even though the myriad of red flags should've scared me away. I went ahead and listened to Mercedes' voicemail, and he was urging me to call him back. I called him back, and he didn't answer.

“Just go to sleep,” my boyfriend urged. I agreed to just deal with it all in the morning. What a mistake that was. Mercedes called me two other times that night, berating my lack of professionalism and telling me that I was dropped from the project. Angry that I had done work for him for free and upset that he was firing me, I decided to just cut my losses and send him an acknowledgement that morning that our working relationship was severed. See my email below:



His  response was priceless, and by priceless, I mean abusive and condescending. Also, when you read this, please note the discrepancy of the money that he claimed the Chinese investors were giving him to pay for a writer and how much he had offered me earlier. See Mercedes' email below:



This whole story was unnecessarily dramatic and occurred in a span of approximately a week. (Yes, that was the timeline. Amazing, right?)

I left the experience feeling exhausted and exploited, but I was also thankful that I hadn't given up any rights. Luckily,  unbeknownst to Mercedes, I had been repped by an entertainment lawyer for a few years and I was somewhat educated in deals for writers. I should've consulted with my lawyer before ever starting work for Mercedes, but that was a rookie mistake on my part. Plus, Mercedes' manner was so chaotic, abrassive, and rushed that I tended to do things quickly for him without thinking.

Lesson learned: Assholes will try to manipulate you to doing things that are in their best interest but not yours. Be smart. Tell them to fuck off.

THE STORY IS NOT OVER
Some time after the fall out, Mercedes began to contact me again, but to my surprise, he approached me with humility and he even apologized. However, I wasn't interested in working with him. If he acted like that in one week, what would he act like once I had signed something and was obliged to put up with his behavior? Plus, he had already shown me his greed and lack of respect for me as a person, for my time, and for my talent. No amount of money would ever make his abuse worth my energy. He attempted to contact me several times, but I ignored him.

In May of 2012, Mercedes called me again, and in his voicemail, he informed me that he needed a rewrite for his script and he had secured funding. He stated that he needed the rewrite done in one week, and he offered $1,000. Based on the timeline and money offered, I deducted that he hadn't really changed from my experience with him before. I listened to this query without responding directly, and I sent the information to my lawyer, asking him to deal with Mercedes because clearly Mercedes had no respect for me.

My lawyer spoke with Mercedes about the deal, and Mercedes now offered $2,000! I'm a fast writer, and making $2,000 in one week sounded awesome, but at the same time, I had friends who made $10K off of an indie film rewrite where they were give several months to complete the project. Taking a lower number with less time just made me feel undervalued. My lawyer countered back with an absurd number, which I knew would scare Mercedes away. My plan worked, and Mercedes said he didn't have that kind of dough and that he was talking with another writer who was repped by CAA anyway.

Good riddance.To this day, I have heard nothing about Mercedes making movies, and this is quite telling considering that he actually was able to secure funding, which is usually the main barrier for a filmmaker to make his film.

The button of this story happened shortly after when I attended an event, and I ran into the actress that Mercedes had listed in his film proposal for his movie. I asked her what was new with the project, and she had no idea what I was talking about. Although she had met Mercedes once in a professional setting, she had never signed up to be in his movie.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Four Screenplay Contest Tips That Every Writer Should Know

This is a short selection from an amazing interview with screenwriter Lydia Mulvey, who is also a screenplay contest veteran having placed in the finals of the PAGE Screenwriting Contest and having won the BBC Sharps Contest. To read the entire article, click here.


Advice to any aspiring screenwriters about screenplay contests
  • Be selective. Choose your contests wisely. There are a lot of scam contests there. Aim to enter the more prestigious contests such as the Nicholl, Austin, PAGE etc.
  • Be ready. Don't submit a sub-par script. You must feel happy with your work. Forget any "that'll do" attitude. It won't do. It really won't. Screenwriting contests are open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee. Readers have a lot of chaff to cut through before they get to the tasty wheat grains. Make sure your script is tasty wheat grain.
  • Submit your script, then forget about it. Seriously. You have to wait MONTHS before you hear back on contests. You'll drive yourself mad if you keep obsessing about it. So keep busy. Work on another script. Get a body of work behind you.
  • Don't treat screenplay contests as the be-all and end-all of everything. They are just one way into the industry. And even if you win, they are not guaranteed to open the door. So keep submitting elsewhere, keep making connections, keep networking. You don't win a screenplay contest and automatically earn a million dollars a script. You just don't.
To connect with Lydia: @lydiamulvey

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

What is Inktip and should you use it?

I hate the idea that succeeding as an artist can often be a "pay to play" endeavor, meaning that you have to fork over a fee to get in the game; but unfortunately, the reality is that often times you do have to pay money to get noticed (I'll post in the next few days my list of things I think are worth paying for and my list of scams.)

One website that I've tried in my pursuit of getting noticed as a screenwriter is InkTip. For a fee, the site allows writers to upload their scripts so that production companies, producers, or representatives can browse for scripts that fit their need. When listing, the writer uploads a treatment, logline, information about awards or the writer's resume, and script data such as genre and budget. One session lasts six months and per script the service costs $65. However, if you upload multiple scripts or sign up for an automatic renewal, you will receive a discount.

I was referred to the site years ago by an indie producer I knew. He made a movie for less than $20,000, and I asked him how he found his writer. He told me he looked for scripts through Inktip, and that as a producer, he didn't have to pay a fee.  Learning that the writer pays a fee but not the company made me think that maybe this site would provide some value to me as a writer. There probably wouldn't be a ton of scripts because of the fee, but there were probably a ton of companies, producers, and representatives because the site was free to them and easy to use.

I uploaded the manuscript for my novel Hell's Game; the features scripts for my family drama The Physicist, my USC thesis, Sexual Panda and the Reluctant Hipster, and my thriller Madness; and all the loglines and treatments that the website required. When I saw the price tag, I admit that my eyes bugged out, but I was tired of querying nearly sixty agents or managers with little to no response so I reasoned that uploading to Inktip was like paying a convenience fee.

As each day passed, I was surprised to see that someone was checking out at least one of my listings. Inktip has a fascinatingly addictive system which shows you who looked at your listing and what they looked at. I saw that Hell's Game and Madness were often checked out, but no one ever looked at The Physicist or Sexual Panda and the Reluctant Hipster. Seeing that lack of response was humbling for me. "Okay," I thought. "I really do have to accept that if my script doesn't have a super catchy logline then no one is going to give a shit."

In the course of six months, Hell's Game and Madness moved beyond the logline and treatment phase, and a few companies actually downloaded the entire script. When a company reaches the download phase, Inktip then provides you, the writer, with the company's contact information. They also provide a caveat which paraphrased is "Don't stalk these people."Although I finally had enough of the company's information to contact them, I didn't, but I did Google the names to see who was reading my work. I was actually pretty impressed with those names' credentials, but I also figured that if they weren't contacting me after reading my work, then they were probably not interested.

After my listings expired, I chose not to renew because of the cost, but I was satisfied with the service and if I had new material I would upload again. In my mind, it didn't make sense to keep paying money to advertise something that no one really seemed to want. However, Inktip does have a great free weekly newsletter, which I recommend every screenwriter sign up for. The newsletter obviously is trying to get you to pay for a listing, but it also has a few script requests such as the one below taken from the newsletter blasted out June 26, 2014:
1) Infra-Red Films - Seeking Family-Friendly Animal Scripts
We are looking for completed, feature-length family-friendly comedy or drama scripts with stories involving an animal, especially if it's a dog or a horse. Submissions need be for material that is suitable for a broad television audience.

Budget will not exceed $5million. Only Non-WGA writers should submit.

Our credits include "Border Run," which was shot from a script we discovered through InkTip.

To submit to this lead, please go to:
http://www.inktippro.com/leads/

Enter your email address.

Copy/Paste this code: j2e7rsynkm
After giving a few free leads, the newsletter then lists additional script requests where the submission information is hidden unless you pay a fee for a service they call the preferred newsletter. Additionally, Inktip also offers for a fee a listing in a magazine that they send out to companies. I didn't pay for either service so I can't attest to their value.

If anyone has either paid for the magazine or the preferred newsletter, let me know in the comments below or through social media: www.twitter.com/teresalo_tweets or www.facebook.com/teresalowriter Also if anyone has any other questions about my experience or wants to let me know about theirs, you can find me the same way.


Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Asian-Americans should not "get over" the yellowface used in The Mikado

I've been following the commentary of  Angry Asian Man, Reappropriate, and 18 Million Rising about the alleged yellowface of the Seattle's Gilbert and Sullivan Society's theater production of "The Mikado." I use the word "alleged" because although one with eyes can clearly see the non-Asian characters are dressed in cringe-worthy Asian costumes, those in charge of the production and many Mikado fans fail to understand that any non-Asian person dressed as Asian caricatures are by definition doing "yellowface."
A photo from Seattle's Gilbert and Sullivan Society's The Mikado. (Photo courtesy of Angry Asian Man)
On July 13, 2014, Sharon Pian Chan of The Seattle Times first drew attention to the yellowface matter in an op-ed piece. She wrote, "All 40 Japanese characters are being played by white actors, including two Latinos. KIRO radio host Dave Ross (the producer of the play) is in the cast. It’s yellowface, in your face."

And based solely on this picture, I have to agree with Chan. I mean, come on. Anyone who defends the play because they have a soft heart for the history of it or they love the songs or they believe in freedom of theater still has to see how these costumes and make up are not respectful to Japanese people. This disrespect is where the offense is seeded, and Chan choosing to share her feelings should have opened up a discourse about race. Instead, The Mikado's supporters chose to attack Chan personally and any "complainers" who didn't see the "fun" of the show.

For instance, Daisybtoes wrote in the comment sections of Chan's piece:
"I am so sick and tired of PC advocates attacking this adorable classic of British comedy.  They need to get a life and remember that this story first appeared in 1885, when Japan may as well have been on Mars.  Gilbert & Sullivan didn't even try, they just gave us a charming story with memorable characters.  I'll bet these same complainers forget that in 1941, there was an attempt to ban this play for other reasons entirely.  Most people love The Mikado, and the complainers can just get over it."


Dave Ross, the producer of the production, has conducted interviews to defend his work, and he genuinely seemed surprised that anyone would be offended by the play. After all "The Mikado" is in fact a theater classic, and it has been performed around the world since 1885. I feel sympathy towards him for being the first person to receive negative heat for something that people have been performing for decades, but at the same time, the moment someone shares their feelings of hurt should not negate the fact that those feelings were always there.
A vintage poster of The Mikado (Courtesy of Wikipedia)
 The Mikado was written in a time where people didn't know much about Japan, and now it's "Oriental" characteristics are just dated. A smart artistic choice would have been to change the setting or modernize the setting, but The Mikado defenders wish to preserve the integrity of the original. This is a mistake. After all, for instance, if someone were to make a remake of "Breakfast at Tiffany's" should they do it with another Mr. Yunioshia (Mickey Rooney) just to preserve the film's integrity? "Birth of a Nation" is ranked as one of the best films of all time and is heralded for it's pioneering film techniques. However, it is also a pro-KKK film. Should it be recreated? Should the Bugs Bunny cartoons that promote slavery still be allowed on television for our children to watch?
This was in Breakfast at Tiffany's, a beloved movie classic (Wikipedia)
The point is that art is reflective of our times, and The Mikado is no longer modern.
Yellowface has no place in theater, and no person, nor a community, should ever be silenced for expressing how they feel. 

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Emmanuel Howell, face of The Purge Anarchy posters, learns a tough lesson about Hollywood

On Friday, I posted an article about how Michelle Phan is getting sued by Ultra Records for using Ultra's music without permission, and I provided some tips on how other creators can protect themselves from sharing a similar fate to the Youtube star. Well, now a new story published by TMZ inspired me to talk about the flip side of the coin, being the talent and getting taken advantage of.

Emmanuel Howell worked as an extra for the film "The Purge Anarchy", and he expected to only be in the background. Later, he was shocked to find that his face was used prominently on the posters. According to TMZ, he felt "hoodwinked," and now he wants to be compensated. He said that as an extra, he only worked five days and made less than $1,000.

Emmanuel Howell and The Purge Anarchy photo. Courtesy of TMZ
Howell reached out to the production company to ask for more money, and they offered him some movie posters but no dough. Howell then contacted some lawyers, but no one would take the case because obviously he's going to lose. After all, Howell was paid for his likeness and the original terms between the parties had been met. Howell may not have liked how much money he made, but then he shouldn't have agreed to take the job then.

The hard thing about being talent is that they are essentially trusting the creators to treat their images with respect, but the talent should realize that whoever is paying them needs their likeness for their own purposes. The creators could really care less about the talent's embarrassment. A perfect example of this is a scene from Friends where actor Joey (Matt LeBlanc) models for a campaign, but he's horrified to discover later that he had modeled to be the face of a STD poster.

Modelling is hard. Photo courtesy of Crushable.
Could Joey sue and ask the company to take the photo down? Of course not. Did the company mislead or withhold information to Joey, the model? Probably, but they also probably got him to sign a release that gave the company all rights to his likeness in exchange for compensation.

Many people think that being a model or actor is glamorous, but they don't seem to realize how much crap the model or actor has to do before they make it to the top. Jennifer Aniston, for instance, may be rich and beautiful and playing fun parts now, but when she started out for example, she had to play roles in movies like Leprechaun. I'm sure she'd like to forget her Leprechaun days, but you know that she's the first star listed now and into perpetuity anytime that movie appears on TV.
Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun (Courtesy of EW)
Howell wanting to sue for more money makes less sense when you think about how being on screen has actually ruined the lives of some people, mainly reality stars. Those folks also signed contracts giving companies all the rights to use their likeness, and those stars had no idea how they would be edited. Some stars have even complained that the editing vastly altered what had happened, but they can't do anything about it besides return to their ruined lives and try to explain to their loved ones that they're really not racists, bigots, or evil assholes.
Big Brother 15's bitchy racist Aaryn Gries can't undo her reality appearance. Photo courtesy of Zap2It

Career-wise, it's unwise of Howell to seek legal action for being used as the face of the movie poster because as a model/actor he was given huge exposure. Sure, he didn't make big bucks for the campaign, but he could have used that poster in his portfolio, and who knew what opportunities that could have led to. Secondly, in real life, most actors and models don't get paid much. For instance, a model in a Vogue editorial only makes $125 a day. Think about that before you quit your day job.

All in all, the only way one can really protect himself is to just not be on camera. Otherwise all one can do is accept his compensation and move on.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Everybody should be allowed to show their butts, stomachs, and boobs on Instagram


On Instagram, Kim Kardashian can post numerous sexy pictures of her ass and of her side boob, and Jen Selter has become a superstar because of  the photographs of her plump and toned derriere. Although Instagram's rules bar any "adult" or "mature content," Instagram deems these photos as well as numerous other soft-core-style photos compliant with their rules and regulations. Yet when a woman who doesn't conform to Hollywood standards of beauty exposes her body, her photos get taken down. WTF?
Photo from Kim's Instagram, courtesy of The Mirror

A sample from Jen Selter's Instagram, courtesy of like-net.com
Like Kardashian, Selter, and numerous other Instagram models, Samm Newman, an Ohio nineteen-year-old, posted photographs of herself in revealing attire. But unlike the other women, Instagram removed Newman's photos, and Newman fought back. She reasoned that if her photos violated Instagram's rules, then so should other women's photographs of themselves in bikinis and lingerie. According to Think Progress, she began to report those photographs and shortly after, she found that her account was deactivated. The other women's pictures remained.

Newman, a plus sized woman, felt discriminated against, and she took it to the media to explain her case. “All my life, I was told to suck it in, and I would see these commercials on TV every day of these Victoria Secret models who weighed just nothing,” Newman said. “As comfortable as I was with myself, I wasn’t comfortable with my body, and that was a really huge drawback.”

Newman's story went viral because of the hypocrisy of the situation, and the body-shaming by the social media platform made many people sick.  As of yesterday, Instagram formally apologized for censoring Newman. They restored all of her photographs.
A sample of Samm Newman's Instagram photo, courtesy of Fox News
I congratulate Newman for baring her body and fighting for the right to show others a body type that is not typically shared on Instagram. Censoring bodies and only showing models distorts impressionable minds to believe that those models are the norm when in fact these women exercise and diet rigorously, have had plastic surgery, are posed at certain angles, or are just photoshopped.  

I still remember when I was a teen and I would see album covers or photographs in magazines, and I always wondered why I couldn't look like that. I still remember thinking how fat my stomach was because when I looked at my body from a profile, my mid section was larger than my arm. NOTE: Having a mid-section larger than your arm is NORMAL. However, I was tricked to thinking I was fat because of images like the one below: 

The Pussycat Dolls PCD album cover, courtesy of avaxsearch
As an adult, it's obvious to me that Nicole Scherzinger's mid-section is photoshopped and badly photoshopped at that, but when I was a kid and didn't know about smoke and mirrors, I really just felt lesser than seeing these images. To anyone who says that the media doesn't influence young people, I call bullshit, not only from personal experience but from numerous studies such as this one about the media and eating disorders from the Journal of Social Issues

Now that Newman has fought to not have her body censored, I hope that other people join her in her fight for body acceptance of all sizes. We as human beings need role models and images to aspire to, and the diversity of seeing young and old, toned and flabby, different skin shades, scars, whatever is beautiful and necessary to help people realize that whatever they look like is okay. It can be scary to expose one's body to the public, but the more people share, the less taboo the act becomes. However, if you don't personally want to show off your goods on Instagram, then at least don't judge when you see others do it. They may be a part of a movement that many people didn't realize was coming but was long overdue. 

Friday, July 18, 2014

How to query #Hollywood through Twitter and other helpful #Screenwriting advice from @LydiaMulvey

Lydia Mulvey, photo courtesy of Lydia Mulvey
If you'd like to connect with on Twitter: LydiaMulvey
Lydia Mulvey is a self-taught screenwriter who currently has a script in development at Under the Stairs Entertainment. She was a 2006 finalist of the PAGE Screenwriting Contest and a winner of the BBC Sharps Contest. Lydia was awesome enough to stop by and share her thoughts on screenwriting contests, breaking into the business, and learning the craft. 

TL: You're a very accomplished screenwriter. How did you learn the craft?
 LM: Like many screenwriters, I'm self-taught. When I started writing scripts, I had to take a pretty ad hoc approach as there wasn't much information available in Ireland on the topic at the time. I bought a copy of William Goldman's Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View of Hollywood and Screenwriting and devoured every page. Then I used the script of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid in the back of the book as a formatting guideline as this was the pre-Internet age. The first script I ever wrote was terrible. Not in a humblebrag way. It truly was awful. I still have it in a ring binder. I haven't looked at it in years. I'm not sure I ever will again. Then I wrote two more scripts which were less terrible but still pretty awful. I still have those scripts too. As a reminder of how far I've come as a writer. Writing is always a learning process no matter where you stand in the hierarchy but I'm far more confident in my skills and talent now than ever before.

TL: You're currently working with the production company Under the Stairs Entertainment on a sci-fi film called Zone 2. How did the partnership come about and what is Zone 2 about?
 LM: I first encountered Miranda Sajdak and Sandra Leviton at Under the Stairs Entertainment when I sent them a query last December and they agreed to read my feature thriller script Cold Crossing. I ultimately received a pass but they were very gracious and by then we were getting to know each other via social media.

Then in January of this year, Under the Stairs mentioned on Twitter that they would love to make a short film over the summer and wanted to read some scripts. I asked if I could send a few, they agreed and they loved Zone 2 and optioned the script. It's currently in development and you can see artwork for the script here.

The story is a sci-fi/horror and is about a mother and her disabled son who are trapped in the underworld of Zone 2 and must fight for survival...

TL: You're a screenwriting contest veteran, having been a finalist in the PAGE Screenwriting Contest and a winner of the BBC Sharps Contest. What did you submit for both contests, and what advice do you have for any aspiring screenwriters?
 LM: I was a finalist in the PAGE Screenwriting Contest way back in 2006. I submitted a much earlier version of Cold Crossing under the title of Human Error and was very honored to be among such talented finalists.

I submitted a half hour drama short called Piglet to the BBC Sharps Contest in 2008. This was a script that I wrote on the fly as I was deep into a feature, so I sent it off just before the deadline and promptly forgot about it. I was very honored to win the contest along with 9 other writers.

My advice to any aspiring screenwriters:
  • Be selective. Choose your contests wisely. There are a lot of scam contests there. Aim to enter the more prestigious contests such as the Nicholl, Austin, PAGE etc.
  • Be ready. Don't submit a sub-par script. You must feel happy with your work. Forget any "that'll do" attitude. It won't do. It really won't. Screenwriting contests are open to anyone willing to pay the entry fee. Readers have a lot of chaff to cut through before they get to the tasty wheat grains. Make sure your script is tasty wheat grain.
  • Submit your script, then forget about it. Seriously. You have to wait MONTHS before you hear back on contests. You'll drive yourself mad if you keep obsessing about it. So keep busy. Work on another script. Get a body of work behind you.
  • Don't treat screenplay contests as the be-all and end-all of everything. They are just one way into the industry. And even if you win, they are not guaranteed to open the door. So keep submitting elsewhere, keep making connections, keep networking. You don't win a screenplay contest and automatically earn a million dollars a script. You just don't.

TL: Did the PAGE contest connect you with Under the Stairs Entertainment? What opportunities opened up for you after becoming a finalist? 
LM: I hate to say this because I don't want to discourage anyone, but being a PAGE finalist opened up zero opportunities for me. I may have been a finalist but my script wasn't up to the standard that the industry demands. This was a harsh lesson for me and it took me a while to work through that.

Screenwriting contests help to identify writers who have talent and skill but in my case at least, I wasn't anywhere near as good as I needed to be to compete with writers already working in the industry.

I'd say the most useful thing I took away from the PAGE contest finalist placement (apart from the realization that I had a long road to travel in my writing) was that it made it slightly easier to get a read from agencies and managers. Of course, this is only my experience. Other people's mileage may vary (and I hope it does!).

Winning the BBC contest on the other hand... that was a dream. The 10 winners were taken on a week-long residential workshop where amazing people came to talk to us about the various facets of TV writing including pitching and continuing drama. We were given consultations on our winning scripts by industry professionals and we also developed new ideas during the week (I wrote a two-part TV script called One Blue Shoe, something I'd never done before).

The following year, four of us, including me, had excerpts of our new scripts performed at a rehearsed reading at the BBC studios. There is nothing more gratifying or terrifying than having your script performed live by actors you've seen on TV. My only regret is that at the time I didn't capitalize on the opportunities offered to me by winning the contest as much as I should have. But I learned so much from the experience, I met some wonderful people and it has certainly increased the number of read requests I get when I query.

TL: What other screenwriting contests do you recommend and why?
 LM: Obviously the first contest I'd recommend is the Nicholl. It's by far the most prestigious and winning is a life-changing event. But the chances of winning are incredibly small. However, it's one of the few contests where even being a quarter finalist can open doors. It still means that out of 7500 entries, you're in the top 350. That counts for a lot.

I'd also recommend Austin, although I've never entered myself. But I believe it's a terrific contest and offers tremendous opportunity to progress.

And Blue Cat is a contest I'd recommend if your script is more toward the indie end of the scale.

TL: What screenwriting websites with screenwriting advice would you recommend to other writers?
LM: The BBC writersroom is an excellent place for writers to find writing advice from established writers, read a range of TV scripts and avail of excellent opportunities. Many of the schemes are available only to UK/Ireland-based writers but occasionally international writers can submit.

The Black Board (which is the official forum of the Black List and Scott Myers' Go Into The Story blog) is another website that I'd recommend to writers, especially those just starting out. I'm now a moderator on there (so I admit I'm biased) but before I became a moderator, I found the forum an incredibly positive and encouraging place. Having fallen down deeply depressing writing rabbit holes on the Internet in the past, it was a breath of fresh air. Founder Shaula Evans oversees the forum to ensure it's welcoming, open, supportive and full of useful information.

I'd also highly recommend Script Chix, which is the writing blog & script consultancy service run by Sandra and Miranda of Under the Stairs. Their posts are both educational and entertaining for screenwriters. Sandra spent years working in the agency world and in the Current Programming Department at FX, working on shows like The Shield, Sons of Anarchy, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and Louie to name a few. Miranda has experience in the feature realm, primarily, having worked in development departments for Bold Films (Drive), Practical Pictures (American Pie, Final Destination), and more, as well as in TV for showrunners of shows including Huge and China, IL. So they know their onions when it comes to screenwriting and I've definitely benefited from their collective expertise in relation to my own work.

TL: Thank you for the interview and for giving such great screenwriting advice. Is there anything you would like to add?
LM: I can only speak from my own experience but getting anywhere in screenwriting takes a long time. Longer than you think. So be patient. Take your time. Do the work. Don't be afraid to be terrible. Because when you start out, you almost certainly will be. But it's part of the process to get the bad stuff out of the way.

Don't show your first draft to anyone. Or even your second or third draft. And there are always more drafts than you think. Zone 2 went through 7 drafts after it was optioned (and numerous drafts when I was writing it initially). And there will probably be more when we get into production. And that's just a short script.

Get used to rejection. I can't stress that enough. And by "get used to it", I mean you should send queries out and enter contests and experience the rejection so that you understand what it feels like. Only by experiencing it can you learn how to deal with it. I'm at the point where it doesn't trouble me at all. It's just part of the process. And if you can learn not to take it personally, you're already on your way.

Some spec scripts take years to write. Some only a few months. Don't rush the slow ideas. I've been working on one idea for the best part of two years now. And it's still in the prep stage.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Everything you need to know about applying for the ABC Disney Writing Fellowship

Breaking into Hollywood is extremely difficult, and ask anyone...getting a creative job is even tougher. Luckily, there are systems in place that help new writers break into the biz, and this includes requiring shows to have a limited number of scripts be written by non-staff members, diversity programs, and writing fellowships. One of the most competitive fellowships to obtain is the Disney ABC Writing Fellowship. This program staffs newbie writers on an ABC or Disney television show for one year, pays a yearly salary of $50,000 with benefits, and offers opportunities for mentorship and representation. As you can probably tell, this fellowship is a BIG FUCKING DEAL. If other ways of breaking into TV writing such as working as a writers assistant or obtaining representation on your own has not worked out in the past, then the Disney ABC Writing Fellowship may be something you should explore.

This year's application to the Disney ABC Writing Fellowship closed in May, but hopefully this post will help aspiring TV writers with next year's application (provided that the application format will not change too drastically the following year.)

WHAT DO YOU NEED TO APPLY?
The  2014 application required  the following (blue is taken from the Disney ABC website and black is my commentary):
1) An original pilot script that captures the writer’s unique tone, style and point of view.
2) A spec script for a live-action cable, broadcast or streaming-service (e.g. Netflix, Amazon, etc…) series airing during the current television season. Applicants are encouraged to select a series that is well-established in at least its second season. The spec script should demonstrate the writer’s ability to adapt to an existing format while at the same time infusing a unique point of view and sensibility.
 
Material should tonally translate to the type of programming broadcast on DATG series. Both samples must be live-action content. Animation samples of any form arenot accepted.
I applied to the Fellowship in 2010 and the application was slightly different then. I only needed to submit one spec, and I submitted a Modern Family that was THE BOMB! I was so stoked that I made it to the next round, but to my horror, they asked for another spec and I was given a few days turnaround. I had a 2 1/2 Men spec that I had written while I was a screenwriting student at USC, but I knew it wasn't my best work. I submitted it anyway because I was desperate. There was no way that I could write another spec in the turnaround they gave me. Of course, I did not advance.

The point of the story is this: the first round of this application is asking for two scripts but if you are serious about wanting the fellowship, you better have several other television scripts on deck if you get the call or email. After all, the program's method of the few day turnaround was a great weed out of people who either couldn't write a new spec fast enough or who hadn't taken the time to write a ton of material.
3) Completed application and signed release forms for each script.
4) Résumé outlining chronological salaried employment (may include entertainment and
non-entertainment positions). Only list jobs or positions where compensation was received with the exception of entertainment industry internships and full-time volunteer work at non-profits.  Positions must have been held within the past 10 years (two pages or less).
5) Biography reflecting the applicant’s unique life experiences and personal stories (500 words or less).
The quality of your scripts is generally a good indicator of your talent and how dedicated you are to writing, and your resume and biography are good opportunities to showcase how dedicated you are to becoming a professional writer. As I discuss in the next section of "Who should enter", although industry experience is not required, your experience is a good indicator of how well you will do at the "professional" aspects of television writing, i.e. working in a writers room, politicking, networking, pitching, etc .
6) Letters of recommendation (optional) from entertainment industry professionals who have read the applicant’s material and can comment on the applicant’s ability. Letters from representation (e.g. agents, managers or attorneys) will not be accepted. Letters must be on letterhead and dated in the current calendar year. It is recommended that those signing recommendation letters include either a title or a brief introduction indicating their position or status. A maximum of two (2) recommendation letter(s) are strongly encouraged, but are not mandatory.
Although letters of recommendation are optional, I have a hunch that letters from high-level television writers will greatly push your application forward. It's an unfair advantage for a writer's assistant on a hit show who got a referral from the executive producer to compete against Billy from Kansas City who got his community college professor to write a letter, but you can't tell me you don't see the logic of who would be a smarter choice to get the fellowship? My advice: don't get mad about the inequality. Figure out what you can do to get your own advantage.

WHO SHOULD ENTER?
The website states the following criteria:
"Applicants must be able to legally work in the United States and be at least 21 years of age. Television production experience is not required, but strongly recommended. Past participants who entered the program with television production experience (e.g. writers’ assistant, script coordinator, etc…) have found that knowledge helpful in establishing a writing career. Those applying must submit a completed application and the following."
The website states that entertainment experience is not required. However, let's all just be realistic here. This opportunity staffs a writer to work on a professional show such as Scandal that has millions of viewers. This fellowship pays a legitimate salary. This fellowship receives thousands of entries a year. Do you think that they will really pick someone who seems casual about television writing or who is too inexperienced to handle the job? 

A similar opportunity that pops up in my mind is American Idol. American Idol is one of the biggest platforms that any singer can be on, and if a person is good, she doesn't even have to win to launch her career. Knowing this, would it be smart of her to get on the finalist stage and perform averagely because she hasn't built up enough experience entertaining audiences? Or would it be better for her to spend a few years perfecting her craft and then go on the show and blow everyone away? Like American Idol, the ABC Disney Fellowship shouldn't be looked at as just a job. It's the chance to springboard a career. 

WHAT WOULD HELP DISTINGUISH YOU AS A SERIOUS ASPIRING TV WRITER?
If you want to be a television writer, you need to write television scripts and you need to write consistently and quickly. For the Disney ABC Fellowship, your arsenal should include TV specs and original pilots. The number one thing that will distinguish you in this application process is your writing sample so make sure that it is properly formatted, free of spelling and grammatical errors, matches the tone of the show if it's a spec, and is "A+" material. If your work is derivative (i.e. boring) or if your work does not match the show, then keep writing. Don't submit your "B" material when at least 100 others in the pack are submitting professional quality work and those 100 script writers probably have other "A+" quality scripts waiting as backups. Because there is so much competition, even the 100 great scripts have to compete with one another for 8 slots. Keep this in mind and act accordingly. 

To reach your "A" game as a writer and to show ABC/Disney and Hollywood in general that you are a serious aspiring TV writer, you can do the following:
  • Take writing classes. This will help you meet other writers and get feedback on your work. Plus, this will not only teach you more about writing but it will acclimate you to the workshop-style that is similar to a professional writers room.  Do you need a screenwriting degree? Not necessarily. It doesn't hurt because it shows how serious you are about writing, but degrees do not trump talent. If you can get away with taking writing classes at theaters or community colleges, then go for it! Learning is learning. 
  • Get a television-related job, preferably in Los Angeles or New York. This is the best way to see what the business is actually like and whether or not it is something you want to do long term. It's also a great way to network, and you know the saying: "It's all about who you know." If you can't land an industry job (it doesn't have to be writing-related), try to get an internship. If that doesn't seem likely, try to find independent work. Sometimes those independent gigs can lead to meeting more people who can eventually get you a professional gig. Don't be afraid to take anything you can get as long as the gig is a learning opportunity. If you're just being used as a coffee errand boy and the people you are working with have nothing to teach you, then walk away!
  • Most of all, keep trying and keep a good attitude. There are no overnight successes. Many of the people who you see as successful in their field actually worked on their craft for years. If television writing is something you want to do, you have to somehow also show that kind of dedication. 
YOUR WRITING IS AWESOME AND SO ARE YOUR APPLICATION MATERIALS. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
After the application, you usually get a phone interview and you may or may not be asked to submit more samples. After that, if you are chosen as a finalist, you are invited to a mixer, and this is not just any old let's-drink-and-chat kind of affair. At this mixer, you will be judged, and it can make or break whether or not they give you the fellowship! Information about the mixer is not found on the Disney ABC website, but the heads of the program do talk about it if you ever have a chance to make it to one of their informational sessions. 

So anyway…what happens at the mixer? The structure of past mixers reminds me slightly of The Bachelor. A bunch of desperate candidates are forced in a room with Disney ABC executives, and they are given a short amount of time to mingle and wow those executives with their smarts, graciousness, and ability to be interesting but not annoying. If you need further visual examples of a lopsided mixer, watch an episode of The Bachelor, an ABC show. 
Fight for your moment to shine, writers!
Does the idea of the mixer sound terrible to you? Do you clam up at the idea of wowing strangers or setting yourself a part from the pack? Sadly, this is the hard reality that I learned as a writer living in Los Angeles… if you can't sell yourself, there are other writers who both can write and wow a room. If you want to be a television writer, you got to learn how to turn on that charm switch. This mixer, no matter how foreign of an idea it is to most, is the program's way of seeing who has the personality to have longevity in the TV writing game. 

OVERALL
The idea of television writing sounds glamorous, but the reality of the job is this: it's a competitive, seasonal occupation and thus does not guarantee stability; the work is generally only located in Los Angeles or New York City; it's a job that requires one to write quality quickly and to write content that matches what one's boss wants; and unlike other writing jobs, TV writing is a team effort. As a television writer, you will spend the majority of your life in a room with the same small group of people. Think about the writers room in 30 Rock. 
If this is the life you want, then you better keep writing!
If after reading everything I've shared with you, you are still interested in applying next year, then I lovingly tip my imaginary hat to you. You are closer to achieving your dream, and I'd like to hear about your process in the comments below or on Twitter!

Good luck!