where the big stories are

I recently ran across an interesting – albeit brief – read about the current state of Hollywood. In it, the writers says

Part of Hollywood’s current decay was unavoidable. As a monoculture splintered permanently into niche groups, the idea of a film everybody sees and everybody can’t stop talking about fades further into the cultural past. The rise of cable networks willing to spend serious money on shows like “Game of Thrones” further dents Hollywood’s ability to be the main supplier of big stories.

The article then goes on to discuss how the business model they’ve created has painted them in a corner where heartfelt sincerity is out, out, out and big, big, big profits are in, in, in. Where audiences have, when it comes to summer movie-watching fare, either this superhero movie (where things explode, buildings crumble and people are saved -or not) or that superhero movie (where things explode, buildings crumble and people are saved – or not).

And if the superhero movies are all basically interchangeable and easily forgotten, where’s the magic in going to the movies? Short answer: there is none. Which is why people are staying home and watching Stranger Things or Game of Thrones or whatever.

Now, I understand the financial logistics of this. I know foreign markets (China, Russia, Israel, Germany) drive profit. That Hollywood, being a global business – as in the whole world and not just America, a fact we somehow forget here in the States – isn’t necessarily making movies just for the domestic audience which, in truth, feed less and less into their bottom lines.

Really, though, Hollywood knows films that are heavy on action, explosions, dudes in capes and light on dialogue are easily translatable for Chinese, Russian, German audiences. And if your business is making money – and Hollywood’s is – a film that translates easily regardless of borders is, or could be, the way to go.

But they’re forgetting one important fact. They’re ignoring the one thing that makes it harder and harder to get those butts in the seats:

Where are the big stories?

Really. Where’s the frickin’ magic? Why go to the movies anymore? Where’s that one film that slyly incorporates those special effects audiences love while giving us characters audiences care about, feel for and never forget? Because that’s the film this industry needs. Desperately.

Being the relentless optimist I am, I strongly believe you can have action and magic in a film without relinquishing heart and soul.

If you revisit franchises like Harry Potter or even The Hunger Games, those movies ticked a lot of boxes. Centered around strong narratives – remember those? – they both successfully blended the fantastic with emotion. They married action with heart. And they gave audiences necessary, important battles without abandoning reason or hope. Cities didn’t need to crumble, the universe didn’t need to quake and thousands of cars didn’t have to get trampled underfoot for those films to make their point and make an impact on audiences.

You see? If you have a true big story – not just a loud story – you can go simple. If you’re supported by a strong narrative peopled with unique, relatable characters, you can be quiet. And if those people are imbued with hope, heartache, anger, fear, helplessness, frustration, loneliness, doubt, strength, the story they tell, even without the predictable Armageddon, will be unforgettable.

Why? Because no matter how different that person on the screen is from those in the audience, they’ll be speaking the same language. A language which doesn’t rely on translation or destruction or annihilation. A language that can be felt in a place deeper than words.

Emotion.

If you really want to find the big stories in today’s Hollywood, the stories audiences are truly craving – reminder: everyone’s staying home watching cable — that’s where you begin. With what people feel. And if you can bring to life a solid story with a character who is blessed – or cursed – with the impossible and yet is still driven by their hopes and dreams, fears and frustrations, disappointments and dread, a person driven by their emotions, that’s where audiences will go. In fact, that’s where audiences will go again and again and again.

I believe if you can reach into someone’s heart, speak to that part of them that wants to feel – it’s why we go to the movies, right? – and reawaken that innate hope we all have being part of something bigger while still entertaining, still dazzling, still scaring and surprising them, they’ll come. They’ll leave their homes, come to the theater, make a night of it and see that film. They will. We’ve seen it happen before. And, god willing, we’ll see it happen again.

But that journey has to begin with the heart.

Because that’s where the big stories are.

 

First of Five

And so it begins.

In a rare confluence of events — think a massive meteor shower pummeling the earth while a rare comet circles the heavens around a total Solar Eclipse as we discover a Kardashian with actual talent — I’m going to have five book releases over the next three months.

I know, right?

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First up, Horror 201: The Silver Scream

The definitive guide to filmmaking and filmmakers by the best in the field.

Horror 201: The Silver Scream, the follow-up to the Bram Stoker Award nominated Horror 101: The Way Forward, delves into the minds of filmmakers to see what it takes to produce great horror films, from the writing and funding process, to directing, producing, and writing tie-ins.

It’s a tome of interviews and essays by some of our favorite artists.

That’s right, film legends and authors such as Wes Craven, George A. Romero, Ray Bradbury, Ed Naha, Patrick Lussier, Stephen Volk, Nancy Holder, Tom Holland, John Shirley, William Stout, and John Russo want to share their expertise with you through informative, practical, career-building advice.

These are the folks behind movies and novelizations such as A Nightmare on Elm Street, Scream, Dark Shadows, Sleepy Hollow, Supernatural, Buffy, Resident Evil, The Stand, Sleepwalkers, Masters of Horror, The Fly, Critters, Tales from the Crypt, Child’s Play, Fright Night, Thinner, The Langoliers, Ted Bundy, Re-animator Unbound, Halloween, Apollo 18, The Eye, Night of the Living Dead, The Crow, The Mist, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Horror 201 also entertains. You’ll see a side of your favorite authors, producers, and directors never seen before – combining fun and entertainment with informative career-building advice.

Horror 201 is aimed at arming generations of authors, screenwriters, producers, directors, and anyone else interested in the film industry, from big budget movies to the independent film circuit, as well as the stage.

The definitive guide to filmmaking and filmmakers by the best in the field.

Whether you’re an accomplished author or screenwriter, writing as a hobby, or have dreams of writing screenplays or making movies, Horror 201 will take you on a behind the scenes tour of the Horror movie industry from Hollywood to the UK and Australia.

Horror 201 covers:

  • Horror as culture
  • Scare tactics
  • The evolution of the horror film
  • Viewer desensitization
  • Watching your story come to life
  • Screenwriting advice
  • Dissecting screenplays
  • A production company case study
  • Tricks of the trade
  • Writing tips
  • Advice on Producing
  • Advice on Directing
  • Information about funding and distributing a film
  • Entertaining tidbits and anecdotes

happy-face-GOT

But wait, there’s more!!!!!!!

Horror 201: The Silver Scream is perfect for people who:

  • are looking to delve into screenplay writing
  • want to write their first screenplay
  • are fans of the horror movie industry
  • like to follow the careers of their favorite directors
  • are planning on infiltrating a different field in horror writing
  • are looking to pay more bills with their art
  • are trying to establish a name brand
  • are looking to get published
  • are looking for motivation and/or inspiration
  • are seeking contacts in the film industry

Amazing, right?

How about a cover?

Horror 201

Honestly, I love how the red of the car echoes the red in the title and the red in that other car. And the silver of the screen? With the woman screaming? To me, it’s ever so slightly reminiscent of —

shut-up-and-take-my-money

So, one release down, four to go. And what are those other four books?

An essay in the second volume of Horror 201: The Silver Scream; Forever Dark, an award-winning short story in Tales from the Lake, Vol. 2; an essay in Writers on Writing, Vol. 2; and Eidolon Avenue: The First Feast.

All between now and January.

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It just makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

shocked-face-puppy

Okay, but, still, how cool is this!

Will update with links as the rest of these roll out.

 

The Increasingly Poor Decisions of EL James

If Variety is to be believed — and it’s usually more right than not — “author” EL James has decided to write the script for the second Fifty Shades of Grey movie. Let me attempt (and I can’t promise my head won’t explode while doing this, but I’ll give it a go) to count the ways this is so very, very wrong.

A) Screenwriting, especially the adaptation of a book to film, is more than recording in script-form what happened in the book. If Miss James’ fiction writing is any indication, her work as a screenwriter will almost certainly lack the finesse, sophistication, pace and, oh I’ll just say it, SKILL that a screenplay for a major Hollywood movie needs. As I’m learning with my own spec adaption of Martuk … the Holy, you need to have a ruthless eye for what’s essential and what can be consolidated or completely chopped. It’s a very delicate balancing act, one that Miss James, according to first hand accounts from production, steadfastly refuses to do.

Listen, if Kelly Marcel, a gifted screenwriter with some very good films under her belt, can beat her head against the wall for months trying to turn Miss James’ first person present tense narrative-free drivel into something – ANYTHING – that might work onscreen and still come up woefully short (due, in part, to Miss James’ constant intrusion and obvious need for control), how in the hell does Miss James think she can pull it off?

She can’t.

B) The success of a book adapted for film is found in the creative team that works WITH the author to successfully help the story make the transition. In other words, the author needs to surround themselves with the best team possible and then let go and allow those who know what they’re doing get busy and do what they need to do. The goal should be having the film be a success for everyone, and that’s damn hard to do if a newbie keeps inserting his or her busy-body into every frickin’ decision.

Miss James’ unwillingness to take her hands off the wheel — and Universal’s head scratching (and, in hindsight, no doubt desperate) decision to give her unprecedented control — has taken what could have been a fairly good film based on an infamously bad book series and turned it into a hilariously bad movie (one that had a great opening weekend, but has seen a 60% drop since then).

Allowing a hack writer to pen what will most certainly be an amateurish script is asking for trouble. It’s putting a hopefully respectable and respected Director in a position of having to work with something that might be impossible to shoot, forcing a production team to work for many months on something that reeks to high heaven from the get-go, and cornering a Studio — A STUDIO — into putting a successful franchise in the hands of a first time (say it again with me, kids) FAMOUSLY PISS POOR WRITER. After the reviews of the first film, they NEED the second to be better. Period. Full Stop. End of story. And for a non-screenwriter to demand she write the screenplay …

My god, a gamble of that magnitude makes even MY head spin. And the clueless arrogance and hubris of Miss James … I don’t even know where to begin.

C) The audience.

So, yes, let’s talk about the audience. The first movie had a smashing opening weekend. Driven by curiosity and, for fans, an almost knee-jerk need to defend something they like, people hit the theaters in droves. And if the reviews and audience feedback are any indication, the adaptation was a disappointing dud. One that made money, yes. But will it get repeat business, the cornerstone of every blockbuster franchise? Probably not. Will people be lining up as eagerly to see the sequel? That’s a big question mark.

Because if the sequel is as bad as the first one, the curious, having been sated with the first installment, may decide it’s not worth the price of a movie ticket and just catch it on PPV or Streaming. And the Fans Who Seek to Defend? Well, if they’re feeling disrespected — ANOTHER bad film of a book I love? Are they even TRYING? — they may reconsider.

Listen, the sequel NEEDS to be stronger. Period. And it needs a better script and less author intrusion. The chances of that happening if Miss James is in charge? Slim to none. And with her contractual control? Good luck getting her to do rewrites or agree to cuts that everyone agrees are necessary, but that she believes are fine.

Again, my head, it’s spinning, spinning, spinning with how off the rails this can go.

In conclusion, what remains is this: for writers like me who are just beginning their Hollywood journey into AdaptationVille, the willingness of a Studio to allow even the slightest bit of control in the future is hanging by a thread. What if so-and-so ends up being another EL James with his or her hand in everything? And they have no idea what they’re doing? And they’re bullshit slows down production and costs us money? Ack! They’d run for the hills.

You know, it kinda sucks that, as writers, we’ve had to work doubly hard to help readers see they deserve better than the stupefying pile of stinking shit that called itself Fifty Shades of Grey. And, as readers, we’ve had to sift through the mountains of atrociously written Fifty Shades wannabes that have spread through the publishing world like an unfortunately timed yeast infection.

Are we now, as screenwriters and moviegoers, going to have to pay yet another price for The Increasingly Poor Decisions of EL James?

God, let’s hope not.

Hollywood hearts Writers … No! REALLY!

Hollywood. Films. Remakes, sequels, franchises. Adaptations of books. And where are the “new ideas” from Hollywood?

Let’s talk about this.

What most of you — and I’m talking mainly about those in the States — don’t realize is that Hollywood isn’t making films for you anymore. The domestic box office is one of the smaller pieces of the pie when it comes to profits. These days, their money is being made in China, Russian, India. That’s their audience. That’s who they’re focused on when they decide what to put into development or what script/property to invest in.

So, when looking at what films to make and, more importantly, what films they can market effectively to the biggest audience while still ticking all their demographic boxes, they tend to go either for iconic properties (Superman, Dracula, Batman, other superheroes) or earlier films they hold the rights to that they can successfully reboot, remake, rework with a young cast and hot director into something that can be discovered by a new audience.

Why? MONEY!

Let’s face it. We can talk about art and beauty and films being an amazing thing, but, at the end of the day, Hollywood needs to make money. And, as mentioned before, it’s not being made in the States. It’s all overseas.

Wondering where your serious dramas went? They don’t play well in those foreign markets so Studios are a lot less likely to jump onboard and make ’em (unless they’re historical Oscar bait, like Selma, or have Meryl Streep in them). Romantic comedies? Nope. Again, it’s a cultural difference. What Americans find funny or romantic will confuse the heck out of those foreign markets. So, they don’t make ’em. And when they do, it’s usually a box office bomb. And, remember, they’re in this to make money, something box office bombs don’t do.

Now, when it comes to new ideas — and, yes, they do have them! — and especially adaptations of books (which need not be bestsellers, surprisingly), Studios tend to hope for a few things. Or at least that’s what I’ve discovered as Martuk … the Holy and Martuk … the Holy: Proseuche laboriously trudge their way to the silver screen.

1) Is it a franchise? Making one movie, and just one movie, isn’t in the cards. For marketing purposes, tie-ins, building an audience, etc., they’re really hoping you have a story that spans three books and can be told in six films. Having a reliable story they can tell over a decade or so is ideal.

2) IS THERE A STORY?????? Oh, and believable characters who actually talk like real people. Believe it or not, and this is something I hear time and again from friends of mine who are producers, a lot of the books suggested to them from agents and publishers HAVE NO STORY!!!!

Listen, Hollywood isn’t a big reading town. They read scripts and they read coverage (crib notes version of a script or book). But for those who DO read, they get downright giddy when it’s well-written (most books these days, even so-called bestsellers, aren’t) and feel like they hit the frickin’ jackpot when it has an actual story. Beginning, middle, end. Three acts. Pace. Intelligence. Something a screenwriter can actually work into a script because, MY GOD, that NEVER happens!

So, yeah, having a story in your book rather than a random series of events that just kinda happen helps.

3) A sense of mythology. And this one, to me, feels huge. Every successful book-to-film (talking about the tent-pole productions that anchor a Studio for the summer and are usually franchises) has come to the table with a world wrapped in mythology. And I’m not necessarily talking about an established mythology, Greek, Roman, etc. It can be one the author has created. Other worlds, ancient worlds. Gods, goddesses. Superhuman strength. Immortals and monsters. That gives a Studio so, so much to play with because, absent a very American story centered around love and life and drama, there’s now a narrative — one probably based on action, magic, struggle, and strong visuals – foreign markets will readily understand and enjoy.

I think that knowing all this will help you understand why Hollywood decides the way it sometimes does — it’s not about you anymore, sorry — and how you, if you’re a writer hoping to shift your work into film, can maybe hopefully perhaps possibly write something they might be more willing to maybe hopefully perhaps possibly consider.

Seriously, though, it’s a crapshoot. Whenever writers ask me how they can get a “Hollywood Deal”, I always tell them “Don’t. Just write your damn book, and then another, and another, and another, and another. Be a writer. And if you can be a good writer, a really good writer, maybe Hollywood will find you.”

At the end of the day, it’s one of the few things we writers can totally control. What we write and how well we write it. If Hollywood likes it, great! If not, then our Readers will still love us.

P.S. There are always exceptions to the rule, so the above thoughts aren’t written in stone. They’re just thoughts.

P.S.S. The opening weekend success of 50 Shades of Grey is an outlier when it comes to books-to-film (Americans living in a world lacking mythology). The success of the book IS the mythology. That’s what drove the Studios to adapt it to film. The fact that it had done so well as a book is what’s notable about that book series. It’s what they were counting on to get butts in the seat and post some strong opening week numbers. ‘Cause it sure as hell isn’t the laughably bad writing and bizarre lack of a story! And a huge kudos to screenwriter Kelly Marcel for doing what she could with piss poor source material.

of sitcoms and Saints

This is how it happens with me …

I’m bee-bopping along, quite enjoying myself as I fill page after electronic page with magic and blood, evil and Saints, everything wrapped in the suspicion-driven world of 5th Century Constantinople as the Church declares war on itself, Old Rome under attack from the upstart New Rome, Christianity splitting in two, all of it seen through the eyes of my tortured, trapped immortal Martuk.

And then I stop and slam out a Network-friendly sitcom pilot.

Wait, what?

Yeah, I know, right?  Even surprised myself with that one.  But there it was, a half-hour sitcom.  And a damn funny one at that.  Had the idea on a Thursday, wrote it on Saturday, rewrites on Sunday, Pitch Doc including future episodes and Season One Arc on Monday, in the hands of my attorney on Tuesday, a conference call with WME (William Morris Endeavor) coming up after the 4th.

It’s just, like, what?  How did I go from flesh being peeled from a screaming Priest to yukking it up with four friends in Austin, TX?

Hell, even I don’t know how my brain works sometimes.  (^~^)

 

Is there a Why to your What?

I have a nasty habit of not listening to people.

Let me explain …

I love collaboration.  Nothing excites me more as a writer than getting notes, reading other’s thoughts and suggestions, seeing my work through someone else’s eye and discovering how much more it can be.  The rewrite process is much better when you have people to bounce your ideas off of.  So, when it comes to working with others, I play nice.

It’s only when someone tells me what I CAN’T do that I tend to tune them out.

For example, when I wrote my first screenplay in 2004, well-meaning friends familiar with the Business of Show told me that’s what I’d be for the rest of my career:  a screenwriter.  So imagine their surprise when I decided to write a play!  Well, they said, you can write features and maybe a play or two, but that’s really your limit.  That’s all you’re supposed to do.  Features, plays, that’s it.  Be happy with that, okay?  Okay.

Then I wrote my full-length novel, Martuk … the Holy.  And The Martuk Series, an ongoing collection of Short Fiction based on Martuk … the Holy (currently being adapted into graphic novels)after that.

By now, these well-meaning friends — who really are sincerely lovely people I truly adore — weren’t quite sure what box to place me in.  Was I a screenwriter, a playwright, an author of Literary Horror?  Some Frankenstein-like amalgamation of all of them?  Which was it, really, because all this hopscotching across literary borders was getting annoying.

Well, I asked, why can’t I be EVERYTHING all rolled into ONE?

It was a reality they had to accept.  And with the industry changing so rapidly over the last several years, my dog-eared passport to the Land of Many Genres is nothing new, my journeys now more often than not spent standing shoulder -to-shoulder with a veritable mob of Writers as we move between features, edgy cable series, plays, fiction, non-fiction, more features, and advertiser-friendly Network sitcoms.

Which brings me to my next stop:  a sitcom.

Something I truly thought I’d never do, to be honest, most of my work testing the limits of human experience, my characters often hitting rock bottom before tunneling even further into the dark.  But there it is!  A happy, funny, sweet, sincere sitcom any Network would be lucky to get its hands on.

(Hey, Relentless Optimism, it’s good to see you!)

So if you write, write.  Don’t let form or convention or anyone with a half-assed opinion hinder how you decide to express yourself.  You may have to shift gears quickly — I’ll spend the morning writing and rewriting snappy sitcom dialogue only to take a quick lunch break before seeing the afternoon disappear in a prose-heavy recreation of 5th century views of religion in Constantinople for the bloody, violent sequel to Martuk.

But hey, unless you can give me a Why to the Whats you decide I can and can’t do, I’ll continue translating the insanity my imagination insists on throwing at me.

Doin’ it

Just stumbled across an interesting conversation that set my own mind a’thinkin’ (always a dangerous thing). And since I wasn’t asked to share what MY process is on said blog — truth be told, they don’t even know I exist, so who can blame ’em? –, I thought I’d bee-bop on over to my little corner of the Universe and share it anyway.

So, how do I write?

It all begins in my head.

Okay, that’s kinda not true. It starts in my head, yes, but it’s more a story I’m hearing rather than a story I’m “making up”, if that makes sense.

Martuk from Martuk … The Holy introduced himself to me one day in March of 2008. Out of the blue. You know, kind of one of those Hey, how are ya, and do I have a story for you-type of deals. And once I understood and accepted that I could be THAT kind of writer as well as a screenwriter and playwright, I found the first draft of the book flying onto the page with relative ease.

But as to HOW that happened, this is what I’ve found works for me:

I type myself emails. Short and not-so-short thoughts working through the plot. Hashing it out. Working it through. Seeing if it squares up, makes sense, could maybe be an interesting read. You know, making sure it all fits before I type Chapter One.

Unlike some, I don’t really plot out people to be met or character flaws to surmount or any of that stuff. Maybe I should. But I find if I have a general map — my Chapter Map –, the people Martuk needs to meet end up introducing themselves when need be.

And many of the characters in Martuk couldn’t have been plotted out because I wasn’t in that world yet, the palace in ancient Uruk, the altar, the priests in red and gold. I needed to get there to discover who was waiting. And I was smart enough to sit back and let them introduce who they were and what they were dealing with. Instead of assigning them wounds, I allowed them to lift up their sleeves and show me the cuts and scrapes and slices themselves.

But, still, I’m following that map.

If I find a character wants to go deeper into his or her story — and stray further from Martuk’s narrative –, I now make a note for The Martuk Series and promise them they’ll get their own book. Short Fiction, of course, but still … it seems to placate them for the time being.

Once the book is finished, I save it in PDF and send it to my iPad where I open it anew and, stylus in hand, start covering the page in red. Call me weird, but I love this phase. And for some reason, I notice things a lot more when I move away from the laptop screen to a PDF on an iPad. Glaring mistakes. I mean, huge doozies. I don’t see them until I open that PDF on my iPad.

Strange, isn’t it?

But it’s during this process where the book really comes to life. Marked up PDF in one hand, my laptop open in the other, headphones firmly in place as the story shifts and changes shape. Becomes tighter, leaner, meaner. All that red scribbling and circling and question marking and WTF-ing necessary in creating a great read.

Depending on how sloppy I’ve been, I’ll sometimes go through three or four edited PDFs before the book is ready.

And then, AMSchultz cover in hand, book published, and new chapter map on deck, I find myself typing Chapter One. Again.

God, I love what I do.