Monday, October 31, 2011

Day 2 of Austin 2011....

Next morning, it was up early and on to a roundtable. First up with Disney’s Maggie Malone, who gave the following advice: you have to be so enthusiastic in your pitch that you bring the listener on a journey. Also, as a studio writer you have to be able to communicate someone else’s ideas as passionately as your own.

Next was literacy agent Gayla Nethercott. Her ideal client, she revealed, has to employable, good in a room, have a voice she likes and be self-aware. I explained to her that I’ll be moving to LA next year, most likely on a three-month tourist visa initially. She advised me to set up as many meetings as possible before I go and to use my three months wisely. No Irish shyness allowed!

The last exec was Cort Lane, VP of animation development at Marvel. He works on TV animation and most of their stuff is aimed at 6-11 year old boys. This isn’t an area I know a lot about, but it’s extremely interesting – for example, there are a lot of rules on TV animation for kids. There’s no face punching, no breaking windows and if a character goes on a motorcycle, they must be wearing a helmet (Unless they’re Spiderman. Then anything goes). Because their characters are superheroes, they can get away with more – but developing child-friendly stories for Wolverine or Hulk, for instance, can be challenging.

Then it was on to talk on reversals and pay-offs with the one and only Shane Black, who is currently working on Iron Man 3.

He claims – rather refreshingly – to still have fears about pitching and finds that writing gets harder, rather than easier, once you have a few scripts behind you. While some writers claim to love writing, he says he’ll do anything, even clean the house, to avoid getting started.

Here is just some of the other stuff he covered:

  • Every story is a suspense thriller, whatever the genre. Will the guy get the girl? Will the hero escape the slasher killer?

  • Reversals – things that put events or details in a movie in a different light. Everything seems okay, but wait! There’s a problem. Most scripts suffer from not having enough of these kinds of moments. It’s rare to have too many – Reindeer Games is one movie that does.

  • Quick reversals – these are usually used in action movies. Example – La Femme Nikita, where she goes to a bathroom window, her only escape route, to be faced with a brick wall.

  • Slow reversals – we only find out at the end of Stand By Me why the main character has been telling us this story.

  • Pay-offs – All the balls that you’ve been spinning during the script should start to come down in Act 3. Small victories – the “You’re a loser” line in Rocky that pays off at the end of the movie when he “wins” by staying on his feet. But you have to hide your set-up – you’re looking for an “Oh my God, I forgot about that!” from the audience.

  • If you’re stuck, go for a walk! And if you’ve just finished a first draft, leave it a month before looking at it again.

  • Script doctoring – they’re paying you to put your own stamp on the story, or else you’re just taking their money. With Iron Man, it was a case of finding the version of the story he wanted to tell.

  • Make ideas seem like executives’ own thoughts, like if they want to change something and you disagree with them. Make them feel like geniuses – they’ll love you for it!

  • A really good tip – learn to expect the best, not the worst! Use positive thinking, as it’s so easy to be negative, especially in LA.


I went from there to a panel on agents and clients, which featured UTA agent Rebecca Ewing and her client, screenwriter Amy Talkington. Amy is currently working on several projects, including the scripts Valley Girl and Undercover, as well as the remake of Private Benjamin.

She explained that she got her first agent after she made an award-winning short film while studying at Columbia University. The short ended up getting screened at Paramount Studios and she got referred to Rebecca as a client after this.

Here are some of the topics they touched on:

  • Open assignments – Rebecca Ewing explained that the process to win these is now highly competitive. As an agent, she must use her influence just to get clients in the door and on the shortlist. She talked about meeting a new client recently, hearing what he was interested in writing about, and giving him the option of doing a book adaptation at one of the studios, which he was immediately interested in.

  • Contact with your agent – Rebecca will leave Amy alone while she’s writing on a project. At other times, when she’s between projects, they’ll talk every day. While they’re friendly, it’s important to remember that you and your agent have a business relationship first and foremost. One interesting note is that it often takes the agency longer to write up an agreement with the studio than it takes the writer to write the draft!

  • Agents and clients tend to have handshake deals rather than signed contracts.

  • Managers – Rebecca works closely with Amy’s manager. The manager will go through her pitch with her and breaks projects down; it’s a more casual relationship and they will talk more regularly. A manager will often bring a client to an agent they know – or vice versa. Amy did stress that while she likes having as many people out to bat for her as possible, it’s important to make sure that your team get along.

  • Getting an agent  - their advice was to concentrate on writing great material rather than finding an agent. Great scripts rise to the top. When you’re ready, you can try to get representation through referrals. Do research on a potential agent before you meet them and feel out if this is someone who will be with you for the long haul.

  • You don’t have to be based in LA, but you have to be committed to coming out for meetings 2-3 times a year. Rebecca stressed that she doesn’t mind if a client is shy or has poor pitching skills, as these can be worked on.

  • Screenwriter gaffes – these would include “stalking” an agent, expecting too much too soon and not respecting boundaries. Also, not understanding that this is a long-term career, not a quick fix.


Overall, this was a session full of good advice, and it was nice to see an agent-client relationship that seems to work really well!

Lastly for Friday was a panel on the art of screenwriting, featuring Terry Rossio (writer of Pirates of the Caribbean, Aladdin etc etc), Laurence Kasdan (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Body Heat etc etc) and Nick Kazan (At Close Range, Reversal of Fortune, etc etc). No rookies here!

Process – Rossio uses a board and index cards to map everything out. He doesn’t think about theme so much as the characters and how they relate to each other. Kasdan likes to use cards with one word on them to represent each scene. And Kazan likes to rely on writing huge outlines. When he feels like he knows the movie inside out, he starts writing. When things are going well, he has pictures and dialogue in his head and he’s writing at speed to try to describe them.

Kazan talked about going to the University of Michigan, where the guy who taught Arthur Miller was still teaching. The three-act structure was so drilled into him there, he hardly has to think about it now.

Theory – Rossio maintains that theory is only good as a diagnostic tool – useful once you have a draft and you’re trying to figure out how to fix it. He drives around and around for hours thinking about his scripts.

Notes on movies – the general consensus was that studios know when they’re making a huge mistake with a script note (like, a 100m dollar mistake). But they’re going to make it anyway!

Casting – “sometimes the casting fairy dust lands” – as with Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow and pretty much the whole cast in The Big Chill.

Terry Rossio then said something huge about exposition. This was the most useful thing I heard during the festival – and I heard a lot of useful advice. His advice was, “Take it out. You don’t need it”.  He went on to explain that in the course of each situation or scene, the information will naturally occur during the story. You want interest and mystery, not exposition. This was big for me because one of my big problems is getting bogged down with explaining stuff in scripts. The idea of taking it all out and tossing it is a huge relief!

Making a career  - this has become harder because all writers have is their work and writers don’t tend to be good schmoozers! Kazan advised newbie writers to align themselves with other industry professionals such as DOPs and directors, to build their network of contacts. You have two things to use as leverage – your talent and your discipline.

Developing characters – the best characters are “primal” in some way. For example, Rossio pointed out that Sherlock Holmes is “curiosity” personified.

I then headed off to a barbecue in the grounds of the French Legion. It was a balmy evening by then and there was a lot of free food and beer, so not much to complain about!  Afterwards everyone moved on to a festival happy hour. The great thing about a festival like this is that everyone is there to make contacts and meet other writers/producers/agents/whatever so you can just walk up to anyone and introduce yourself.

Friday ended at an ungodly hour – and we were only halfway through....

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