Monday, January 6, 2020

Why Tarantino was wrong

I came to Tarantino late. I didn't see my first film of his until 2012 when I rented his heist-gone-wrong drama Reservoir Dogs, 20 years after it was released to theaters. And the only reason I saw that was because I was going to be reviewing a theatrical adaptation of the film for the local newspaper and I wanted to familiarize myself with the story.

Well, I was hooked. The media loves to focus on the over-the-top violence in Tarantino's films, but I saw that they offer do much more. His characters are complex. His dialogue is fresh, smart--and often hilariously funny. And his musical choices are, well, transcendent. I quickly made a point of seeing the rest of his films (thanks, Netflix!).

Yeah, I'm a big fan. So last night, I was thrilled to see him win his third Golden Globe for Best Screenplay (he won it for Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood).  But there was something that bothered me about his acceptance speech. Here's what he said:

"Normally the thing is when I win a writing award, I--you don't share the script with somebody else, you write it by yourself-- kind of don't have anybody to thank. I did it."

That's kind of true. In the whole process of moviemaking, the screenwriter is the only one who creates something out of nothing.

But that misses the point. The Best Screenplay award is not a writing contest. The 89 journalists who make up the Hollywood Foreign Press Association don't read the scripts. They experience them through the performances that the actors give, and the director guides, and the costume designers dress, and the composers embellish, and so on, and so on.

So the excellence of the screenplay can only be viewed through the filter of the entire film.

Of course, Tarantino's comments were meant to be tongue-in-cheek. And he did go on to thank his actors for adding "a slightly different layer that what was just on the page".

But I think his comments speak to something that a lot of writers feel, that we are the most important part of the moviemaking process. Which is why we need to keep something in mind whenever we get too full of ourselves.

Sure, we may begin the process. But we don't complete it. And our value, our success, our very existence as writers is dependent on all those other creatives who we collaborate with to make something good and meaningful and lasting.

For without them, our words on the page will remain just that. Words. And that's not what movies are about.

But it would be nice if we were paid more.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Happy new decade!

A local news channel presented the results of a poll last night. They asked people to respond to the question: When does the next decade start?

Well, one-third of the people said 2020 and the other two-thirds said 2021.

Well, they're both right. And both wrong.

You see, a decade is just a group of ten years. Any ten years. Humans defined the fairly arbitrary concept of decade to begin with, so we get to apply it any way we want.

For example, if you were an historian, you could write a book titled something like A Decade of War, 1935-1945. Or if you were compiling a new album (shows how old I am), you could call it Rock and Roll's First Decade: 1952-1962. It depends on what your purpose is.

The same goes for centuries, and those who were alive in 2000 remember we went through a similar debate then too (and similarly ended without any resolution).

But it's very simple. It depends on what you're calling it.

If you call it the 20th century, then the "20th" implies that your counting from something. What are you counting from? The beginning of the Christian era. There was no year 0, so we start with the year 1. This means the 1st century went from 1 to 100, the 2nd century went from 2 to 200, and the 20th century went from 1901 to 2000.

However, if you're talking about the "1900's", that can only mean one thing: the 100 years that begin with a "19", or 1900 to 1999.

In the same way, the start of the new decade depends on which decade you're talking about. If you're talking about the 3rd decade of the 21st century, then that's very clearly 2001 to 2100. However, if you're talking about the 20's, then that means 2020 to 2029.

Of course, no one is going to refer to it as the 3rd decade. They're going to refer to it as the 20's.

But if they're waiting to celebrate until next year, then they--like two-thirds of those poll respondents--are wrong.

Happy 2020's everyone!

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

A look ahead to 2020

As I said in yesterday's post, I'm feeling pretty good about the new year. I've got the material. What I don't have are the connections. So that's what I'm going to focus on this year.

Oh, I'll keep writing every day, of course. And I'm excited to start a new project after I finish the one I'm currently working on.

But I also need to make time to submit my stuff to the folks who can get it out there. And there are a lot of them, as you can tell by my list below.

And yeah, it's a longer list than last year. I may or may not sell the TV series this year, but at least I'll give myself some interim goals so that I can measure progress toward that goal. And this year, I'm stating those goals in terms I can control (submitting to a certain number of publishers) rather than something I can't (getting published).

1) Complete my first chapter book

The new project I referred to in my last post is a chapter book series based on The Enchanted Bookshop. My idea is for the TV series is to have each episode focus on one classic novel, with the main team of Lits (reduced to a more manageable three: Dorothy, Pollyanna and Tom Sawyer) "splorging" into the novel in order to help Miss Margie save her shop.

Well, the chapter books will mirror the series. Each episode will have an easy-to-read companion book with the same plot and characters. If I can't sell the TV series, then I'll try to sell the book series--and launch the TV series from that.

I started the first chapter book--an adaptation of the Treasure Island-based pilot--in November, and should have it all polished and ready to send out by the end of January.

2) Complete a second entry in the chapter book series

Middle-grade novels generally stand alone, but early-level chapter books are almost always sold as series, so if I do sell it to a publisher, I'll need to have additional entries ready to go.

I've already written the second episode of The Enchanted Bookshop TV series, and I expect it'll take me a couple months to adapt that one into a chapter book. I won't submit it separately. I'll just have it ready to go in case I sell the concept to a publisher.

3) Submit the first chapter book and series concept to 20 publishers

Like animation companies, some publishing houses accept direct submissions and I'll submit to all of them I can find. I don't think there are many.

4) Submit the chapter book to 100 literary agents

For those publishers that don't accept unsolicited material, I'm going to need to get an agent. I hear it can be as hard to get an agent as a publisher, but there's a 100% chance I won't get one if I don't submit to them at all.

That 100 number is arbitrary, of course, but is large enough to make it a serious effort. Once I get a rhythm going, I may end up submitting to a whole lot more. It all depends on how many agents are looking for fantasy-related chapter books.

5) Submit the TV series to 100 managers

As I said yesterday, I lost my Beverly Hills-based manager in November. And while I've gotten some interest from the animation houses I've approached, I've found that most of the big animation houses won't even look at your stuff without a manager or agent to act as gatekeeper. So I'll start looking for a new one next week.

6) Submit the TV series to 100 agents

Managers are easier to get than agents, but managers generally focus on developing their writers' careers. Agents are the ones who find and negotiate individual deals. It's even better to have both, though it can get expensive as both reps take a 10% cut.

I've never tried to get an agent in Hollywood, but this could be a great time to look for one. In April, the Writers Guild of America instructed its 20,000 members to fire their agents in protest of their predatory practices, and those agencies could now be looking for non-WGA members to fill out their slates.

Or it could be a horrible time, as the agencies may have written off writers altogether. Either way, I don't have to worry about being a scab as most animated series aren't even covered by the WGA but by IATSE instead.

7) Write one more TV series episode

I've got tons of ideas. And I'll need another script pretty quick if I'm invited to pitch my concept in person to a production company or network. Better to get it done now, before it's needed. And, if I feel especially ambitious, I may even get a third book adaptation completed from that.

8) Walk half an hour a day

With all these career-driven goals, it's important to step back and refocus on those things that are really important, like my health. Unfortunately, both my weight and blood pressure have inched up over the last year, largely because I haven't found time to exercise.

Well, that's got to change. Somehow, I've got to find the time to take care of myself. And if I do that, the other things will follow.

Final comments

Yep, it's going to be an insanely busy year. But I wouldn't have it any other way.

I may never succeed in selling The Enchanted Bookshop as a TV series. If I was a more practical person, I might give up entirely.

But every TV series is a longshot. And if this one is ever going to get made, now is the time. Netflix and Disney and the other streamers are buying stuff like crazy.

And let's face it, there's a lot of dreck out there for kids. Is there a place for something a little more thoughtful, a little more educational, a little more literary?

I guess I'll find out.

Tuesday, December 31, 2019

A look back at 2019

I don't know about you, but we're staying home tonight.

It's not that we don't ever go out on New Year's Eve. Once every three or four years, we head out to a nice seafood restaurant for lobster or scallops. But we usually end up regretting it. The restaurants are packed, the servers are rushed, and the bill, when you finally do get it, is usually stratospheric.

So we're going to stay home and cook lobsters on the grill. And eat snacks. And drink Prosecco. And play lots and lots of games. Our favorites? Apples to Apples, Cranium Whoonu and Logo Party (my wife and daughter always cream me in that last one).

That's one nice thing about having an adult daughter live with you. You always have a third player for those fast-moving three-player games.

But before we get into that, there's one little piece of business I need to take care of. Reviewing my goals for this year.

Or should I say goal? Avid followers of this blog know that last New Year's Day, I flushed my usual practice of making a list of five or six or seven writing-related items. Instead I set for myself one overriding goal:

1) Sell The Enchanted Bookshop as a TV series

Well, it didn't happen. But it wasn't for lack of trying.

As described here previously, I acquired a Hollywood manager back in May 2018. I worked with him closely for the first couple months of 2019, polishing the pilot script and getting it ready for pitching. I even put together a pitch bible giving the background of each of the characters and offering short synopses of eight additional episodes.

The script went out in February. My manager had some impressive contacts (he said), including development executives at a couple of the big streamers (you can probably guess the name of one of them).

Every couple weeks I'd call my manager for an update. And every couple of weeks he'd give me the same answer. No word yet.

After a while, he stopped picking up the phone when I called, but at least he'd return it a day or two later. And then he stopped returning my calls altogether. And responding to my emails.

I sent him the script for another episode, which tells the origin story of the Lits and features a special appearance by Don Quixote himself. He never responded.

I don't know what happened. But I'm guessing that he heard enough no's that he decided I wasn't worth his time anymore.

Which is fine. A lot of screenwriters go through several managers before they find one who works (oops, I meant "that works").

Anyway, I kept busy writing all through the spring and summer. I started--and abandoned--a feature script version of The Enchanted Bookshop. I started--and abandoned--a Christmas play set in The Enchanted Bookshop universe (yeah, you heard right, universe). I started--and abandoned--a children's TV series based on another one of my plays, Wicked Is As Wicked Does.

And I did one other thing. I started pitching to animation studios. As it turns out, you don't actually need a manager to approach a lot of the animation houses. I ended up emailing 97 of them. Seven requested the script. Four of them rejected it.

So things are looking up. My 18-month contract with my manager ended in November. That frees me up to approach new managers. Seven minus four means three animation houses are still considering my pilot. And I'm almost done with a new project I started late last year, one which may provide an alternate path to getting a TV series.

I may not have achieved the one goal I set for myself this year. But the dream isn't dead either. I've got a new plan, a new energy, and a new year in which to get there.

But more on that next year...

Saturday, December 21, 2019

How I met your "Mumie"

Yesterday, I received something in the mail from my publisher. It was in a 4 X 5 envelope, nothing special, and I tried to guess what it was.

Sometimes Pioneer send me copies of my scripts, but those always come in a big Priority Mail envelope. And besides, I'd already received the ten free scripts of my latest play, The Real Pirates Don't Wear Tiaras, so I knew it couldn't be that.

Sometimes they send me catalogs or a T-shirt with the logo of one of my plays, but those also come in bigger envelopes.

Sometimes they sent me contracts to sign, or copies of contracts that I've already signed, but I didn't have anything in the pipeline so I knew it couldn't be that either.

I was stumped.

So I tore it open. It turned out to be the first foreign language translation of one of my plays. A publisher in Switzerland, Theaterverlag Kaliolabusto, had negotiated the exclusive right to license How I Met Your Mummy in Switzerland and translated the script into German so that they could market it there.

The situation is a win-win-win. Kaliolabusto gets a play with a proven track record, Pioneer gets the play into a country they normally wouldn't have access to, and I get my usual royalty for any performances they license.

In fact, Kaliolabusto has already licensed a performance in that country, although when it first popped up on the Pioneer website over a year ago, I didn't realize that it had been in German. The group that had put on that performance was Sofa-Theater in the historic village of Hindelbank.

I don't expect a lot of productions from Kaliolabusto. Switzerland is a small country, of course, and even their most popular plays don't get more than 7 or 8 productions a year. But it makes me smile to know that one of my works is now being done in another tongue.

Wie wundervoll!

Monday, December 2, 2019

The Enchanted Bookshop Musical comes to life

Let me tell you, publishing a musical has been quite the educational experience. And one of the things I've learned is this: It takes a whole lot longer to rehearse and mount a musical than a play (well, duh).

My play The Enchanted Bookshop was first published in July 2017 and premiered on September 21. Think about that. A script wasn't even available until July 31, so the group that first produced it--The Orange County Players of Paoli, IN--had to do all of the following in just seven weeks:
  • Order a perusal script
  • Read the script
  • Decide to perform it,
  • Pay the licensing fee
  • Order performance scripts for the entire cast
  • Hold auditions
  • Cast the play
  • Build the sets and costumes
  • Run a full set of rehearsals from first read-through to final dress 
That's pretty impressive.

Musicals, however, need a lot more time. The Enchanted Bookshop Musical came out in July of this year, and it's just now getting its first productions.

And that's okay. Learning the lyrics probably takes a month of rehearsal time. Add choreography, and you've just extended it another month.

Now that the show has had its premiere, other theaters are jumping on the bandwagon. In fact, the musical currently has 27 productions booked for the current school year.

That's a very healthy start. It's not as many productions as the original play got in its first few months of publication, but it's a whole lot more than any of my other plays. So it looks like the musical is going to be a hit as well.

So who gave The Enchanted Bookshop Musical its world premiere? Well, it turned out to be the Arbor Court Anderson Valley Entertainment Center of Lancaster, CA. They haven't posted any photos from their production, however, so I was excited this week when I saw that the second group to perform the musical--Haystack Productions of Beausejour, Manitoba--posted some of theirs.

Of course, the photos don't look any different than the photos from the play (other than the open mouths during the musical numbers!). And that's because the play and the musical have the exact same characters, the same costumes, the same sets.

In fact, all of the dialogue and stage directions from the original script were used as is in the musical. The only change were the eleven songs that were added.

Looking at the photos now, the one thing that really strikes me is the distinctiveness of the costumes. 

When I was first choosing the literary characters that would appear in The Enchanted Bookshop, one of my criteria was to only include characters that are instantly recognizable from their costumes. I didn't want the audience getting distracted trying to figure out who was who. That's why there's no Anne of Green Gables or Caddie Woodlawn in the play (though I really, really wanted to include a Canadian character).

Anyway, as the photo at the top of this post shows, I think I was successful--at least with the guys. The girls, on the other hand, pose a bigger challenge.

We all recognize Dorothy Gale's blue-checked gingham dress, of course (Fun fact: While the ruby slippers were invented for the 1939 MGM film, her iconic clothing came right out of L. Frank Baum's book). But the other two characters are a little harder to place. Need help? That's Pollyanna in the middle and Heidi on the right.

I think the problem is that our image of the six main characters is shaped not by the original books they appeared in but by the movie adaptations of those books, and there hasn't been a movie version of Pollyanna or Heidi in decades. Besides, even when those characters did appear on screen, there wasn't one definitive outfit they were identified with.

Let's face it, male movie heroes don't change their clothes as often as female movie heroes.

Anyway, I love the costumes here. They're very colorful and true to character, so once you're introduced to the characters wearing them, you shouldn't have any trouble keeping them straight. And that's really what's most important here.

So a great big kudos to the costumer designer, the skilled seamstresses and seamsters (?) who made the costumes, and everyone else involved in the production.

You can be proud. Very, very proud.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

The Enchanted Bookshop--it's not just for kids anymore

Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK

I love writing for kids. Both of my daughters were active in theater when they were young, and although they're grown up now and have found other interests to pursue, their theatrical experiences have given us a lifetime of happy memories. And I'm firmly convinced that their success in their current careers is due in large part to the social skills they learned and the confidence they developed as young performers.

So I'm a big believer in children's theatre. Which is why I love seeing kids perform my plays. But it's just as much fun to see my plays being done by adults.

It is a much rarer experience, however. Less than 5% of my plays are performed by adult church and community theater groups.

Some of my plays, of course, are done more frequently than others. My restaurant farce Million Dollar Meatballs has been extremely popular with older groups, as has my British drawing room mystery The Butler Did It! On the other hand, The Enchanted Bookshop has been entirely limited to schools and children's theater groups.

Until now, that is.

I just came across a fun article about a production of this large-cast fantasy comedy all the way up in Petersburg, Alaska. The group performing the play is called the Mitkof Mummers, named for the boggy island near Juneau where Petersburg is located.

The performances are tonight and tomorrow, and the article says that they're intended for all ages. The photos, however, suggest that all of the performers are adults.

And really, should that seem so strange? I mean look at some of the books that the play's characters come from: Sherlock Holmes, Frankenstein, Oliver Twist. Those are mature, meaty books--books that appeal to adults just as much--or even more so--than kids.

And if the other characters come purely from children's books, anyone who first fell in love with them as a child knows that they stay with you whole life, just as my daughter's theatrical experiences have stayed with them.

So call me crazy, but I think a lot more adult groups should perform The Enchanted Bookshop. I guarantee it'll bring out the child in you, whatever your age.

Photo by Angela Denning/KFSK