Do screenwriting contests matter?

The consensus from Austin Film Festival (and honestly, anyone working in Hollywood that I’ve ever talked to or heard on a podcast) was that only two matter: if you’re a finalist for the Nicholl Fellowship or at AFF.

At least 90% of of these contests exist to make money, not to help you. They won’t get you an agent and they won’t impress people.

Please stop throwing your money away.

Skill vs talent (in screenwriting)

I was in Austin last week for the Austin Film Festival. It was a great time. The centerpiece of the festival is the four-day screenwriting conference, which means panels, networking, and parties.

As an aside: some of the panels were great and some were just OK. The panels I didn’t like were mostly because of a moderator that couldn’t or didn’t seem to understand the audience and what we wanted to hear. Moderating is an underrated skill.

On one of the panels, a literary manager spoke of the difference between skill and talent.

Basically he said, you need both to succeed as a screenwriter.

But there are a lot of people that have good careers with lots of skill and not much talent. These are writers who are not necessarily visionaries, but they are skilled in writing in someone else’s voice or in executing a formula. They would tend to work on less innovative shows or movies. They are probably what you would call a hack? I don’t know, I don’t really go around calling people hacks. The manager didn’t use that term.

People with lots of talent and no skill on the other hand, they can’t succeed. You need SOME skill. Actually, you need a fair amount. If you have no skill, then your talent is squandered. It can’t be harnessed. You have things to express but don’t know how to express them skillfully. Great stories, poorly told. Etc.

The high-skill, low-talent person, well, they can tell the hell out of a not great story.

A genius is someone with extraordinary talent (talent encompasses vision and intelligence and creativity and many other traits).

I’m simplifying a bit obviously.

Here’s a 2×2:

Obviously my design skills are low-skill, high-talent.

Can you become more skilled? Yes, definitely, that’s just deliberate practice over a long period of time.

Can you become more talented? ASKING FOR A FRIEND. Just kidding. I don’t know. I imagine that talent is an amalgam of many factors: genetics, upbringing, openness, what you read and who you spend time with and what your influences are and what you see and know about the culture and history and so many other factors with a dose of just general intelligence thrown in.

Content

Content.

I love good content.

I’m a content creator.

This is good content.

Have you watched the show on Netflix? It’s such good content.

It’s hard being a content creator today.

As a content creator, I

I love content.

Mmmm Netflix has so much good content.

Did you see Sorry to Bother You? It was great content!

I saw Eight Grade I thought it was great content.

What the fuck is content?

Content is a commodity.

Stop saying content.

 

Steal a bit from a lot of different places

The secret of theft, which is also called “creativity,” is you have to steal a bit from a lot of different places. You can’t go to the same 7/11 every time because they’ll catch you. So you go to the photo shop, and you go to the gas station, and you go to that little hot dog stand that nobody goes to and by the end you’ve stolen enough stuff from enough places that people think its yours.

— Paul Schrader

Via Austin Kleon.

Coming down the home stretch. Casting is wrapped. Cinematographer is on board. Location is signed and paid for.

I went to Fedex to print a copy of the script and put it in a binder. I like working with a paper script so I can annotate it and put all the notes in the margins, the notes that I’ve been collecting off and on for the last few years, since I started writing the script in 2015.

I went back and looked at my first draft from 2015 and much of the dialogue is the same, although much has changed. Kind of amazing how much from the first draft stayed though, like an almost fully-formed film just came out of me. OK, that’s an exaggeration, I did have an outline.

And the story as it is now, takes places at one location — an upper-middle-class home in Chicago (we’re filming in Ravenswood). The original script was split between the story at this house, and another two characters that are on their way to the dinner party at the house. In 2016 I split those characters off into their own screenplay, so in a way, I have a little cinematic universe going on. Maybe for the sequel…

A day after printing the script, I was already changing things. The writing never stops (and how I look forward to starting fresh on something new when this is over).

 

Also went to Bed, Bath, and Beyond to pick up this Global chef’s knife. Good knives are expensive apparently. This guy was $124 before the mandatory 20% discount. I should return it but maybe I’ll keep it — I’ve never owned a really good (and sharp) cooking knife.

Making people move

Rewriting the script today.

We did a table read on Wednesday. The beginning doesn’t work, the story takes too long to gets moving.

And I’ve been trying to figure out how to handle scenes where a group of people are talking and not really moving. Time to go to the well…

I decided it’s better to make them move more and talk less, to give them props, and let the characters inhabit and interact with the space more.

I re-watched The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie and saw how Bunuel moves the camera and the characters around to say so much and play with the frame.

Once I have the thought that they have to move, it gives the scenes more life. Not just speaking words, but moving each other around, pushing and pulling with words.

And re-watched Rope as well, another dinner party film.

 

Akimbo

I’ve been listening to Seth Godin’s Akimbo podcast. It’s great, as usual.

Related to filmmaking & writing, I especially enjoyed The Grand Opening and No Such Thing (as writer’s block).

Assorted links

I’m cleaning out Evernote on this Labor Day and posting some stuff. I basically use this blog as an archive of the things that I’ve read or found that I want to remember later. So if it helps you, then bang on, as my English friend says.

John Cleese: how to write the perfect farce.  File under “steal old stuff.”

Accidental Wes Anderson. People on Reddit post photos of real places that look like sets or frames from Wes Anderson movies.

Advice on how to play a gig by Thelonius Monk.

Screenwriters: How Not to Get an Agent. Quotes excerpted from a great interview with an agent by John and Craig on an episode of Scriptnotes. This one really opened my eyes about the (lack of) value of 99% of screenwriting contests. Most of them are a way to make money for someone that can’t help you. Some of them have intangible benefits that might help you improve your writing but won’t help you get representation or sell a script.

How to Become Insanely Well-Connected. Good article on networking with practical and non-sleazy advice.

 

“Art is fire plus algebra”

Art is fire plus algebra.

— Borges

I found this quote in a book that wasn’t amazing but did have this quote, which is good.1

When I started writing feature screenplays, I was struck with how much engineering was in the work of crafting a story. Here’s how I think the drafting process breaks down, alternating between imagination and craft, fire and algebra, open mind vs editing mind.

Brainstorming: fire

Outline: algebra

First draft: fire

Rewriting: algebra + fire, depending on what’s going on. Usually mostly algebra unless I go too far in one direction and over-engineer things so I have to go back and find the thing that made me love it in the first place.


  1. I wonder about the efficacy of quoting a great writer in an average book. A lot of times it just makes me realize that I’d rather be reading a better writer and I put the book down and find something better to read. 

Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest

Now for the matter of drive. You observe that most great scientists have tremendous drive. I worked for ten years with John Tukey at Bell Labs. He had tremendous drive. One day about three or four years after I joined, I discovered that John Tukey was slightly younger than I was. John was a genius and I clearly was not. Well I went storming into Bode’s office and said, “How can anybody my age know as much as John Tukey does?” He leaned back in his chair, put his hands behind his head, grinned slightly, and said, “You would be surprised Hamming, how much you would know if you worked as hard as he did that many years.” I simply slunk out of the office!

What Bode was saying was this: “Knowledge and productivity are like compound interest.” Given two people of approximately the same ability and one person who works ten percent more than the other, the latter will more than twice outproduce the former. The more you know, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you can do; the more you can do, the more the opportunity – it is very much like compound interest. I don’t want to give you a rate, but it is a very high rate. Given two people with exactly the same ability, the one person who manages day in and day out to get in one more hour of thinking will be tremendously more productive over a lifetime. I took Bode’s remark to heart; I spent a good deal more of my time for some years trying to work a bit harder and I found, in fact, I could get more work done. I don’t like to say it in front of my wife, but I did sort of neglect her sometimes; I needed to study. You have to neglect things if you intend to get what you want done. There’s no question about this.

From The Art of Doing Science and Engineering: Learning to Learn by Richard W. Hamming, via Marginal Revolution.

I never thought about it this way, in terms of compound interest, but I have felt that there was an advantage to writing every day for an hour, that it was much more effective than writing only a couple times a week or just writing when “inspiration” (hah) strikes.

The hardest and in my opinion, most important, part of filmmaking is the script (improvised work aside), so it makes sense to me that that’s where you would want to focus your most precious energy and time, day in and day out, because that’s where the biggest returns will be. The ratio of (indie) films with good production value but poor writing to great scripts with poor production value is very high in my opinion. This seems somewhat backwards to me, as production value costs a lot of money but writing costs only time and most of us are broke or don’t have access to a lot of money, but we can all squeeze out an hour a day to write, if we look hard enough. Not that I’ve written anything great yet.