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Thursday, January 16, 2014

Writing The Feature Script: Week One - OVERVIEW

For the next 15 weeks I will be teaching "Writing The Feature script" at USC's School of Cinematic Arts.  Week by week I will be writing blog articles about each topic that we discuss in class.  My hope is that beginning screenwriters, working screenwriters in writing groups, and screenwriting professors might benefit from "auditing" my class online.

On Tuesday of this week, I began the first class by pointing at the elephant in the room.  Only the weekend before The Legend of Hercules opened to scathing reviews and a score on Rotten Tomatoes of 2%.  Those students who had checked out my other credits on the Internet Movie Database had seen other dubious titles like Conan the Barbarian and Halloween: Resurrection.  Why would anyone want to take a class taught by a screenwriter best known for a viral posting called What's It Like To Have Your Film Flop At The Box Office

As it turns out, I'm a much better writer than my credits would suggest (trolls may begin mocking and sniping here) but that's not my point.  Most of what it takes to write a successful film (talent, hard work, self-delusion, and truckloads of good luck) can't be taught in the classroom.  What I teach, to the best of my ability, is a process by which students can discover their own voice and improve the quality of their own stories through a cycle of ongoing retelling and revision.

In other words, the class isn't about me.  Having written some two dozen projects for film and television, I can offer advice about the industry and about what standard students must meet in order to be "professional."  However, the class is about  the students' work, and about introducing them to tools to put their vision on paper.  I share these concepts both in class and online in the hopes that I can help someone out there - someone with talent, passion, and the necessary self-delusion - to make a truly great film.  

You can read about some of the concepts I will emphasize in the class here: This Is What A Rewrite Looks Like.

For what it's worth, my class gets pretty stellar student reviews.   If there were a Rotten Tomatoes for screenwriting courses, I'd get a 98%.  I've heard that one of the best-screenwriting-courses-ever at UCLA is taught by a guy credited on Battlefield Earth.  Go figure.

You can read about Week Two here: FINDING THE STORY

Here is the syllabus for the course...

School of Cinematic Arts
Writing Division
CTWR 533a: Writing The Feature Script

Instructor: Sean Hood
Class Schedule: 4:00-6:50pm  Tuesday
Office Hours: By appointment – preferably Tuesday afternoon before class.
Email Address: genrehacks@gmail.com


Course Objective:

The objective of this course is to learn the craft of screenwriting, to develop it through pitches and treatments, to hone it by generating and receiving notes, and to apply it by completing a first draft of an original screenplay.

Course Description:

Amateur screenwriters and “how-to” screenwriting manuals are commonplace in Hollywood.  This course is designed to give students the tools to approach the screenwriting process from the perspective of a professional filmmaker and to face the challenge with both confidence and creativity.

The class will lead students step-by-step through the creation of an original feature script, moving from broad discussions of the author’s story, to a more detailed beat sheet, and finally to the sequence by sequence writing of the first draft.  Our emphasis will be on story and character fundamentals.  Issues of originality and “personal voice” will be balanced with those of professionalism and process.

This course will not only help students to write scripts, it will allow them to practice skills of analysis, discussion and presentation they will need in future projects throughout their professional careers. With this in mind, students will be expected to participate in all discussions and to help their fellow students develop their outlines and screenplays, “working on their feet.”

Ultimately, each student is required to complete a feature screenplay by the end of the semester.  The final script must be at least 100 pages in length and have a completed third act. It must display both character development and a basic understanding of the screenplay elements discussed in class.

Since each screenplay offers unique challenges for each writer, the instructor will take into account the progress of each student on an individual basis.

Course Reading:

Students will be required to read each other’s weekly assignments. Because of the sheer volume of this material as well as the time and care taken in its analysis, additional required reading will be minimal.

Weekly selections from screenwriting books and articles written by the instructor that pertain to the class will be made available to students online.

Assignment and Deadlines:

The WRITING ASSIGNMENTS will be due by MIDNIGHT SUNDAY previous to each class. This is a firm deadline and the late delivery of assignments will impact your grade for the course. If you finish the work earlier, please send it in.

You’ll be expected to come to class having finished typed NOTES on your colleagues’ pages for class discussion. Please deliver your notes to each respective writer (and to the instructor) TUESDAY, after class.

If students run into conflicts with shooting schedules or professional obligations, and they cannot meet a particular deadline, they can consult the professor no later than the Monday before the deadline.  As in professional situations, adjustments to deadlines can sometimes be made if the student plans a week or two in advance.

Grading Criteria:

Grading will depend on the quality and ambition of student’s written work and in-class presentations, as well as the student’s involvement in discussions of other’s work.

The course aims to prepare students to be working professionals. With that in mind grading will reflect the standards and expectations students can expect to encounter in the “real world.” So, all assignments must be submitted on time. Students must attend all classes, arriving on time. Students who cannot make a class or complete an assignment must contact the professor via email or through the front office before they miss a class or fail to complete an assignment.

When judging a screenwriter’s work, industry professionals often ask if a writer can “deliver.” Professional work is “delivered” on-time, proofread, and carefully thought out. Slip-shod or hurried work is rarely tolerated. So in determining a final grade, hard work and professionalism will be as important as originality and skill.

Likewise, working as a professional requires the skills of collaboration and communication. So as they would be in any story meeting in the entertainment industry, students are expected to be involved in each and every discussion. Failing to read the other students’ material or work on the other students’ ideas will affect the final grade. 

Specific areas that will be considered in determining a final grade are:

  • Classroom Participation – 5%
  • Written Feedback (Notes) – 5%
  • Treatment/Beat Sheet – 10%
  • Classroom Presentation (Pitch) - 10%
  • Bi-Weekly Revised Pages – (10% each) 40%
  • Final polished screenplay – 30%

Class Schedule
 Week 1 – Tuesday, January 14

·         Lecture - Overview of Class

o   Review of Syllabus.
o   Discussion of class goals.
o   Giving and receiving professional feedback (notes.)
o   Screenplay Terms
o   Introductions

Assignment Due – Sunday, January 19, Midnight

Each student will write down their ideas for a feature screenplay and why they are uniquely suited to tell these stories. The document should be 1-2 pages. Up to 3 ideas are allowed.

Week 2  – Tuesday, January 21

·         Lecture: Introduction to three act structure.
·         Discussion on the World of the Story and the Protagonist.
·         Class discussion on the screenplay ideas submitted on January 19.

Assignment Due – Sunday, January 26, Midnight

·         Students will write an exploration of the World they are setting their story in or a monologue/letter from their main character’s point of view. 2 to 3 pages.

Week 3  – Tuesday, January 28

·         Lecture: How to create a Treatment or Beat Sheet.

Assignment Due – Sunday, February 2, Midnight

·         GROUP A delivers a 2-3 page Beat Sheet or Treatment.
·         Each student in GROUP A makes an Appointment With The Professor to discuss his/her Beat Sheet or Treatment.

Week 4 - Tuesday, February 4

·         Lecture: Pitching
·         Lecture: Using index cards, character trees and other tools to create a map of primary characters, relationships, and arcs.
·         Class discussion: Breaking Story. Deliver written notes on GROUP A Beat Sheets.

Assignment Due – Sunday, February 9, Midnight

·         GROUP B delivers a 2-3 page Beat Sheet or Treatment.
·         Each student in GROUP B makes an Appointment With The Professor to discuss his/her Beat Sheet or Treatment.
·         Group A prepares for Oral Presentation (pitch.)

Week 5 - Tuesday, February 11

·         GROUP A gives Oral Presentations (i.e. each give a 20 minute pitch) to the class.
·         GROUP A presents the class with a Revised Beat Sheet.
·         Class discussion/feedback on GROUP A pitches and Beat Sheets.
·         Deliver written notes on GROUP B Beat Sheets.

Assignment Due – Sunday, February 16, Midnight

·         GROUP A begins writing their first two sequences.
·         Group B prepares for Oral Presentation (pitch.)

Week 6 - Tuesday, February 18

·         GROUP B gives oral presentations (i.e. each give a 15 minute pitch) to the class.
·         GROUP B presents the class with a Revised Beat Sheet.
·         Class discussion/feedback on GROUP B pitches and Beat Sheets.

Assignment Due – Sunday, February 23, Midnight

·         GROUP B begins writing their first two sequences.
·         GROUP A delivers Sequences One and Two (The first Act)

Week 7 - Tuesday, February 25     

·         Lecture: Excavating Structure. How to be open to discoveries during the writing process. The concept of “theme”.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP A’s work.  Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, March 2, Midnight

·         GROUP B delivers Sequences One and Two (The first Act)

Week 8 - Tuesday, March 4

·         Lecture: The “Mid-Point” and the “Mid-Point Shift”.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP B’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, March 9, Midnight

·         GROUP A delivers revised Sequences Three and Four (up to the Midpoint)

Week 9 - Tuesday, March 11          

·         Lecture: How to clear the Big Hurdle that is the second half of the second act.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP A’s work. Deliver written notes.

SPRING BREAK

Assignment Due – Sunday, March 23, Midnight

·         GROUP B delivers revised Sequences Three and Four (up to the Midpoint)

Week 10 - Tuesday, March 25        

·         Lecture: Discussion on “Culmination” -- the End of the Second Act.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP B’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, March 30, Midnight

·         GROUP A delivers revised Sequences Five and Six (Complete Second Act)

Week 11 - Tuesday, April 1

·         Lecture: How to prepare the audience for the 3rd Act.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP A’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, April 6, Midnight

·         GROUP B delivers revised Sequences Five and Six (Complete Second Act)

Week 12 - Tuesday, April 8

·         Lecture: The Final Act. Audience expectations. The concept of a “satisfying story”.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP B’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, April 13, Midnight

·         GROUP A delivers revised Sequences Seven and Eight (The Third Act)

Week 13 - Tuesday, April 15

·         Lecture: A second look at “Theme” and the “Main Question” of your story.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP A’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, April 20, Midnight

·         GROUP B delivers revised Sequences Seven and Eight  (The Third Act)

Week 14 Tuesday, April 22

·         Lecture: Strategies and tools for the Polish.
·         Discussion and analysis of GROUP B’s work. Deliver written notes.

Assignment Due – Sunday, April 27, Midnight

·         Commence polishing the Revised Draft.
·         Students who are behind may deliver final sequences for feedback.

Week 15 – Tuesday, April 29

·         Discussion on the Polished Pages, Late Sequences and Lingering Story Problems

Week 16 - Optional Class – Friday, May 6

·         Final discussions, notes and encouragement. (Class Lunch)

FINAL ASSIGNMENT DUE Sunday, May 11, Midnight

As a final assignment and for the determination of a final grade students must deliver to the professor a complete revised and polished screenplay.

This final draft must include the various discussed in class, completed character arcs, and a completed third act. The quality of the scripts will be evaluated in context of the goals set by the writer earlier in the semester.

The final draft, in terms of professionalism and polish, should be suitable for submission to a producer, agency, studio, actor or independent financier.


I write this blog in order to connect with intelligent, ambitious, and creative people. If you leave a comment, you will inspire me to write more. If you liked the article, please share it.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

FYI, The link to "This is what a rewrite looks like" is the same as the link to "When Your film Flips [sic] at the box office".

S. Breckenridge Hood said...

Thanks for the fix!