Monday, October 31, 2011

How I Spent My Day in Palo Alto

Having a scheduled a number of meetings throughout the Bay Area, I decided that I would spend a day in Palo Alto, and drop in on my friends at Quora.

To plan my day, I did the obvious. I posed a question: How shall I spend my day in Palo Alto? I got fabulous suggestions from Will Wister,Elizabeth Baum and many others. I also got tips directly from Sid Espinosa, the mayor.

I then got in touch with Marc Bodnick, who set up a dinner for me, him,Rebekah Cox and Adam D'Angelo at Three Seasons. Quora stats savant,Stormy Shippy, set up a Quora happy hour, and invited lots of fellow Quora addicts to Old Pro

To get psyched up for my trip, I had coffee at The Farm in Beverly Hills with producer and Quora user Neal Edelstein (Mulholland Drive, The Ring) and we schemed in a caffeine induced frenzy about the future of technology and storytelling. Exciting projects we've been talking about for months came into clearer focus, and my brain was buzzing. I was ready to venture out of Hollywood and go tech touring.

To learn how my day went, you can read the rest of my post HERE on

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

The Science and Future of 3D Films

You may remember Mark Hughes did a guest blog here on Genre Hacks, Ten Comic Books That Need Film Adaptations. You may also remember that I myself have written about 3D filmmaking from the perspective of the screenwriter, Screenwriting for 3-D.

So, you should now check out Mark Hugh's Blog at Forbes Magazine:

The Science and Future of 3D Films, With Legend3D Founder, COO and CTO Dr. Barry Sandrew - Part 1

Mark Hughes writes: If you read my blog regularly, you know I’m a proponent of 3D filmmaking as an important and permanent part of modern filmmaking. This week, I’ll take a look at the most prominent 3D conversion studio working in Hollywood today. I’ll speak with them about the state of 3D filmmaking and some recent advances made in 3D technology. We’ll also talk about several complaints and criticisms of 3D, and how those problems are being solved (including some detailed discussion about the big advances made in Transformers: Dark of the Moon). Then we’ll tackle some of the “3D is dead” claims, and debunk the recent “study” that insisted 3D adds nothing to the filmgoing experience. And we’ll discuss the future of 3D in both cinema and television.
So read on for Part 1 of a three-part discussion with Barry Sandrew, Founder, COO and CTO of Legend3D
Check out the interview HERE, and look for parts 2 and 3...

Monday, October 24, 2011

What is the most important screenwriting tool?

This post was orriginaly an answer to the Quora question: What is the most important tool in the screenwriter's toolkit?

For me, a "tool" is some process, habit or approach that can be taught. When I teach screenwriters at USC's filmschool, I can't help the students with talent or luck, which are by far the two most important factors in a screenwriter's success, but I can give them tools. Likewise, I can't really teach imagination, stamina, or even self delusion (important as these three are). Practical knowledge of industry standards as well as willingness to listen to honest feedback, are certainly necessary, but I expect both of these when a student walks into the classroom or an aspiring screenwriter asks me for advice. What I try to teach is a process.

So, the most important tool in the screenwriters' toolkit is...

 The Rewrite Cycle 

Anyone who takes screenwriting seriously must commit to a continuous, circular process of collection, collation, execution, and presentation.

  • Collection 
In this phase the writer must be extremely open to ideas. When first looking for stories to tell, he or she must write down any an all impressions, images, jokes, fragments, and half-baked schemes that could be the seed of a film. Whether the writer collects ideas in a paper notebook, a voice recorder, or Evernote, he or she must collect everything. I liken it to carrying around A Bucket and picking up and collecting anything that is shiny or odd (see The Bucket)

 In later cycles of the rewrite loop, collection is the phase in which a writer patiently collects every note, suggestion or criticism he or she gets from people who have read the current draft. Some notes will seem helpful, some will seem unhelpful. Some will be exciting and others infuriating. The key is to collect them all patiently and without judgment. Write them all down. Treat every single note as a gift, one that will be unwrapped and examined sometime later.
  • Collation 
When first starting a screenplay, the collation phase involves sifting through all the ideas collected in notebooks and "buckets." Which ones have potential? Which ones trigger excitement? Which ones keep the writer up at night? The idea is then fleshed out into a treatment or beat sheet. This is a more focused and analytical step in the process, in which the writer uses knowledge of structure, tension and characterization to build the armature of a complete story.

In later cycles of the rewrite loop, collation is the phase in which the writer takes all the notes received from readers, collaborators and/or employers and sifts through them all. Too often beginning screenwriters either accept every note they get without question, or stubbornly refuse to take any at all. A veteran screenwriter does neither.

Instead, the veteran organizes notes according to character, structure, tone, and clarity. He or she looks for notes that come up repeatedly for every reader, and notes that some catch but most miss. Rather than reject suggestions that make the him bristle, the writer looks for deeper meaning behind the note. If the readers aren't getting what was intended, does something earlier in the story need to be clearer? Does plot complexity need to be simplified? Are the readers tracking the main tension? Conversely, rather than take a note that initially strikes her as clever, the writer must ask herself if the change might require further adjustments throughout the script, perhaps creating more problems than it solves.

No note or suggestion can be taken at face value; the writer has to work and sift and ponder.

 Ultimately, the writer comes up with a game plan for the rewrite. This often takes the form of a new beat sheet or treatment to organize all the changes. I like to use colorful index cards and map out the entire revision on a 5'x5' cork board on my office wall.
  • Execution 
This is the part that involves a lot of typing, coffee, and returns to earlier steps. The writer pounds out the draft based on all the notes and ideas he or she has collected and collated. The writer keeps at it until it is in good enough shape to hand off to his readers...
  • Presentation 

This could mean handing in the script to a professor, delivering the script to a studio, passing it out to a writer's group, or just showing the pages to Mom. The important thing is that this should be the writer's best attempt at a "finished" draft. But alas, no script is ever finished. The writer will get notes, and return to the collection phase as he gets more and more feedback... ...and the cycle is repeated, again and again and again.

The Cycle

This Rewrite Process begins with the first draft and goes on with the second and third. If the writer gets a manager or agent, they will also get notes. If the screenplay is optioned or sold, the buyers will have additional thoughts and the cycle continues. If an actor or director is attached to the project, they will have new suggestions. As the project goes into pre-production, adjustments and compromises will need to be made due to budget, schedule, unforeseen opportunities and unmitigated disasters. As the project is edited and re-shot in post, further changes must be made. The script will likely go through rewrite after rewrite, churning through the cycle, all the way up to the premier.

 The better the screenwriter can navigate this process, the faster and more effectively the writer can move through this cycle again and again, shepherding the core story so that each loop improves and clarifies the work, the better the screenplay will be.

Nested Cycles 

What I have found is that not only do effective screenwriters work this cycle, but that they work on multiple projects at the same time...

Red - Ideas Screenwriters collect ideas while in the shower, driving their car, or reading the paper. They collate these ideas, sift through them and mull them over in their offices. They execute and present these ideas to friends and collaborators, usually over drinks and coffee and get feedback. They always have a bag of ideas brewing.

 Blue - Pitches and Treatments Simultaneously, the writer is working on ideas that have been fleshed out into treatments and worked up into formal pitches. These too are distributed and rehearsed, tweaked and re-imagined, presented to buyers and collaborators, only to get more feedback and more loops in the cycle. 

Green - First Drafts and Spec Scripts While ideas are brewing and pitches are performed, the writer is simultaneously polishing and rewriting completed drafts, hoping that just a few more turns of the wheel will make it good enough to sell.

Pink - Scripts in Production Simultaneously the writer is working on projects that are actually in production. These could be short films, indie features, webisodes, or the current episode in a TV series. These projects are getting feedback from producers and directors and unit production managers, and the script is changing to fit the reality of filmmaking on the ground.

So, when one stage is done, another begins. Once a film is made, the writer must be ready with a new script. Once a script is sold, the writer must be ready with a new pitch or treatment. Once a pitch is abandoned, the writer must be ready with a new idea. All these cycles have to happen simultaneously.

Software engineers will recognize the screenwriters' rewrite process as just a specific example of a general feedback loop, one that can be applied to any creative endeavor.

A recent article Wired Magazine, Harnessing the Power of Feedback Loops, suggested that feedback tools can be used to make just about any human activity more effective.

But as I am only a screenwriter, not an engineer, a psychiatrist or a cognitive scientist, I'll just leave it at this... "all writing is rewriting."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

VisionFest 2011: Films, Food, Drink, Fun and Christine Vachon


VisionFest 2011 is ONE WEEK AWAY!

Don't miss this amazing event on October 19th! Details below...

Tickets are now on sale. There are a limited amount of discounted tickets available for our FA Family. Please go here: Enter the discount code: FriendsofFA

See you all there!

Filmmakers Alliance Presents


2011 will be our 14th Year of VisionFest, Filmmakers Alliance annual screening and celebration bringing together the best of LA’s independent film community and regularly attended by overflowing audiences and press.

The evening begins with the presentation of the NILSSON AWARD, curated and presented by the award’s namesake and inaugural recipient, ROB NILSSON. The award acknowledges and celebrates bold, direct, honest and aesthetically challenging filmmaking that is often unrecognized by the mainstream independent film community. This year's Nilsson Award recipient is Turkish filmmaker Semih Kaplano─člu.

Next is the presentation of the VISION AWARD to an established filmmaker whose artistic ambition and consistent filmmaking excellence provides artistic inspiration to emerging filmmakers all around the world. Past recipients include MIke Figgis, Terry Gilliam, Wim Wenders, Allison Anders, Alexander Payne, David O. Russell, Werner Herzog, Mark and Michael Polish, Kevin Smith, Ted Hope and last year’s recipient, Nicolas Winding Refn.

2011 Vision Award Recipient

Independent Spirit Award and Gotham Award winner Christine Vachon co-founded indie powerhouse Killer Films in 1995 with producing partner Pamela Koffler. Based out of New York, Killer has produced more than 45 acclaimed independent films including Todd Haynes' Venice Film Festival Award-winning I'M NOT THERE and last year's Best Canadian Feature at TIFF, CAIRO TIME. Over the past decade and a half the two have produced some of the most celebrated American indie features including Academy Award-winning films FAR FROM HEAVEN, BOYS DON'T CRY, ONE HOUR PHOTO, HEDWIG AND THE ANGRY INCH, HAPPINESS and SAFE. In television, Vachon executive produced the Emmy-winning program, This American Life, for Showtime and more recently the two have collaborated on the upcoming miniseries Mildred Pierce for HBO. Killer Films was honored with a 10 year retrospective at the New York Museum of Modern Art in 2005.


The presentation of awards will be followed by a program of some of the best short films produced in the previous year. We are pleased to announce the following films:

Inside This World of Mine (3:59) by Sean Morris

The Wanderer (14:30) by Aaron Garcia

The Director (1:30) by Destri Martino

Debutante Hunters (12:42) by Maria White

White Knuckles (3:46) - 3D Director Eric Kurland

Abigale (16:00) by Robert Machoian and Rodrigo Ojeda-Beck

All Is Not Lost (3:24) - 3D Director Eric Kurland

The Legend of Beaver Dam (12:00) by Jerome Sable, Produced by Michael Blaha

Total program length: 68 mins.

And we will have a special Public Service spotlight on Tamika Lamison'sMake A Film Foundation with a screening of the org's new film Deep Blue Breath directed by Patricia Cardoso.


The evening finishes with a high-energy party on the rooftop of the Downtown Independent Theater catered by some of Los Angeles' best restaurants. Lots of delicious food and drink until late into the night.

Focal Press
International Film and Television Alliance
Singha Beer
Tres Sietes Tequila

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

My Favorite Thing to Say about Hollywood

"Hollywood was once a dream factory, but it has become a recycling center."
- Sean Hood

It's my favorite saying, and perhaps my one and only quotable quote. Share it. Tweet it. Pass it on...

Monday, October 10, 2011

Amazon Studios: An Interview with Roy Price

In 2010 launched Amazon Studios and promised to "develop movies in a new way." They had strange new ideas about mass collaboration, a focus on original content from unknown filmmakers, and lots and lots of money to spend on prizes, test movies, and eventual script purchases.

Screenwriters by nature are a cynical and skeptical lot and Amazon Studios was initially met with some jeering and incredulity. Major screenwriting bloggers such as John August, Drew McWeeny, and Julie Gray all seemed to think the whole project was "positively batty." (See John August's thoughts HERE).

However, unlike a traditional studio, Amazon spent a lot of time an energy listening to screenwriters and filmmakers, and the studio made adjustments and changes in their approach. To me, this in itself - a studio listening to the opinions of screenwriters - is positively surreal... and encouraging. A year later, those who signed up seem pleasantly surprised by both the quality of the screenplays and the usefulness creative feedback they get from other Amazon filmmakers.  (See: An Amazon Studios Screenwriter) Naturally, those who are winning prizes seem more enthusiastic than those who are still struggling and revising, but for many writers and filmmakers with original ideas who feel shut out of the Hollywood system, Amazon Studios' "new way" is creating an exciting and ever-growing community. Despite the initial criticism, filmmakers are showing up, and viable projects are emerging. The initial skepticism about certain elements of Amazons' approach have not disappeared (See discussions in the comments section of Go Into the Story), but as one more sardonic, veteran screenwriter on Amazon put it, "They have money," and the New Way has a lot to do with how they are spending it.

I myself became interested in Amazon Studios because of its focus on original ideas (rather than remakes, sequels and adaptations) and its focus on unknown screenwriters from around the globe. In order to check up on Amazon Studios progress, and see how there "new way" is working out, I interviewed it's director, Roy Price. Here is what he had to say...

Sean Hood: In what fundamental ways is Amazon Studios different from a traditional Studio?

Roy Price: First, we have an open door to new ideas. Anyone can upload a script or a full-length test movie to the Amazon Studios site. By uploading your project to the site you can receive feedback, collaborate with others and can win money. We have had winners from Zimbabwe, London, Shanghai, Roswell, Georgia and, of course, LA. We turn the most promising scripts into early prototype movies to see how the story plays on its feet. Have you ever thought “if people could only see it on screen they would love it”? Well, let’s find out. We also share the test movies with audiences and the results significantly influence our development and production decisions. We’re really not about the guru or Irving Thalberg model of movie development. It’s not about me and it’s not about you. It’s about the work, the audience and the numbers.

SH: If my script or test film is developed through Amazon Studios, does Amazon own the rights? Is this a good deal?

RP: When you upload, we get an option on the script. You retain ownership of the script. If it doesn’t go anywhere, you get it back same as it was and are free to take it somewhere else. If we make the theatrical movie, we have to exercise the option which means we pay $200,000 and then add a $400,000 bonus if the movie makes $60 million or more at the US box office. 34% of movies released by major studios with budgets of at least $10 million between 2005 and 2009 hit the $60 million mark at the US box office so there is a decent chance of getting the bonus. For a writer in the earlier stage of their career, that’s a good deal. Normally you wouldn’t get $200,000 up front and then you wouldn’t get any big bonus or other participation in success.

SH: Why is Amazon Studios a good step for an emerging filmmaker?

RP: First, we’re giving away over $150,000 per month in prizes, which is a lot of money for a script and movie contest. We are also a production company looking for new and original material. There is exposure and opportunity for the taking.

SH: How can more established and experienced filmmakers benefit from Amazon Studios? 

RP: For anyone that has an idea or script they haven’t been able to get off the ground, they can use Amazon Studios to find out if people like their project. Or maybe this is just an opportunity to mentor and give others good advice. Amazon Studios is a great way to network and discuss ideas among a collaborative community.

SH: Why should Hollywood producers, agents, managers, and executives follow projects being developed on Amazon?

RP: It’s a great place to find talent. Several of our users have met with agents and managers and have signed with representation after they succeeded on Amazon Studios. If you’re an agent Amazon Studios is a great place to discover new talent and award winning scripts. We do the filtering, you sign the clients.

SH: Most Traditional studios are focused on "pre-branded content" (adaptations, sequels, remakes, and franchises). Why is Amazon focused on original scripts and movies? 

RP: We believe in original stories. Screenwriters and filmmakers come to Hollywood with original ideas burning to get out. We believe that screenwriters can come up with ideas for movies just as well as the novelists, toy designers and comic book creators who come up with them today. The risk aversion associated with pre-existing stories is financially understandable, considering movies have such high budgets, but we hope that giving original ideas exposure and testing them can make original content a viable economic proposition again.

SH: How will Amazon benefit me if I'm not chosen as one of the few "winners"? Is this just another script/film contest?

RP: If a project does not instantly become a semifinalist, we hope it will get lots of feedback from the community and improve. Amazon Studios can be like the world’s biggest writer’s group. We had a script that won in August 2011 after having been on the site for nine months getting feedback and being rewritten by the writer. It eventually made it to the top. That’s what we hope to see more of. We think we can all help each other along.

SH: What’s up with the mass collaboration idea?

RP: When you upload your script you can set revisions to “open,” “closed” or “by permission” so you can pretty much arrange collaboration however you want. We have had some people find great collaborators on the site and others prefer to go it alone. We want to enable any of those approaches.

SH: Will Amazon Studios expand to develop and produce other types of media like TV series or Webisodes?

I don’t have anything to announce today about TV series or Webisodes but it’s an interesting idea. We are always looking at ways to make Amazon Studios even more compelling for users.

SH: What is your background? What led to you heading up Amazon Studios?

RP: In 2000 I was at Disney happily running TV Animation series development (Kim Possible, Teacher’s Pet, Buzz Lightyear, House of Mouse).I became interested in the growth of the Internet and how it was going to revolutionize our consumption of TV and movies. I went to McKinsey & Co., and, a few years later, asked me to run their new digital video business, so I came to Seattle. A few years into that, we came up with Amazon Studios. Now our team is a fascinating mix of software engineers, interactivity designers, production managers and story analysts and it is just as exciting as I could have hoped.

SH: What are three exciting projects to follow at Amazon Studios?

RP: Well, I hesitate to name just three but I would like to know what people think of our test movies at the end of the year. Right now, 12 Princesses, Memory and Sky Pirates are strong test movies. Touching Blue, Super Bowl Sex Party and Zombies vs. Gladiators are a few of many promising scripts.

SH: How soon will I see an Amazon Studios film in theaters?

Soon we hope!

SH: How has Amazon Studios evolved since launch?

RP: Following the launch in 2010, we made revisability a setting so that you control who you collaborate with.  Since then we have focused on making it easier for people to turn scripts into test movies. We added useful, free assets such as music and sound effects, and created incentives for people to contribute just parts of a film without having to make the whole film. At launch you had to upload a whole test movie lock stock and barrel to be eligible for a film prize, but now we have prizes for components that can be uploaded individually: best dialogue track, best actor, best trailer and we just launched a poster contest. We also made it possible to upload the dialogue track for just an individual character at a time; now, a director can go to a project page and “cast” the movie based on uploaded dialogue tracks without having to organize actors etc. We want people to be able to put in the amount of time they are comfortable with, and to work together without necessarily having to tightly coordinate schedules. We look forward to lots of great test movies.

Sean Hood (my final thoughts): Ultimately the success of Amazon Studios will turn on the movies it produces that actually make it to theaters, but for so many screenwriters and filmmakers who wonder what to do with their original ideas, Amazon Studios is one the few options out there. Hopefully, there will emerge a way for non-WGA screenwriters to join the union, should their work be produced, guaranteeing them residuals, health care and screen credit. The Devil is always in the details. However, unlike some of my peers, I am hopeful and optimistic about Amazon Studios.

Hollywood was once a dream factory, but it has become a recycling center. I for one, hope some unknown filmmaker far, far outside the system is able to emerge on Amazon and put up something original and unexpected on the silver screen.

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Monday, October 3, 2011

Screenwriting FAQ

Here are some of my answers to frequently asked questions by aspiring screenwriters (click on the links to see my answers):