A Letter to The New York Times on ‘Capturing Steve Jobs’

In a recent issue of The New York Times – you’ll find a published letter to the editor by Richard Walter (Chair of the MFA Screenwriting Program at UCLA) in which he shares: “Judging even from Joe Nocera’s criticism of the film ‘Steve Jobs,’ it is clear that the screenwriter, Aaron Sorkin, fulfilled his charge most admirably.” Read the full commentary online here.

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Are Movies With Too Much Realism Boring? Film Courage Interview with UCLA Professor Richard Walter

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My Favorite Film Critic

I rarely read movie reviews.

Here and there I may peek at a review, but never one that treats a movie I have not yet seen.

My reluctance is not because I want to avoid spoilers.

The reason is this: if a reviewer loves a film, I’m likely to find it disappointing.

Conversely, if a critic hates a film, I’ll probably consider it worthy.

This is testimony to the power of expectations.

High expectations? The film disappoints.

Low expectations? The movie is worthy.

Many critics seem to laud almost any film that fails at the box office. This feeds their narcissism by demonstrating how intelligent, insightful, astute, and profoundly intellectual they are (and how dense, how blind, how stupid are the rest of us).

Likewise, critics denounce almost any film that enjoys blockbuster commercial success. Critics are likely to have fragile egos. After all, who in her right mind would set out to be a critic? Isn’t ‘movie critic’ just a fall-back position for one who couldn’t make it in show business? Critics are soothed, therefore, by demonstrating a sense of superiority, a feeling that the critic belongs to an artistic and creative elite.

In other words, critics are snobs.

My favorite film critic was my grandmother.

She was no snob.

I recall two informal reviews she gave a pair of movies I happened to see with her and my sister Jessica at a neighborhood theater in Jackson Heights, Queens, when we were kids.

I don’t remember the names of the movies, but they were released in the early ‘50s, two black and white WWII air force epics. Perhaps one was God Is My Copilot.

In those days when movies played in neighborhood theaters they were inevitably part of a double bill, that is, two movies for the price of one.

And there was much more than merely two movies.

There were also cartoons, newsreels, a ‘short subject’ or two or three, maybe a travelogue, and always previews of coming attractions.

Notably, it was the custom in that era for patrons never to check the screening schedule in advance. Audiences would routinely enter at their convenience in the middle of one movie, sit through it until the end, then view all the in-between paraphernalia, and then watch the entire second film, which was followed by still more interim material, and finally the first movie again, this time from the beginning, remaining seated until the film came around to the point where they had entered.

On that particular occasion maybe sixty years ago at The Earle Theater on Northern Boulevard, the second picture might have been Twelve O’Clock High.

During this ordeal, if they had carried Dramamine at the popcorn stand, they would have made a fortune.

We sat there through hour after hour of soaring, roaring engines, dog fights, bombing runs, anti-aircraft fire, hearing crackling dialogue like “Jap Zero on your tail at oh-four-hundred hours!” and worse.

In the intermission, the newsreels ran still more black and white Air Force footage, this time reporting on battles from the bloodbath de jour, the Korean War.

By the time the first film came around again and reached the point where we had entered, my sister and I rose from our seats and headed for the aisle.

Grandma said, “Where are you going?”

We said, “This is where we came in.”

With an Eastern European inflection as thick as borscht, Granny said, “But I thought there were two pictures.”

Years later, with Jessie herself a star of stage and screen, she was not so much at the movies as in the movies,

My girlfriend (and now longtime bride) and I went along with a passel of friends and family (including my favorite film critic) to the world premiere of a movie in which Jess starred opposite James Garner, the international racing epic Grand Prix.

It was not unusual during that era for movies to run long, at least in their original release. (By the time they hit the neighborhood houses they might have been trimmed so as to fit the platform for the double feature.)

When movies ran as long as Grand Prix, they also had an intermission.

Of course the actors gave splendid performances, but that long ago screening of Grand Prix the whole evening seemed to take about as long as the Bronze Age.

After enduring the entire film, including the intermission, in the lobby my date turned to my grandmother and asked, “What did you think of the movie?”

Granny shrugged, rolled her eyes, adjusted her dress, sighed, and said, “I should have worn the other girdle.”

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Why Screenwriting Is So Difficult – Film Courage Interview with UCLA Professor Richard Walter

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Thirty years ago I was profiled in The Wall Street Journal. Their reporter called me–I’ve memorized it—“… the prime broker for Hollywood’s hottest commodity: new writing talent.”

I mention this not to brag—though it’s surely worth bragging about, and I’m a shameless braggart—but to explain why agents and producers approach me regularly in search of new writers.

It used to be said, of course, that in Hollywood a producer is anyone with access to twenty-five cents and a payphone.

Many of these overtures are sincere; some are not. Regarding the latter, I’m often told by callers or e-mailers that they seek a writer who’s fresh, new, not entrenched in weary and wearying Hollywood gamesmanship, writers who simply love to create stories.

Almost inevitably they leave out they require also a writer who is willing to work for free.

They’ll rant enthusiastically about their connections, about back-end net profit payouts for the writer, and more.

“Net Profit” derives from the Russian “nyet profit.” That is, no profit.

It is sometimes said that the most highly creative writing in Hollywood occurs not in writers’ rooms but in studio accounting departments. Among a host of other scams, working mischief-making bookkeeping strategies such as ‘cross-collateralization’ makes it possible to write off profits against other pictures that bombed, and thereby turn a hit into a financial black hole that emits neither light nor cash.

With such producers I do not cooperate.

In fact, writers write for free all the time. It’s called speculating. The writer speculates—hopes; guesses; estimates; calculates—that eventually the script will sell. Of course, there are huge rewards that can accrue even from a script that fails to sell. I’ll review some of those benefits in another column on another day.

There’s nothing wrong—and everything right—with speculating, as long as the writer owns one hundred percent of the script she creates. When a script is based upon someone else’s notion, however, for example an erstwhile, self-styled “producer,” impediments arise regarding copyright issues. Lawyers call these ‘entanglements’ and ‘encumbrances.’

Writers should avoid them. In the words of my late mother, “Who needsunnecessary heartache?”

If producers are legitimate, however, if they guarantee writers a fee in advance regardless of the outcome of the project, I’m happy to refer them to worthy writers.

From time to time, producers assert they seek a particular kind of writer, for example a woman, a Latino, a gay man or lesbian, an African American, or a Muslim.

They’ll explain that the particular movie they intend to produce resonates with themes affecting one or another of those communities, and that only a member of the particular community, therefore, can tell the story in an informed, authentic voice.

If you happen to be a female, Latino, gay, lesbian, or African American writer, that might cheer you.

Don’t fall for it.

Implicit in the notion that certain scripts are uniquely suited to be written by, say, women, is the belief that there are certain scripts for which women are not suited.

There is a name for this sort of attitude: bigotry.

I’m one of those people who believes that old can write young, young can write old, gay can write straight and straight can write gay, black can write white and white can write black.

There are only two kinds of screenplays. These are not, for example, Latino screenplays and Anglo screenplays but good screenplays and bad screenplays.


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Screenwriting Tips: Finance 101 for Screenwriters

A well known and somewhat wacky NY stage actor friend of mine was irresponsible regarding the way he managed his money.

‘Wacky actor,’ I expect, strikes many as a redundancy.

His finances were handled by an old neighborhood pal whom he’d known since grade school. The kid had become an accountant. As his bookkeeper and manager, all of the actor’s fees were sent directly to him; likewise the bills. He also prepared and filed the actor’s taxes.

Each month the accountant paid the actor’s bills and doled out an allowance in cash, walking-around money sufficient to keep his client in cab fares (this was the pre-Uber era) and Sabrett sidewalk hot dogs (with onions in red sauce).

If the actor wanted to take a girlfriend to Puerto Rico for the weekend, the accountant would shoot him an additional two or three-thousand dollars to play the tables at the Caribe Hilton.

Everything went smoothly for a quarter century until, one day, the Internal Revenue Service contacted the actor directly to ask why he’d failed to file his taxes over the past six years. When he referred them to the accountant, they informed him that he was at the Rikers Island Correctional Facility awaiting arraignment for having looted his clients’ funds.

Not all the news was bad, however, the IRS reassured him. They told the actor that though he no longer owned his house (they now owned it) they would allow him to rent it back from them. It was part of a settlement lasting several years allowing the actor to pay his taxes and penalties in installments.

The last part of the settlement was the requirement that he attend the economics equivalent of traffic school: Personal Finance School.

Contrary to what he had expected, Finance School turned out to be pretty cool. The instructor was charming, poised, engaging. She gave him and his classmates useful advice.

The two most important rules were not sophisticated and canny accountancy strategies but principles that were wretchedly, glaringly mundane.

1) Upon writing a check, immediately do the math. This way the ledger always shows precisely how much – or how little – is in the account. It’s all too easy, she said, to delay making the subtraction, letting payments accumulate for even merely a brief while, relying on a loose guesstimate of what is in the account. This leads inevitably to thinking the balance is larger than it really is. Therein lies, of course, a recipe for bouncing checks wrecking one’s credit rating.

The other rule holds that 2) it’s fine to charge purchases to a credit card as long as you pay off the entire bill each month and never allow even merely a nickel to revolve.

This way your interest payment is zero.

Do you know what the credit card industry calls cardholders who pay off their bills in full each month?


To them the bad guy is not the cardholder who stiffs his creditors but he who regularly pays his bills in full.

There are rare times, the finance counselor preached, when a writer might legitimately borrow money. Revolving credit card debt and cash advances, she insisted, are not the way to do that.

The credit expert preached that should anyone ever find that he’s allowed even only one credit card charge to revolve, that is, if he has failed to pay off his monthly balance in its entirety, he should take the card in one hand, a pair of scissors in the other and, well, you can figure out the rest.

If you want others to treat you as a professional, you must treat yourself as a professional. Professional writers act responsibly regarding their finances. The main thing writers need is: time. That’s what money is for: to buy time to write.

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UCLA Screenwriting Chairman Richard Walter Offers On-Campus UCLA Screenwriting Seminar – Summer 2015 (Class FTV 135A–Open to UCLA and Non-UCLA Students)

Here is a rare opportunity for UCLA and non-UCLA students to enroll in an on-campus screenwriting seminar with Professor Richard Walter at UCLA.


It’s easier to win admission to the Harvard Medical School than to the graduate screenwriting program that Professor Walter has chaired and co-chaired for more than thirty years.

He takes you all the way from idea, to draft, to studio deal. UCLA-trained screenwriters have won three Oscars and five Oscar nominations in the past five years. They have written eleven movies for Steven Spielberg.

The class, FTV 135A, is offered in UCLA Summer Session ‘A’.

This advanced screenwriting workshop is especially designed for the summer session and is appropriate for new writers and also for experienced writers. It is a round-table roll-up-your-sleeves-and-write seminar. There are in-class writing challenges and also analysis of in-progress script pages written by students in the class.


The class meets on UCLA’S Westwood campus for six Monday afternoons from June 22 through July 27, 2015, 2:00 to 4:50 PM. The class, listed in the online catalog of courses as “FILM TV 135A ADV SCRNWRTNG WKSHP” (more info here) is open to UCLA students and also to students who are not enrolled at UCLA. All students receive 8 UC credits that are transferable to other institutions.

All pre-requisites are waived for this special summer offering.

To learn about enrolling and registering as a UCLA visit http://www.summer.ucla.edu/uclastudent or as a non-UCLA student, visit http://www.summer.ucla.edu/usstudent.

Writers with questions regarding enrollment can contact the UCLA Registrar’s office directly at (310) 825-4101, or Kathy A. Berardi (Professor Walter’s media manager) at (678) 644-4122 or kathyaberardi@gmail.com.

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To The Stars Through Adversity Interviews Richard Walter on Essentials of Screenwriting


In a recent interview on “To The Stars Through Adversity” with host Svetlana Kim, Richard Walter talked about the essentials of screenwriting and his long tenure as chair of the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television’s MFA Screenwriting Program.

Listen to the full program online at: http://www.blogtalkradio.com/svetlanakim/2014/10/10/richard-walter-professor-and-screenwriting-chairman-ucla


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Not the director but the writer is film’s first artist, if for no other reason because she’s first. There’s no use for upscale stars, fancy effects, and sophisticated equipment without a worthy script.

– Richard Walter



Heave a sigh of relief.

If you’ve been losing sleep worrying about director Peter Berg, there’s good news. The box office success of his LONE SURVIVOR (based upon the novel by Marcus Luttrell and Patrick Robinson) seems to have resuscitated his career.

His summer 2012 disaster BATTLESHIP was reportedly the biggest sci-fi money loser in movie history. Berg was blamed for the debacle and became for a while persona non grata in Hollywood.

Continue reading…

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Lost in Translation: Killing In Beijing

A privilege I have enjoyed now over several decades is to travel the world lecturing, teaching master classes, and consulting on film and screenwriting issues to international audiences. I’ve taught and advised and counseled writers and producers and studio executives and national film development corporation officials all across North America and also in London, Paris, Madrid, Rio de Janeiro, Jerusalem, Sydney, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Beijing among other cities.

My first such journey was to China in 1987. Along with distinguished film artists/scholars/educators from three other universities, I was treated like a rock star, enjoying upscale lodging and kiss-ass service provided by layers of handlers, interpreters, drivers, facilitators, assistants, interns, and more.

My late father, a musician of international repute and legendary music teacher, also performed and lectured throughout the world.

He told me that when he walked out on the stage at the conservatory where a particular presentation took placein Shanghai, his interpreter advised him, “You speak for a while, and then I will translate, presenting to the audience the gist of what you have said.”

Dad was a serious musician but also, in the closet, something of a standup comedian. He opened his Shanghai presentation with a long story that demonstrated a particular musical principle, but it was also a joke. It took him some several minutes to get through it. Then he stepped back, gesturing to the interpreter to proceed with the translation.

Chinese Comedy

The interpreter spoke Mandarin to the audience for a time roughly equal to that of Dad’s opening. Then he stepped aside, indicating that Dad should pick up where he had left off.

All the while the audience sat there stone-faced. They provided nary a giggle.

“What did you tell them?” Dad asked the translator.

“I told them what you said. Why do you ask?”

“Because it’s a joke.”

Dad then walked the translator through the opening again, pointing out to him the tale’s hilarious paradoxes and incongruities.

The interpreter nodded. He turned to the audience and uttered what sounded like three or four abrupt syllables, which took all of two seconds to pronounce.

The audience roared. They shook and trembled with laughter, tears running down their cheeks, ribbons of phlegm erupting from their nostrils.

“What did you tell them?” Dad asked.

The interpreter said, “I told them it’s a joke.”

When my own turn came several years later at the Beijing Film Academy, my interpreter said to me, “You speak for a while and then I will present the gist of what you say.”

“Thanks just the same,” I said, “but instead, I will speak a sentence, and then you will please translate it.”

I presented my opening sentence. The interpreter gestured to me, indicating that I should continue. I folded my arms and smiled serenely at him, compelling him then and there to translate the sentence.

He did so.

After the first sentence, I presented another. Again I stepped back, folded my arms across my chest, and smiled warmly at him. However reluctantly, he translated the second sentence.

In this manner we navigated the two-hour presentation.

Because I got my laughs on schedule, however delayed due to the lag between lecture and translation, I knew the translation was accurate.

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