A Final Solution to the Agent Problem

Writers love to gripe and kvetch about the army of deplorables in the movie business who discount, dismay, and disrespect us.

No parties catch more heat than agents.

I’ve argued in my books and lectures that it’s easy to find an agent. What’s hard is having material worthy of showing to an agent.

So many writers have horror stories regarding mistreatment by their representatives.

Here’s mine.

When my former USC film school classmate George Lucas approached me in April of 1970 asking me to write the first draft of American Graffiti, I tried to talk him out of that project and into my own, a ten- or twelve-page treatment, that is to say an elaborate outline, of my own coming-of-age story, Barry and the Persuasions. I have mentioned elsewhere that he stuck to his guns insisting the project be his …Graffiti. I take a sort of dark pride in having attempted to talk a master like George out of what has been now for decades a classic of world cinema.

Some years later during a lengthy Writers Guild strike, a period during which time one could not market screenplays to studios, networks, or production companies, I used the Barry… treatment as an elaborate outline for a novel.

>> Continue reading on The Script Lab

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SCREENWRITING TIPS NEWSLETTER: MY LAST CLASS

Last class

After more than forty years teaching in UCLA’s screenwriting program, I have retired.

At a research institution like the University of California, however, not teaching but ‘research’ or, in the arts, ‘creative activity’ is a professor’s first obligation.

Before anything else, therefore, I am a writer.

Writers never retire.

The last meeting of my (some say legendary) Film/TV 434 section occurred on a Monday night in March, the day after the Oscars awards show. 434 is UCLA’s course catalogue number for Advanced Screenwriting Seminar, a workshop meeting three hours weekly over the ten week academic quarter, with eight writers and their instructor around the table, each student writing an original feature length screenplay.

During that last session there was substantial discussion regarding the previous night’s Oscars.

Full disclosure: I am notorious for hating all movies. I do not, however, hate all movies. I hate merely most movies.

Isn’t art generally rotten?

As I have written and lectured in Westwood and across the globe, to many people it seems otherwise. Consider, for example, that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City every painting and every work of sculpture is timeless and eternal.

People get the impression that paintings and sculpture are always worthy and that film (and television and new media) are not. They forget that for every painting at the Met there are hundreds, indeed thousands, of useless, worthless, aimless, pointless, lame, stupid paintings.

They do not hang in museums but lean against the walls of attics, basements, and garages.

All the same, here’s saluting the amateurs who created them.

However limited their talent, women and men and children reached, stretched, took risks, and attempted to make creativity a part of their lives. Even if their work does not merit sharing with others, through their efforts, however halting, making art expanded and affirmed their humanity.

Classic works in museums have stood the test of time. Since their creation centuries and even millennia in the past, the lousy stuff has faded into obscurity, which is consistent with the nature of expression that is inept.

Film and TV, on the other hand, are contemporary; they are in our face right now. There has no time for the culling, the drifting away of work that lacks merit.

Film, therefore, is no worse than, say, painting and sculpture; it is merely equally bad.

At the time of the final class meeting I had seen seven of the year’s Best Picture nominees: The Shape of Water, Lady Bird, Call Me By Your Name, The Post, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Minnesota, Phantom Thread, and Get Out.

Except for Get Out, I hated them all.

Shape of Water? Between my naps I could make out something about a woman who has a romance with a fish. And that fish costume? My three-and-a-half-year old grandson would have flunked arts-and-crafts at his pre-school for work so shabby.

Lady Bird? A yak fest. Wonderful players to be sure, but aren’t they called ‘actors’ and not ‘talkers?’ When the director is ready to roll film, she calls out, “Lights, camera, talk?”

Actors can’t fare better than the script that is handed to them.

The Post? The writers never figured out whose picture this is. Precisely who is the protagonist? It’s clearly not the Daniel Ellsberg character, but is it publisher Katharine Graham or editor Ben Bradlee? And do we need scene after scene at one restaurant and then another with actors around the table running their mouths, when they’re not otherwise gabbing on their phones?

As with too many films this year, indeed every year, the actors did not act so much as narrate the story.

It’s called screenwriting, not screen talking.

Consider the end of Lady Bird. The protagonist walks out in front of her house, yanks out a cell phone, dials her mom, and recites a speech about forgiveness. But the word ‘drama’ derives from the Greek word meaning ‘to do.’ Can’t the writers invent something for their lead character to do?

Call Me By Your Name, ditto. More than two hours of blabbing.  At the end, yet another phone call, this time without the speaker even present in the scene, his voice merely heard over the phone.

And immediately prior, we have the father and son sit down in the living room to—what else?–talk. Their chat lasts longer than the Bronze Age. At one point In the middle the scene, the father says, “And I want to say one more thing…,” after which he says eight hundred more things.

In a rising-and-falling singsong parody of a wise Jewish voice, the cartoon father reports how pleased he is to learn that his son is gay. This enlightened acceptance might work wonderfully in life, but this isn’t life; it’s a movie. Instead of agreement and consensus, audiences seek conflict, controversy, and confrontation. Wouldn’t it play better if, instead of delight, the father expressed outrage, shame, dread, and humiliation? Wouldn’t it  be better drama if he became forever estranged from his son? Isn’t that the way it plays out in the incomparable Fiddler on the Roof when one of the daughters marries outside the faith? Does that heartbreak not make for sharper drama?

Three Billboards Outside of Ebbing, Missouri? After the second billboard I walked outside of the theater in Los Angeles, California.

Phantom Thread? An orgy of posturing and face-making by Daniel Day Lewis. He wins the Oscar for this amateurish performance in which he appears to have looked up ‘thoughtful’ in Acting for Dummies.

Get Out, on the other hand, tells a story. It is about something. More to the point, it’s about someone.

That someone is me, a privileged, advantaged white guy who all too often, along with his family and friends, fancies himself above racism, unable to recognize the Missionary Complex residing inside him at his core. Does not his desire to bring ‘uplift’ to his downtrodden, oppressed, darker sisters and brothers testify only to his invisible (to himself) sense of superiority?

I am one of those liberated white dudes who stops African Americans in the street to tell them I attended the 1963 March on Washington and heard fist-hand Dr. King’s “I have a dream!” speech.

Get Out also underscores a long held notion regarding genre that is dear to me. Simply stated, genre is bullshit. There are only two genres: 1) good movies; 2) bad movies.

With me trashing the lot of Best Picture nominees and also the winner, the eight students attending my final class yanked out their otherwise prohibited ‘devices’ and loaded the AFI’s and IMDB’s Best Ten Movies lists. The titles include among others Casablanca, Wizard of Oz, Singin’ in the Rain, Citizen Kane, The Godfather, Annie Hall,and others.

Did I like any of them?

I love them all.

I asked the students, what are the two key differences between these films and (for the most part) the Best Picture nominees for 2017?

First, as already mentioned, the Best Ten-list pictures have all stood the test of time. The vast majority of movies made at the same time have drifted away; yet these few gems remain.

The other difference? Each one of them tells a compelling, arresting, engaging story.

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Right Place, Right Time

I first came to California in August of 1966 for what I thought would be a three week visit.

Instead of returning to New York, however, on a whim I fell into film school at USC and never looked back. Sometimes I think I ought to give it another half century and if it still hasn’t worked out for me move back to The Apple.

In the heady, zany, freaked-out ‘60s it was easy to be admitted to film school. There was no tradition of moving from the academic into the professional community. At that time the best movie job you could hope for after film school was to work as an usher in a theater.

You had to knock people down in the street to get them to apply to film school.

It’s a wholly different scene today. Graduation from film school, in particular one of the majors, is now the Number One way into The Biz. During the ‘60s, the main qualification for admission to film school was an applicant’s ability to sign the tuition check.

Three years after my arrival in the West, my bride and I went on holiday, motoring all the way to the Oregon border to the Umpqua Dunes.

The first day we drove from Los Angeles to San Francisco where we stayed overnight with friends from back east who, like so many others during that era, had migrated west.

During our previous visit to the Bay Area weeks earlier we had attended a party at ‘SC film school alumnus Walter Murch’s houseboat, which bobbed among a squadron of other such craft in the shallows off Sausalito. I phoned Walter who invited us to attend a brunch the next morning, Sunday, at a Sausalito eatery then called The Trident.

There were nine of us. Besides myself and my wife was, of course, Walter and his wife Aggie. Also John Milius (writer of Apocalypse Now, writer/director of Conan the BarbarianBig WednesdayRed Dawn, and oodles of others). Additionally, Caleb Deschanel, the legendary cinematographer who is probably best known today for having fathered two stars of stage and screen: daughters Zoe and Emily.

Accompanying Caleb was David Lester, who would go on to produce several of Ron Shelton’s films such as Bull Durham. Caleb and Dave were in the Bay Area that weekend scouting locations for a short film to be written and directed by another of our USC film school co-conspirators, Matthew Robbins, who was not present at the brunch.

Rounding out the nine were George Lucas and his first wife, Marcia.

Marcia would move on to win acclaim on her own for, among other achievements, copping an Oscar (shared with Richard Chu) for editing the film written by Robert Getchell and directed by Martin Scorsese, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.

Caleb tipped us to places we should visit in Northern California; Marcia invited us to stay overnight with her and George on our way back to Los Angeles at their rented tract home in Mill Valley on a street called Vernal.

It didn’t seem like all that big a deal to me at the time, but looking back, with the crystal-clear vantage of hindsight I realize my good and great fortune to have found myself in the right place at the right time.

I mention this not to brag of rubbing elbows with artistic, influential people (though it’s surely cause to brag) but to demonstrate instead a fundamental principle that applies to both film narratives and life narratives alike: You never know where you are when you’re there. You appreciate it only later, only upon reflection, only when you look back.

It’s not unlike the greatest dramatic writing text of them all, Aristotle’s Poetics. In it, Aristotle identifies the traits, qualities, and characteristics shared by the most successful, longest-lasting plays of a then-earlier era, approximately two to three centuries previous.

This is what independent screenwriting educator Robert McKee’s does in his book Story. McKee, like Aristotle, looks back at what worked for other writers in other screenplays.

Surely there is great value in that, especially for film critics, theoreticians, and historians. It is not, however, the way writers work. Writers write not backward but forward. Our Master of Fine Arts in Screenwriting program at UCLA is designed not to look back at what has worked for other writers at other times but forward to what will work for you now.

At that Sausalito brunch now eons in the past, I spent time with three of the most brilliant thinkers and artists I have ever known: George Lucas, John Milius, and Walter Murch. In separate chapters, I share my impressions of those three, plus several other USC film school alumni who were not at the brunch.

Remember, it can be fun to look back, but what really counts for writers is writing forward.

>> This article also appeared in The Script Lab

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Six-Week Online Screenwriting Workshop Limited to 10 Students

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Enrollment is limited to ten students for the 6-week online screenwriting program I’ve designed to serve a small cohort of writers who believe in themselves. The first session will take place on Tuesday, 2/6.

Now is the time to act.

Click here now to learn more and register.

UCLA-trained screenwriters have won five best-screenplay Oscar nominations and three Oscars in only the past seven years. They have written eleven movies for Steven Spielberg.

You supply the talent; I’ll provide the training. I will also read your screenplay if you finish it within one month of the class.

Go here now to sign up.

Hope to see you in class next month!

– Richard Walter

http://richardwalter.com/workshop/

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Fire, Bloodshed, and Parking

It’s not an official faculty meeting, a former dean remarked at a UCLA film department gathering, until someone complains about parking.

For me, having joined the faculty forty years ago, the cost of parking has risen from about ninety bucks a year to about twelve-hundred. That’s a hike of more than a thousand percent.

If that’s not bad enough, faculty are supposed to consider ourselves fortunate for the privilege of attaining any spot at all, at any price, on our largely commuter campus in Westwood.

A major reason for the success of UCLA’s screenwriting program, in my never-humble opinion, is the fact that all of our faculty are experienced, professional writers. None gives up writing for teaching but, instead, integrates one into the other and the other into the one. Instead of presenting a vantage that is purely analytical and intellectual—though we provide that too—all our teachers possess also an insider’s hands-on conversancy with the nuts and bolts of screenwriting art, craft, and business…a working writer’s appreciation for the way screenwriting actually unfolds.

Some of our instructors are superstars; others are working-stiff writers like me. But all of us are Writers Guild of America members with professional screenwriting experience in film/TV and/or digital-media. Among the superstars is, for example, UCLA alumnus Dustin Lance Black, who won the Best Original Screenplay Oscar for Milk. Lance, as friends call him, didn’t care how much the University paid him to teach his course. He had only one requirement: that the Department pick up his parking.

>> Continue reading on Script Lab! 

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Life Rights and Wrongs

Am I allowed to write a movie (or book or article) about you without your permission?

Unequivocally and without hesitation the answer is: maybe.

At the time of this writing, a former television reality show host and NY real estate developer has held the office of President of the United States for nearly a year. There are oodles of books written about Donald Trump. He may have — or he may not have — at one point or another signed a life rights contract awarding a particular biographer permission to write his life story.

Rest assured, however, that the vast majority (if not all) books about Trump were written without his authorization.

Even since the election, the United States is still (mostly) a free nation whose liberty is underscored first and foremost by this annoying, pesky item called The Constitution and, particularly, its First Amendment.

Continue reading on Script Lab!

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Six-Week Online Screenwriting Workshop Limited to 10 Students

rw

Enrollment is about to limited for the 6-week online screenwriting program I’ve designed to serve a small cohort of writers who believe in themselves. The first session will take place on Tuesday, 2/6.

Now is the time to act.

Click here now to learn more and register.

UCLA-trained screenwriters have won five best-screenplay Oscar nominations and three Oscars in only the past seven years. They have written eleven movies for Steven Spielberg.

You supply the talent; I’ll provide the training. I will also read your screenplay if you finish it within one month of the class.

Go here now to sign up.

Hope to see you in class next month!

– Richard Walter

http://richardwalter.com/workshop/

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RICHARD WALTER INTERVIEW – SHOULD SCREENWRITERS CARE ABOUT FILM BUDGETS?

Richard Walter was recently interviewed on Film Budgeteers (a very cool site + service that empowers any filmmaker to generate a budget in minutes). In the interview blog post, author Jeff Orgill shared:

Film Budgeteers was ecstatic to land an interview with veteran screenwriting  professor and master screenwriter, Richard Walter. Walter has taught writing for the cinema for the better part of four decades and serves as the Chairman to the UCLA graduate school of screenwriting. He’s also the author of several fiction and non-fiction books and makes regular tv and media appearances to offer his expert opinion. I asked him a few brief questions about where screenwriting collides with the budget of a film and the process of film budgeting…”

>> Read the full Q&A on Film Budgeteers

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Screenplay Readers Richard Walter Interview: Quick Screenwriting Insights from a Master

In a posting today, Screenplay Readers shared: “I recently did a quick interview with legendary screenwriter and screenwriting educator, Richard Walter. Walter has taught screenwriting for almost 40 years, and serves as Chairman of UCLA’s esteemed screenwriting graduate program. Not to mention, he’s a celebrated author and sought-after studio scribe in his own right, as well as a renowned media and culture critic and pundit.  He also teaches screenwriting privately, via his online workshop. Details and a video about Walter’s program are at the bottom of this interview.”

Continue reading for the full Q&A!

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THE WORST THING ABOUT HOLLYWOOD

I’ve written from time to time of my fifteen minutes of fame – actually about five or ten years – during which I appeared frequently in the media as a pundit, a talking head, on TV and radio political talk shows: over a half dozen Today Show visits, ten or fifteen on (may God forgive me) The O’Reilly Factor, close to two dozen on MSNBC’s Hardball With (he’s mainly into bombast) Chris Matthews, and oodles more.

From time to time I was recognized in public. “Loved the way you socked it to O’Reilly last night,” someone said to me as I made my way down the aisle to my seat on a plane.

More typically, however, people could not remember precisely where they’d seen me. They had a vague sense that they knew me personally, that sometime, somewhere, we had met. “You’re a pulmonologist at Paterson, right?” I was asked at a wedding in New Jersey by a fellow squinting at me, absolutely certain that we were brothers or roommates or tag-team wrestlers.

In such instances I would ask, “Do you watch political talk shows?”

A flood of recognition would fill their faces.

Not only on radio and TV but occasionally also in print I was from time to time referenced or quoted.

My signature issue was Sex and Violence in the Media. Given my retro-hippie look, my progressive affect, my membership in the cultural and intellectual community, that is, a film professor at a world class institution of higher learning, folks might well have expected me to view movie/TV violence as excessive and reprehensible, as sorry evidence of Hollywood’s crass, unconscionable commercialism.
My view, however, was quite the opposite. I argued (and continue to do so) that sex and violence occupy a proper, venerable, honorable place in dramatic narratives.

One day the Los Angeles Times accepted for publication an article I’d written on the subject.

They planned to run the piece on their op-ed page on a particular Friday.

I was due to drive that day to San Francisco to offer a weekend seminar: Screenwriting: The Whole Picture.

My piece would be carried on the op-ed page that same day. The Times was read by hundreds of thousands of souls, among them virtually everybody I knew. I anticipated a torrent of phone messages: congratulations, commentary, and condemnation.

I would love the praise, of course, but the pejorative stuff was okay, too. It made me feel influential. In Hollywood (as in life) the worst pain comes not from being criticized but ignored.

This was still the pre-email, pre-Internet era. Unlike today’s telephone voicemail systems, which can field multiple calls simultaneously, my ancient, analog telephone answering machine, with its twin tape cassettes–one for my greeting, the other for incoming calls–could handle just a single message at a time. Anyone who phoned while the system was recording a message received a busy signal.

Likewise, at any time that I was phoning the machine from a remote location to retrieve my messages, callers would also receive a busy signal.

The day prior to publication, in order to remind myself to attend to a particular chore up north, I left myself the briefest message on my machine. “Be sure to drop by KGO radio to thank Ronn Owens,” I said as quickly as I could, anxious to avoid using too much tape. I wanted to have a maximum amount of time available for the tsunami of messages that, upon the appearance of the column, were sure to flow.

Owens was the most highly rated political talk show host in the Bay Area. He was the sole radio host who consistently whipped Rush Limbaugh in terms of audience size. (If that was going to happen anywhere, wouldn’t you expect it to be San Francisco?)

In the days prior to my San Francisco seminars, Ronn always invited me to appear as a guest on his program. My visits to his show constituted free advertising. May God bless and keep him. At no expense to me, dear Ronn filled my seminar every time.

In this pre-cell phone era, I drove to San Francisco that Friday, making it a point to avoid calling from payphones at highway rest stops along the way to retrieve messages, as I knew that doing so would cut off my answering machine’s ability to take further messages from the hordes of fans who were surely dialing.

At last, from my hotel room on Sutter Street that evening, brimming with anticipation I phoned my answering machine to retrieve the swarm of messages.

The system promptly clicked into action. “You have one message,” it said.

The message rolled.

My own voice say, “Be sure to drop by KGO radio to thank Ronn Owens.”

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