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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Creative Screenwriting Shares Professor Richard Walter’s Screenwriting Lessons with DVD Collection

Creative Screenwriting Magazine now carries the full set of Professor Richard Walter’s master screenwriting courses!

Richard Walter DVDs


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Why I Love Cold Callers

I know it’s a cold call, designed to sell me some product or cause, even before the caller speaks.

Indeed, more often than not the caller doesn’t speak at all.

The equipment in telephone boiler rooms dials multiple phone numbers simultaneously. The software connects with the first one that answers, hanging up on the others. The strategy enables soliciters to complete more calls in less time, and thereby also to disrupt, disturb, irk, and annoy an ever larger number of telephone subscribers.

Getting on the don’t-call list seems to be impossible. My numerous requests have proven futile.

working the phones

I read an article recently where people described various ways they respond to cold calls, the purpose being to keep the caller on the line as long as possible. They’re wasting my time? I’ll waste theirs. It’s the least they can do, prankster responders assert, to discourage an enterprise that grows worse daily. Rare’s the morning I do not receive a half dozen such solicitations. And that’s just the morning.

My own method for toying with these callers is to adopt a phony, generic Eastern European accent, not unlike the late Andy Kaufman’s character “foreign man,” which was the model for his legendary Latke on the TV series Taxi.

“Oh, yes, beddy good,” I’ll say to someone selling subscriptions to the Chicago Tribune. “I am need to having cleaned carpet. Is big stain from rash by Labrador Retriever. The credit card too much charges, do you for to have better percentage ratings?”

To my credit, however, I have no illusions about why I do this. It is not part of any noble campaign to stand against the army of time-wasting intruders.

I do it because I am a writer, and there’s no circumstance I won’t exploit to avoid facing the pages staring back at me from my screen.

Am I shamed to game the interrupters?

I am. As a screenwriter I’ve learned two things: 1) consider the status of the observer and 2) imbue all characters, even the bad guys, with redeeming, sympathetic characteristics.

Who makes these cold calls? Prosperous, fulfilled souls whose career goal was to sit in a cubicle at a call center and provide angry strangers the opportunity to curse them out and hang up on them? These wretched souls are all working on commission; there’s no guarantee they’ll earn a nickel.

What can such a caller be except a desperado, someone who has had terrible luck finding work?

Chuck her (or him) a break. Just hang up. It’s not rude. There’s nothing in it for them to squander not only your time but also their own where they’re making no sale.

Once, I had a so sincere a chat with a cold caller that he told me he was quitting the racket immediately upon completion of the call.

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Mobile Movie Making Magazine on The Essentials of Screenwriting



Mobile Movie Making (MMM) is an online magazine devoted to the art and technology of using smartphones and tablets to shoot videos in all genres. From MMM’s vantage point – everyone can be a movie mogul since pocket cameras are making possible a new era of moviemaking, in which the people will not only be audiences but also creators. And, at the end of the day a good movie of any length comes down to story. In a new book review, they highlight Richard Walter’s ESSENTIALS OF SCREENWRITING as a book that up and coming moviemakers should consult. Read the full review on their site:http://mobilemoviemaking.com/category/books.

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Screenwriting and The Dreadful Weight of Truth

Art, Picasso tells us, is the lie that tells the greater truth.

Screenwriters need to learn how to lie through their teeth.

As a screenwriting educator and script doctor I have seen more scripts brought down by a writer’s wrongheaded devotion to some idealized, romanticized, self-conscious, narcissistic, pie-in-the-sky notion of The Truth.

In script consultation sessions on and off the UCLA campus, I often find myself asking something like, “Why is this character hemming and hawing, starting and stopping, meandering, beating around the bush?”

The answer I commonly get is, “That’s the way people really talk.”

What’s wrong with the way people really talk? Two things. First, the way people really talk is available for free in the street. Nobody has to hire a babysitter, drive to a theater and poke around (and pay) for a parking place, not to mention buying a ticket.

Worse still, the way people really talk is boring. “Hi, how you doing?” “Pretty good. You?” “Not too bad.” “That’s nice.” “Is it hot enough for you today?” “I’ve got to get over to the market for a quart of milk.” “My mother went to New Jersey yesterday.”

Our only rule at UCLA’s screenwriting program: Don’t Be Boring.

Not only dialogue but other aspects of scripts are suffocated by this foolish devotion to some sort of factual, historical forthrightness. Remember, history is only high-story or his-story.


At the most recent Oscar presentations (at the time of this writing about three months ago) there was some controversy regarding the fudging of historical facts in Tony Kushner’s and (UCLA screenwriting MFA graduate) Eric Roth’s screenplay for Lincoln. The film fudged on the votes regarding the Emancipation Proclamation among the Connecticut congressional delegation. Likewise, the script for Best Picture winner Argo took broad liberties with the actual events surrounding the rescue of the American hostages during the Iranian revolution of 1979. The movie depicts a last-minute chase down the runway as the escape plane takes off.

Am I bothered when screenwriters play fast and loose with the so-called facts?

I am not.

When I’m hungry and crave a tuna fish sandwich, I don’t go to the hardware store. Likewise, when I seek historical facts, I don’t go to the movie theater. I’ll get rotten history and a lame movie.

To believe that objective Truth even merely exists represents the height of arrogance.

Beginners asks the reader to imagine an empty box car on a train with a table at dead center on which sits a lamp with twin lenses, one aimed at the rear of the car, the other at the front.

The front and back doors are controlled by photolytic switches; that is, when a light shines upon them, they open.

Outside the train, from the perspective of an embankment alongside the track, an observer sees something quite different from another observer riding inside the car. For the observer in the car, when the lamp is lit, the front and rear doors open simultaneously. For the observer on the embankment, however, the doors open not simultaneously but sequentially. With the front door running away from the beam of light, and the rear door racing toward it, the back door opens just a little sooner than front door.

That difference main seem trivial. The front door starts to open just slightly after the rear door. In fact, however, the difference is huge. Simultaneity is, after all, not merely different from but the opposite of sequentiality. Things happening one after the other are the opposite of things happening at the same time. Aren’t opposites the greatest kinds of differences?

Most significantly, this is not a metaphor, not an optical illusion or some sort of trick. It could be verified with ultra-high speed cameras, which actually exist; they are used by the military to analyze ballistics.

The question arises: What’s happening here? Are the doors opening simultaneously or are they opening sequentially?

The answer is: Yes. The doors open simultaneously or they are open sequentially depending upon who’s looking and from where.

Reactionary talk show radio hosts will cite me as one more pointy-headed college professor claiming that everybody has his own truth and that there are no timeless principles, no eternal verities we can believe.

Is there nothing we can agree upon? There is, for example, substantial disagreement regarding the assassination of President Kennedy. The official government version holds that a lone gunman was the culprit. Others argue there was a conspiracy ordered by Fidel Castro and carried out by Cuban secret agents. Still others say it was an American security entity such as the C.I.A. Could it be that Israel did it? Isn’t there always some lunatic body of opinion that holds Israel responsible for everything, from the Kennedy assassination to the Dodgers’ wretched season last year?

Can we not at the very least agree, however, that JFK was murdered on September 22, 1963?

An article in The New Yorker examined this notion. Sept, as in September, means seven. Think septuagenarian or septet. Oct, as in October, means eight. Think octopus or octogenarian. November derives from nine. December (think decimal, decade) is ten. Yet these are not the seventh, eighth, ninth, and tenth months but the ninth, tenth, eleventh, and twelfth. How did that come to be?

The answer is that some suck-up to Caesar two thousand years ago convinced him that there should be two months honoring him. That is where July (Julio, or Julius) comes from and August is for august, that is: Caesar Augustus.

And what about 1963? Jews and Maya and Chinese and other cultures have different numbers for that year.

Even the mere citation of a date engages controversies, therefore, that are political, cultural, religious, intellectual, and ideological.

The Contrivance of the Cinema evolution

Movies are fake. In many ways they are the most false enterprise in all of creation. What is more manipulated, arranged, rearranged, shuffled, reshuffled, juggled and re-juggled than a movie? What plays faster and looser with time and space and than a motion picture? Movies don’t even move. Everyone knows that a movie is really a hundred thousand still images projected in rapid succession.

But there is something that is entirely true about movies, and that is the emotion, the feelings experienced by the audience. If one is frightened in a scary movie, one is truly frightened. If one grieves at a tear jerker, the tears are real, as is the grief.

The circumstances are fake but the emotion is one hundred percent authentic.

That is the kind of authenticity, and the manner of truth, screenwriters should seek.

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