Tuesday, April 23, 2019

A book recommendation

Breaking in is hard to do. Especially if you want to be a screenwriter. You can’t go into any Starbucks in LA without seeing at least three intense sleep-deprived people hunched over their laptops. Not that it’s ever been easy to hoist yourself over those palace walls but now it seems harder. More people are trying and agents are taking on fewer new clients.

So how do you break through?

The best way is to distinguish yourself somehow. (“Oh, that’s easy. Why didn’t I think of that?”)

One way is to enter screenplay competitions and hopefully win or place high enough that you’re recognized. (“Sure. Win screenwriting competitions. Piece of cake.”)

Yes, it’s a tall order. And with as many as several thousand entering certain competitions the odds are staggering.

But now at least there’s help.

A new book called “Screenplay Competitions” by Ann Marie Williams has just been released and finally there is a lifeline for the wannabe screenwriters out there. There are tips on how to submit, who to submit to, what judges are looking for, how you can improve your chances, etc. Look, there are many hidden traps and the competition is fierce. This book offers an invaluable guide into the world of screenplay competitions. And more than that – it shows you ways how these competitions, even if you don’t win, can help you improve your writing.

How do I know it’s good advice? For the last few years I’ve been entering play in stage play competitions. The process (and competition) is almost the same. Things I learned myself all appear to be covered in this book.

Case in point: rejections. First, prepare yourself: you’re going to get rejections. The book points out, and it’s true, that the judging process is soooo subjective and each competition has a specific agenda so a script that wins one major competition will likely be rejected by fifty others. Same script. How do you deal with that? This book helps.

I should point out that I don’t know this author, publisher, nor am I getting any remuneration for recommending this book. I just think it will be a useful tool and maybe give you a little leg up. And in today’s world, any advantage, even a small one, is HUGE.

Best of luck. Like I always say – someone has to break in. Why not YOU?

Monday, April 22, 2019

The most fun show on TV

Forget the NBA Playoffs, the Stanley Cup, or the start of the baseball season. Who cares about the Emmy race or Democratic hopefuls for president? Yawn on the next American Idol and VOICE winner. There’s a new competition in town that’s sweeping the nation.

James Holzhauer on JEOPARDY!

Have you seen this guy? In only twelve days he’s racked up over $850,000. (That's almost as much as Mike Trout makes.)  James has shattered the all-time one-day total three or four times already. It’s like if this new prospect joined the Yankees named Clark Kent.

Not only does he have an otherworldly knowledge of everything, he has super quick recall. And he’s a professional sports gambler by trade so it’s common when he lands on DAILY DOUBLES to push all his chips into the center and go for it. I mean, sure, I could do that, but only if the topic was “Natalie Wood” but he does it on “Pleistocene Era Children's Literature,” “Fifteen-letter words with u in them twice,”and "Lana Wood."

He’s extraordinary to watch. If I went on that show and they told me the answers an hour beforehand I still couldn’t retain all that information by the time the cameras were rolling.

JEOPARDY has always been a great game show. It moves fast, it’s smart, and has the perfect host in Alex Trebek. (He can pronounce difficult words and names – although who knows if he’s right?) Certainly, it’s bittersweet now watching JEOPARDY because we know of Alex’s medical condition and our hearts go out to him. (By the way, Alex was so good on the CHEERS episode he appeared on that we wrote him into another scene – the final scene in the bar. He can deliver clues and jokes.)

But now with Holzhauer it’s off the charts fun to watch the show. And unlike a TV series you get a new episode five times a week instead of once a week. And you get open-ended new episodes, not just thirteen in a row.

It’s also easy to root for Holzhauer because he seems like a good guy. He’s very low-key. Ken Jennings is still my favorite due to his sense of humor ("What be Ebonics?"), but James H. has an easy-going charm that (like everything else about him) is “winning.”

Like I said he’s a professional sports gambler from Las Vegas so most of his winnings will eventually go to the government and Caesar’s Palace.

Now the big question is can he top Ken Jennings’ record of winning 74 consecutive times? I think the old record was 20. And unlike “cash amounts” James can’t accomplish that in five days. So we may be in for an exciting ride for the next few months.

Holzhauer is rarely wrong. If he doesn’t know an answer he doesn’t ring in. And one day last week the answer (or question, excuse me) was “What is Final Draft?” (the screenplay writing program). And he didn’t ring in. I knew something James Holzhauer didn’t. HA! BAM! Mic drop!

Saturday, April 20, 2019

Weekend Post

It's been over five years since I posted this.  It's one of my all-time favorites.  Written by my partner, David Isaacs.  Definitely worth a rerun. 
 
Once again it's time for a memo from Mr. Special Effects.

Now more than ever, showrunners are implored to KEEP THE BUDGET DOWN! Like that's
ever been easy in Hollywood. This town is notorious for huge mark ups, studios charging their own shows outrageous rent for their stages and facilities, etc. And if God forbid you need a special effect look out. In writing rooms whenever we propose even the smallest stunt we turn to my partner, David Isaacs, who has created a great character – Mr. Special Effects. He will then describe what is required to pull the stunt off and how much it will cost. Here is an example, in the form of a memo.

And believe me when I say this is TYPICAL.


*******

Report from TV Special Effects Department:

RE: Frasier

Situation: In a dream sequence, Frasier is on the air and his board explodes.

Proposal---If I'm to understand correctly from our conversation you all want the entire radio board to explode in Frasier's (Mr. Gramner's) face. filling the studio room with smoke. It's quite a coincidence since my dad created the same effect for Mr. Al Ruddy for an episode of 'The Monkee's. (For your reference it's the one where the Monkees try to outfox a Russian agent played by Mr. Lloyd Bochner). The good news is that with all the advancements in explosive delivery it's a much easier effect. (The real reason you never saw Mr. Mike Nesmith at any Monkees reunion is that he had four fingers of his left hand blown off. It's certainly not true that he was sick of being a part of a third rate Beatles knockoff. That and feeling responsible for Yakima Canutt losing a testicle on "How the West was Won" haunted my father till he fell to his death rigging Mr. Demetrious 'George' Savalas for a jump off the Brooklyn Bridge in 'Kojack.)

Anyway, the effect is fairly simple, but of course we want it foolproof and safe. (within reason) First of all we will rig a series of explosive charges across the board. That will control the blast as oppossed to one big blast which is harder to control. I will set off the charges in sequence from a specially designed phaser. That should supply our explosion and still create the effect. We also set a charge inside the board so that in the case of a fire breaking out from the initial explosion (small possibility) I'll blow that charge which in turn would smother the flames. That, of course, would also preclude a second take.

Now I'm to understand that Mr. Gramner would like to do the stunt himself (concurrent with an 'Entertainment Tonight' segment profiling sitcom actors who do their own stunts.) That's fine but we will take the precaution of covering his body in an inch to an inch and a half of Vaseline Petroleum Jelly under a flame retardant herringbone suit. (It's uncomfortable but the guy works, what, twelve hours a week?) That will protect him vis a vis a mistake in explosion deployment. (Just to warn you in spite of caution it can happen---Sometimes to a serendipitous result. My dad worked for Mr. George Roy Hill on 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance KId." Liitle known fact, the boxcar being blown to smithereens was not in the script. It was what we call in the S.E. business a happy accident. Thankfully the only injury was a prosthetic arm that was mangaled up pretty good. It belonged to my dad's assistant 'Spider' who had lost his real arm and half a foot working with my dad on 'Breakfast at Tiffany's'. Long story)

So we will protect Mr. Gramner. Safety for the cameramen and crew are at your discretion. Should be a do it every day, piece of cake effect. Still it's S.O.P. for me to ask you one question that's in the order of a final safeguard. Was there originally an actor you really felt could have played Frasier in the event that Mr. Gramner was unavailable or... "a handful"? Have to ask. It many times makes a tougher call but I will remind you of 'happy accidents'.

I'm going to ball park a cost for you then come up with a final tally later. I know you have budget concerns but it's a heck of a stunt. Figuring explosives , equipment rented from the studio electrical dept., special costuming from the studio costume dept., crew, overtime, dummy board and console from studio props, studio fire chief standing by, and I figure you'll want to throw in pizza for a hard working S.E. bunch, I think I can bring the whole thing off for you, on the cheap, for about 110 thousand dollars. Again that's if we're not figuring on another take.

Loved the script by the way.

Mr. S.E.

Friday, April 19, 2019

(Good) Friday Questions

Happy Easter and Passover and whatever else you’re celebrating. Here are this week’s FQ’s.

blinky is up first.

I just saw a post on Reddit that the medical adviser and Alan Alda co-wrote an episode of M*A*S*H. Tell me more!

Well, first off, it was after we had left the show. But yes, the episode called “Life Time” was written by Dr. Walter Dishell and Alan Alda. Dr. Dishell was our medical advisor (and a great guy).

It’s the episode all done in real time. The idea was really Gene Reynolds'. But it was one that required a lot of medical knowledge. Dr. Dishell asked if he could write it since he would be contributing so much, and Gene agreed as long as he wrote it with a real MASH writer (I think Alan qualified).

The episode is also noteworthy for the clock in the corner of the screen. That idea, apparently, was Dr. Dishell’s.

MASH was always experimenting and trying different ways to break the format. “Life Time” was one of the best.

From Jen from Jersey:

In terms of continuity, do writers forget details about the characters and events from earlier seasons. I notice this all the time when I binge watch. One recent example is that the first episode of Wings, Joe introduces Brian to Lowell but in later episodes we find out that they all went to high school together.

Sometimes you have different writers who weren’t on the show when the first factoid was aired. Other times writers forget, especially if it seemed like a small detail buried within an episode. There are times I’ve been on MASH and CHEERS trivia sites and there will be questions from episodes I wrote that I still don’t know the answer.

Some shows used to keep a detailed bible, but that’s pretty time consuming, and now you have the internet to post episode guides.

And seriously, this was much less of a problem before series were all available for binging or cable networks ran eight episodes a day. Now these continuity problems are glaring.

All I can say is that for a long running series writers do the best they can to maintain continuity. Unfortunately there are getting to be fewer and fewer long running series.

Sean queries:

While binging Game of Thrones recently, I noticed something new. The opening credits only feature the actors in that particular episode. I've been an avid TV nut for decades and have never noticed that before. Is that common? It seems to me that even if Jamie Farr or William Christopher didn't appear in a particular episode, they were still credited in the opening.

Have I missed out on something?

It depends on the actor’s contract. Some stipulate their credit must be in every episode whether they appear or not, and others only get a credit on the shows where they actually do appear.

Where the credit appears and how the credit appears also are up for negotiation. Along with size and screen placement.

And finally, from Madame Smock:

Aloha Ken,

I listened to the "How did I get talked into this ?" podcast Ep. 116.I thought the Rocky Mountain Writers Guild story could have been a story premise on Frasier. Do writers use their personal experiences to come up with a storyline?

ALL the time. Our most humiliating life experiences are all golden fodder for sitcom stories.

The best stories are the ones that are the most relatable and those come from real life. I think it was Carl Reiner, when he was running THE DICK VAN DYKE SHOW, who said to his writers: “Go home this weekend, have a fight with your wife, then come back and tell me about it.”

What’s your Friday Question? Please leave it in the comments section. Thanks.

Wednesday, April 17, 2019

EP119: NBC’s Al Michaels Part 1


In the first of two parts, NBC sportscaster Al Michaels, who has called 10 Super Bowls, numerous World Series, and will be forever known for his “Miracle on Ice” call, joins Ken for an in depth discussion.  In Part 1 Al talks about his baseball career, covering an earthquake, working for the Dating Game, MNF, and moving from ABC to NBC.  You don’t have to love sports to love Al Michaels.

Listen to the Hollywood & Levine podcast!

What were they thinking, Part 2?

We've come a lonnnnnng way since 1962.  Smack dab in the middle of the MAD MEN era comes this actual commercial.  Where was #MeToo when that generation needed it? 

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

What were they thinkin'?

You know how you watch something on YouTube and that leads you to another video and pretty soon you go down a rabbit hole and hours go by as you discover different nutty things? That was me last night.

And I came upon this. It’s so absurd I had to share it.

There was an afternoon show on ABC in the mid ‘60s called WHERE THE ACTION IS. Dick Clark hosted and basically it was a music show consisting of rock groups of the day lip syncing their songs at the beach. The idea was to capture that whole California Myth (which did exist if you had a car and could get to the beach). I recall seeing Paul Revere & the Raiders wearing their heavy felt Revolutionary War uniforms rocking out at the beach.

To my knowledge, WHERE THE ACTION IS was gone long before 1973. But then I found this music video, which is very reminiscent of WTAI. I don’t know the story behind it. But it’s Vicki Lawrence singing her only big hit, THE NIGHT THE LIGHTS WENT OUT IN GEORGIA at the beach. And it sounds like Dick Clark introducing her.

But here’s what’s so bizarre and made me laugh out loud. Hardly anybody at the beach is paying any attention to her. They’re all running around, throwing the football, tackling each other, kicking sand. She’s just standing in the middle of this scene for no reason whatsoever. And the content of the song is about a murder in the south and an innocent man being hung. So the few people who are in the background dancing to this look like complete idiots.

I love Vicki Lawrence and would someday like to ask her about this. But in the meantime, enjoy today's surreal music video.


Monday, April 15, 2019

The WGA-ATA dispute -- Where do we stand?

Too early to tell.

The WGA and agents (ATA) could not reach a deal by zero hour this past weekend so we all are obligated to fire our TV and movie writing agents.

Where does that leave everybody? 

Well, we’re now in the first stage – name calling, posturing, threatening, animosity. Lawsuits and counter-suits.

I think it will be interesting so see if writers can in fact get staffed using only managers, lawyers, a submission website, recommendations, etc. and skirt the agency process. If so, writers will have a lot more leverage.

If not, if it’s very chaotic and just a mad scramble, agencies will gain more leverage.

But for either of those scenarios to play out a few months must go by. Just sitting on the sidelines, that’s where I see things going at this moment.  (But I hope I'm wrong.)

Look, producers, networks, studios, agents, whoever – only make concessions when they have to. And unfortunately, that usually requires a work stoppage or mass exodus or some other major protest that hopefully will have enough of an impact to force compromise and concessions. Deals that could have been made amicably eventually do get done but at a big cost with lots of collateral damage. Welcome to Tinsel Town.

Here’s how I imagine it will end, and this is based on nothing more than my observations from the bleachers (so take them with a grain of salt). Package deals will remain, but writers will share in the profits – significantly enough that they’re willing to agree to a deal. What that percentage is, when that will be, what other compromises will be made – that I don’t have a clue.

Now I’m getting on my soapbox. None of this would be an issue if anti-trust laws were still upheld and conflict-of-interest practices were shut down. Agencies need other ways to supplement their income in this era of mass consolidation and will find them (opening sports divisions, representing products like Coca-Cola, etc.) and writers would still have enough on their hands fighting injustices that were shady but still legal.

There was a time in Hollywood when major players like Lew Wasserman of Universal controlled the town. There could be a writers’ strike for three months and when Wasserman decided enough was enough the strike was settled in two days.

There’s no Lew Wasserman.

So for now we just play it out. For the vast majority of you, this battle will have no impact whatsoever. This is not a work stoppage. Your shows will still be produced on schedule. No DEXTER reruns on CBS to fill some gaps. And considering how many other global and national crises we all face daily, it’s probably a relief to know there’s one you don’t have a stake in.

But for those of us in the industry, these WGA-ATA issues are important and will affect the way business is done for years to come. So however it falls, let’s get it right.

UPDATE:  I thought it was clear from the post but apparently not since a number of you keep asking whether I went along with the WGA and fired my agent?  And the answer is yes.