Wednesday, October 16, 2019

EP145: This week’s guest: ME Part 1

On this week's Hollywood and Levine Podcast, Ken switches things up and invites entertainment reporter Arlen Peters to take the reins and interview him. We hear all about Ken's lengthy career in the world of comedy and entertainment as a Writer, Director and Producer.

Spoiler Alert: He does not make Ken cry.

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It's Thanksgiving Day!


You’re thinking, “What country?”

No country. It’s my personal Thanksgiving Day.

On October 15th, many years ago, I had to report to US Army Basic Training at Ft. Leonard, Missouri (way up in the delightful Ozarks).

And since that day, every year on this date I give thanks that I’m no longer there. Basic Training was brutal for me. I was skinny, uncoordinated, couldn’t hit a target with a bazooka, couldn’t build or fix  a fucking thing, and I’m Jewish. I was truly, as my Drill Sergeants graciously reminded me hourly, a “fucking dud.”

So no matter how bad things are for me on October 16th, they’re still better than that year.

I made a vow to myself when I graduated Basic Training (there was actually a ceremony and some parents actually attended), that as time goes by and you start to remember only the good things and new friendships and eventually start to think “it wasn’t that bad” – no matter what I remember or forget it WAS that bad.

My draft number in the lottery was 4, which meant I was off to Vietnam unless I got my ass into a reserve unit QUICK, which I did. At the time I thought that draft number was the worst thing that ever happened to me.

But in truth it was a blessing.

I met my writing partner in the reserves. Having knowledge of how the military worked I was able to write MASH. MASH launched my career. Who knows where I would have ended up had I never been a grunt?

So I have that to be thankful for too.

Happy Thanksgiving Day!  Blow up the giant Snoopy balloon.

Tuesday, October 15, 2019

An all too-typical Hollywood story (but with a happy ending)

Great article in the HOLLYWOOD REPORTER about Darren Lemke. He has a writing credit on GEMINI MAN although not a word of his script is on the screen.

So how can that be?

I’ll summarize the article.

Back in the ‘90s Lemke lived in New Jersey. He got a script to a guy who knew a guy who knew another guy who was a movie producer who liked it. Lemke was flown out to Hollywood, quickly got an agent and lawyer, and in a whirlwind sold two pitches.  It's the stuff of dreams.

One of the pitches was essentially GEMINI MAN – an assassin is hunted by his clone.  He sold it.  The dream continues. 

The project was on the fast-track. It looked like a sure thing. This was 1997. This Hollywood game is EASY!

But then Hollywood reality struck. There was concern over how to pull off the CGI. The script went through numerous directors, stars, and other writers. At one time Mel Gibson was going to play the lead; another time Clint Eastwood.

Lemke moved on, found success writing animated features, and GEMINI MAN went through more directors, studios, and writers. I may have been the only writer in Hollywood NOT to have done a draft.

So finally, 22 years later, the movie came out. The basic premise was still his idea and story elements of his draft remain and so in arbitration he was award shared story and screenplay credit.

I offer this today because this is almost the normal life of a feature project. For every story you read about a writer turning in a screenplay and the movie gets made six months later with no other writers attached – there are a hundred of THESE stories. One of the reasons I always preferred television and stayed in television even when I had a movie career was that things move slowly in the feature world. Endless drafts are written, thousands of screenplays are bouncing around in some stage of development.

And what writers learn is this: Don’t get too excited when you hear good news and don’t get too despondent when you hear bad. It’s a rollercoaster.

To be a successful screenwriter in Hollywood you need talent, perseverance, and motion sickness pills.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Defensive interference

Here’s yet another Friday Question that became an entire post (because I’m long winded).

Alex asks:

Any thoughts on effectively engaging with people who are providing a writer feedback on their writing samples? Back in the day when I hoped to be a writer, I always struggled to make people understand that I wasn't trying to refute their feedback, but that I was trying to get some good back-and-forth going to help me better understand how something came off compared with what I intended, and why. It wasn't my intention to defend the script, but it somehow always seemed to come off as defensive. (I guess I could have been specific with people about my intentions, but I didn't really even become that conscious of it until long after I'd stopped writing.)

I can’t speak for your encounters since I wasn’t there and don’t know you, but yes, often times (MOST times) engaging the critic comes off defensive because it is.

Are your questions – “Okay, what do you mean by that?” or “What bothered you about that?”

Or, are your questions -- “He’s her husband. Shouldn’t he pissed when she comes home late?” or “I explain that in the first scene. You didn’t get that?”

Whenever a writer answers a critique with “Yeah, but…” he’s being defensive.

As a writer, when I’m getting feedback the first thing I need to determine is how obligated am I to do these notes? If they’re network notes on a pilot there’s more of an expectation that these notes be carried out. And if you feel they will severely damage your pilot then you very well may want to dig in your heels. You’re fighting for the integrity of the project.

But if you’ve got a spec screenplay or stage play and you’re getting notes from colleagues or friends, you are under no obligation to carry out these notes. So why get defensive?

I’ve been to play readings where there’s a talkback after and the writer receives feedback. I’m amazed at how defensive and angry the playwright sometimes get. Look, a lot of the notes are idiotic. But you don’t have to DO them. So why get worked up? Nod, smile, say thank you. And some of the notes might be excellent and you come away with valuable input.

Another thing to consider about notes, and I saw this a lot with network and studio notes: The note itself may be bad but maybe there’s something underneath it that is worth paying attention to. Their “fix” is wrong, but obviously something bothered them. It’s often worth the time and effort to try to figure that out.

In that case you might ask some questions. “What bothered you?” “When did you start to feel that?” “Were you okay with this?” The back and forth should not be an argument, it should be you asking questions and he answering them. And presented in a tone that says you are genuinely interested in his answer.  Not patronizing or begrudgingly. 

I find that when writers become defensive eventually people stop giving feedback. Yes, that’s what the writers want but they’re then defeating the purpose of the exercise.

There is one school of thought that says for talkbacks writers should prepare questions beforehand and just listen to the answers. That doesn’t work for me because many of the questions I have when they’re reading my script are things I’ve noticed during the reading itself. A section didn’t seem to work for me – did it work for others? Hearing it aloud, was the boyfriend too whiney? They’re things I wouldn’t necessarily know beforehand.

At this point I should say a word about getting notes from a showrunner. If you’re on staff and the showrunner gives you notes, just DO them and do them without resistance. A quick way to get fired or not picked up for the next season is to be defensive during notes. You’re not going to win. The script is going be done his way whether you make the changes or he does them later, and all you do is piss him off. You think the showrunner is an idiot? Fine. Pay your dues and in a few years you can become showrunner and your staff will think you’re an idiot.

In conclusion, the best thing a writer can do is get feedback from people he trusts. Whenever I write a play I always give the first draft to three or four people I respect and welcome their comments. I don’t do every note, but generally my script comes way up on the second draft because of their suggestions. And I never argue. Hey, they’re doing ME a big favor.

I’m not Mozart. I miss things. I am not as clear as I could be on certain points. I took a chance on something and it didn’t work. I tried to cover up a plot hole with a band-aid and got busted. I over-wrote a scene. I under-wrote a scene.

Yes, it’s frustrating when you have to go back in and fix something, or find a new story element, or (in the case of one of my plays) conceive and write an entire new second act. But that’s just part of the process. And the professional writer accepts that. That’s why there are second drafts. That’s why there is alcohol.

Saturday, October 12, 2019

Weekend Post

Ed Sheeran sure knows how to pick a partner. Check out this "Perfect" version of his song along with Andrea Bocelli.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Friday Questions

Friday Questions served up here.

Paul B leads off:

The hilarious British TV comedy "Coupling" from the early 2000's (think Monte Python meets Friends) was written single handedly by the creator, Steven Moffat. It was only 28 episodes over 4 years, but still seems like an enormous undertaking. If that weren't enough, his wife was the director. Would you ever consider such an effort?

First of all let me just say that the British COUPLING is one of my all-time favorite sitcoms, and Steven Moffat is brilliant.

If I had an idea that good and the freedom to write the episodes at my own pace and hire the actors I wanted (not foisted upon me by a network), I would certainly consider it.

Again, if you’ve never seen COUPLING, go find it and watch it.

Robert Brauer asks:

What is it that differentiates one of your ten minute plays from a comedy sketch? I am presuming that there are differences, I just cannot make the leap of logic to determine what they might be.

Comedy sketches tend to have funny premises and then as many jokes as they can get to service that premise.

A ten-minute play has a real beginning, middle, and end. Just like a good short story. A character will have to make a big decision, an event will cause change, there will be some revelation, etc. Storytelling drives a ten-minute play, not jokes.

Matt wonders:

Was Mako Iwamatsu cast on the FRASIER first season episode "Author Author" due to his connection with you and David on MASH?

Nope. I always like to take credit for things so actors can feel beholden to me, but the truth is we had nothing to do with that casting choice. Mako got the FRASIER gig because he’s terrific.

And finally, from Douglas Trapasso:

Paraphrasing a question from the recent candidate debates, if -you- were made Baseball Commissioner, and had full autonomy, what three changes would you make in your first 100 days?

Pitchers would have to face at least three batters or finish an inning.

Eliminate interleague play.

Not allow any TV deal that doesn’t guarantee the games be available to at least 70% of the local market.

What’s your Friday Question?

Wednesday, October 09, 2019

EP144: Writing Advice and a Rant

Ken deals with two difficult aspects of writing – structure and exposition along with helpful tips for each. And he has one of those rants of his.

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Him or her again?

Along the ones of my rant of last week:
She’s probably a lovely person. I’ve never heard otherwise. And it’s not like she’s nails-on-a-blackboard. But for whatever reason, I just don’t get the appeal of Maya Rudolph.

No matter what I see her in I just find her ordinary. She’s never made me laugh. And she gets a million jobs and appearances on every award show, so it’s not like she hasn’t had chances. I just always feel there are a 100 other actresses who could do it better. And when you see her in a movie like BRIDESMAIDS with the very funny Kristen Wiig and Melissa McCarthy it becomes even more apparent she’s not in their league.

I know there are people who love her and find her funny. I suppose it’s just a matter of personal taste. My son Matt is not a fan of Amy Poehler. I love Amy Poehler.

But every time I turn around it’s announced that Maya Rudolph has a new project. And I scratch my head. In this town there are so many truly funny ladies who don’t have the resume, connections, whatever and can’t even get in the front door to be considered for all these opportunities that Maya Rudolph snaps up.

And again, I have nothing personal against her. I just wish she were… funnier.

On the other hand, don't get me started on Mindy Kaling. 

I imagine we all have someone like that. You see them appear in a comedy sketch and go “why?” So I’d be curious. Just based on their act (not politics, not what they look like, not any kind of racial or gender bias), who is somebody that makes a good living in comedy that you just don’t get?

Should be an interesting day in the comments section. But again, nothing mean, no personal attacks, and no attacking each other (since I’m sure names will come up that some hate while others love). Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Even me.


Tuesday, October 08, 2019

How to make stupid money in television -- at this moment of time

Let’s see how long it takes for this business model to implode. Because it will. 

TV is undergoing more changes now than it has in decades, perhaps five decades.

In the old days, here’s how the few lucky talented (but still fortunate) writers got rich:

Networks couldn’t legally own shows. So studios would make development deals to tie up the best talent. That resulted in multi-year seven-figure deals. The idea was that those writer/producers were exclusive to that studio and if they created a hit show everyone stood to cash in.

Additionally, writer/producers owned part of the shows they created. And in those days the goal was to make at least 100 episodes to sell into syndication. A smash hit like CHEERS or SEINFELD could be worth hundreds of millions to the writer/producer.

Once networks could own shows those development deals began to dry up. A few high-end deals still remained but the parameters of those deals were different. At one time writers only created shows and produced pilots. Under the new model, the network or studio (often the same thing) could assign you to work on whatever show it wanted.  You don't have a pilot?  Guess what?  You're Co-EP of THE NEIGHBORHOOD. 

Now we’re in a totally different universe. Streaming services are the future. Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon are getting competition from Warners, Disney, Apple, CBS, and more to come. They don’t need 100 episodes. They don’t want 100 episodes. Syndication is drying up. Soon there won’t be shows with 100+ episodes.  Series used to go seven years; in the future they'll go three.  Producers once produced 22 episodes a season.  Now they produce 12.  Or 8. 

So why should writer/producers go to Netflix or Hulu when their shows won’t go into syndication and they won’t make a backend killing if the show is a smash? Good question.

The answer is that these streaming services are now paying huge upfront money to A-list writer/producers but owning the shows outright. J.J. Abrams, Shonda Rhimes, Ryan Murphy, Greg Berlanti, and a few others are making deals for over $300 million upfront. And the deals are not even exclusive. Pretty nice signing bonuses. 

Get it while you can, boys and girls, because this model is bound to collapse. Why? Compare it with the old model: Yes, everyone got rich IF the show became a big hit. If it didn’t, well, the studio was out a couple million for the development deal. Here, if shows aren’t hits the streaming service is on the hook for $300 million. How many of those hits can they absorb before they realize they made monumentally bad deals?

How has a similar model worked out for MLB? How does that Albert Pujols’ ten-year $240,000,000 deal look to the Angels now? How many championships has he led them to? How many additional fans has he put in the seats?

But at least he’s exclusive the Angels.

So Greg Berlanti, for example, has a $300,000,000 deal with the Warner Brothers/HBO streaming service, and also gets a show on NBC. If the NBC show becomes that rare hit he can make a ton in success. If the show he creates for Warner Brothers does well, so what? He’s gotten his money. Which of the two shows do you think he’s going to concentrate on more? And which of the two shows do you think he’s just going to hire a showrunner and basically attach his name to the project?

The problem for the streaming services is they have to pay stupid money to entice A-list writer/producers, especially at a time when there is a lot of competition. But here’s what will happen: Some of the competitors will fail, or more likely merge with other services. Now we have three or four big players. Next year there will be seven or eight. Five years from now there will be five again, just maybe not the same five. And once that settles, gone will be the need to overpay producers. Broadcast networks will erode even more. Netflix, Disney+, and a few others will no longer feel the need to throw insane amounts of money to a select few individuals.  They'll be the only game in town.

So like I said, get it while you can. Is there a chance if you take big money upfront and forfeit any ownership rights that the show will become the next FRIENDS and it will air over many platforms, still go into syndication, and make the studio wildly rich while you’ve left millions on the table? Sure. But in this marketplace, I’ll take the upfront money any day. When they call it stupid money, the person receiving it is never the stupid one.