Friday, June 15, 2012

Is it worth it to go to film school?

Here are this week’s Friday Questions. What’s yours?

Gareth Wilson asks:

Actual working screenwriters seem very skeptical about the relevance of film school to screenwriting employment. I gather that a diploma from even the best film school is meaningless when trying to get work. So is it possible to design a course that actually teaches you to write salable scripts, and what would it look like?

It really all depends on who your teacher is. My partner, David Isaacs, teaches screenwriting at USC and is terrific. USC has a very prestigious program but if David were teaching at the DeVry Institute I would say go there instead.

To me the real value in going to a noted film school is that they provide better networking opportunities when you get out. The UCLA, USC, NYU, Yale, Harvard, Northwestern mafias do exist.

As for a class teaching you how to write salable scripts – at the end of the day you have to have the talent to write scripts anyone would buy. Courses can provide the guidelines but ultimately you’ve got to have the chops.

If I may be immodest for a moment, I think the best single course for learning how to write sitcoms is my Sitcom Room seminar that I offer every fall. It’s the only course that really simulates what a working environment is like and gives you a chance to write for actors then see your work performed. To my knowledge it’s the only class like it. There’s only so much theory you can digest. You learn by being given a solid foundation and then asked to do it.

Ger Apeldoorn queries:

Joe Keenan once said, that although the farces were hammered out in the room just like any story, he preferred to take them home to work out the plot points. Are there any other things that are hard to do in a room?

Uh, yeah. EVERYTHING. Breaking stories is particularly tough. The good news about doing them in a room is you get different ideas. But the bad news is often times these ideas coming from every direction only creates more confusion.

For the same reason, it’s often hard in a room to write a detailed argument. Too many voices. Can you imagine room-writing an episode of WEST WING? Heads would explode.

From ao:

Who decides on which pilot to pick up? What happens to the ones that were not picked up? Just shove into the dark space of pilot black hole? And will TV networks ever air pilots that were never picked up for us (the audience)? At least show it online. I would love to see it.

Network top brass make the final decisions. You’d think they would simply pick up the best shows, but it’s much more complicated than that. Other factors include testing, commitments, whether they own the show or not, license fees, desire to be in business with a certain piece of talent, target demographics, need, time slot, compatibility with other shows, trends, etc. There’s a lot of horse trading that goes on behind-the-scenes.

It used to be if a pilot didn’t get picked up the network would gladly sell it to another network. They are then off the hook financially. But when NBC picked up THIRD ROCK FROM THE SUN after ABC passed and it became a big hit, ABC was very embarrassed. So for a long time if a network passed on a pilot they would rather just eat the cost then chance that someone else could turn it into a big hit.

But that was in a different economy. Today networks are again happy to have studios shop failed pilots around. Recouping their investment is worth more than possible embarrassment.

There was one case where David Frankel took his failed pilot, sold it as a short film and won an Oscar for it. And from time to time in LA, a small theater will stage failed pilots as if they were one act plays.

You’re welcome to come by the house and I’ll show you my failed pilots.

Liggie wants to know:

Friday question, professional advice edition. How do you prepare your voice for the long baseball broadcasts? I've started a job in the travel industry where I have to talk for four hours straight (ticket counter, line organizer, direction giver), and my throat's shot when I go home.

First, learn how to use your voice. Learn how to breathe and how to speak from your diaphragm and not your throat. The best vocal teacher in Los Angeles is Darlene Koldenhoven (I know. Great name, isn’t it?).

Protect your voice. Avoid loud rooms and clubs where you have to shout to be heard. Don’t have dairy products before a broadcast. It causes phlegm. So stay away from ice cream.

Air conditioning is also an enemy of the voice. 

If possible, do some vocal exercises before your shift. Always have plenty of water. Stay hydrated. Keep your vocal chords lubricated. Hot tea and honey is also good. Alcohol is not.

Suck hard candy. That’s what Vin Scully does.

And finally, relax. Tense voices are strained voices. Here again, breathing is key. Pace yourself, do the necessary preparations, breathe right, and you should be okay. Unless you’re calling hockey. How does Doc Emrick do it???


DJ said...

As part of his lengthy professional education (the "Doc" comes from his Ph.D in English), Emrick took an auctioneers course. He thought that the skills would readily transfer to hockey play-by-play.

Mike said...

I've read that, in the '60s and '70s, I think all three networks had summer anthology shows consisting just of unsold pilots. It seemed like a great idea to me: it gave those pilots they'd already paid for airtime, and also provided fresh scripted programming in the summer months. The practice has, of course, been long since dropped, but it still seems like a good idea.


Rob Buttery said...

Maybe this is a dumb question, but I've always wondered about the opening sequence of CHEERS: Those drawings of distinguished inebriates look like they come from the mid-late 1800s. And the hand-tinted photos look like they are from the early 20th century. Are those drawings and photos authentic, or were they very cleverly created for the show's opening montage?

Mark said...

There was a New Yorker profile of Johnny Mathis that reported he was in the habit of eating an Eskimo Pie right before going on stage. So I guess if you have sufficient vocal control, you can get away with anything.

Rich D said...

The practice of airing pilots continued into the 80s. I remember CBS aired a pilot for a spinoff of the action film REMO WILLIAMS (itself based on the DESTROYER series of men's action novels) with Roddy McDowell stepping into Joel Grey's role and heavy Korean makeup as Remo's mertial arts master Chiun.

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Oh, *please* let us read your failed pilots. You can learn so much from looking at stuff that doesn't work (because you can see the seams).

William Goldman writes a lot about this in his books about screenwriting (which I recommend regularly to every type of aspiring writer, not just screenwriters): that sometimes a script fails to sell because it's the wrong time for it, or because the studio head hates snakes, or any of a thousand reasons that have nothing to do with the script.

And I'm willing to praise The Sitcom Room - it's the only creative writing class that ever seemed to me worth paying for.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Speaking of failed pilots - those of you who know how to do such things should look around the Net for a copy of the failed pilot of THE BIG BANG THEORY. Lorre himself talks about how bad it was - no Penny, Howard, or Raj, but a street-wise manipulative girl who moves in on Sheldon and Leonard and takes advantage of them. And yet: Parsons and Galecki still have it.

Similarly, there are copies of the original Buffy pilot floating around - half an hour, different Willow. Again, it's really interesting to see what doesn't work and why, and develop the ability to see those things for yourself in your own work.

(And I really must start planning my messages in advance better so I don't have to navigate the damn captchas twice and bug the rest of you.)

Unknown said...

I loved the Lisa Kudrow series "The Comeback."
Naturally, I loved and hated her Valerie Cherish character in a Larry David fashion, but personally, I hated the writers even more.

If you pitch a sitcom that makes fun of writers the way that show did, does that bolster your chances of getting a green light from executives (assuming all other proposals are equally good)? I'm sure they're petty bastards.

Follow-up: Can we assume that you've had your share of Valerie Cherishes that you wrote crap pieces for because they annoyed the shit out of you?

Bonus point: Name one, please.

Phillip B said...

Love watching pilots on TV - TRIO was a very odd cable channel which went dark in 2005, and aired a number of unsold pilots as well as "brilliant but cancelled" series which had short runs.

Remember TRIO showed an unsold pilot starring Adam West which was touted as one of the best ever (it was great) and a pilot for a series based on Fargo starring Edie Falco.

Universal Television, another rather obscure cable channel, also shows short run series - produced by Universal, of course, - but prefers more recent stuff which looks good in HD.

Always wanted to see a show called "Failed Sit-com Theater" - where those who produced and wrote the show could tell everyone what the hell they were thinking. Understand why it is unlikely to happen, but hope they are some nuggets which might see the light of day.

Unknown said...

Hey Philip,
I like the concept of a failed sitcom theater. How would you feel about it being done guerilla-style single cam out on the street with the parts being played by homeless people?

Who knows what kind of break-out stars you'll find? Maybe the next Lindsay Lohan? Or Lindsay Lohan herself?

Jeffrey Leonard said...

Chapman University in Orange, California has a terrific film program. My son, Kelle, will graduate from there next year and is already involved in some media projects. But, Ken is correct, it's a lot of who you know.

Brian Phillips said...

The Frankel pilot that Ken Levine is referring to is "Dear Diary" with Bebe Neuwirth. I have NEVER seen it, not on VHS, DVD, TV, Netflix or performed by street mimes. I am genuinely puzzled as to how anyone is to see Oscar-nominated short live-action films. I have only seen one before it won, "Work Experience" with Lenny Henry.

As for going to Mr. Levine's house to see his pilots, Mommy warned me about such fellows.

Brian Phillips said...

Dear Rb: They came from “Our Town on the Plains” J. J. Pennell's Photographs of Junction City, Kansas, 1893-1922

Here is the corroboration and the book:

Brian Phillips said...

Rob, not Rb. Srry.

BigTed said...

If a comedy writer misspells "school" in a headline, is it a typo or a joke?

Nat Gertler (Sitcom Room alum) said...

I used to love the summertime airing of failed pilots... seeing things that really didn't work (the sitcom on opera form!), things that kinda worked but you could see why there would be problems getting a second episode out of the concept, and things that goshdarndit, you wished had been picked up (I'd still love to see more Curse Of The Corn People.) But I suppose there was little to gain in airing them; if the typical viewer hated it, they cursed the network for wasting their time, and if they liked it, they cursed the network for not picking it up.

BUT - for those in LA and New York: The Paley Center has various unaired pilots that you can view in their library. (Although don't be dumb like me - I just wasted hours getting to Paley Center in LA, only to learn that the unaired pilot I wanted to watch - The Mouse That Roared, starring Sid Caesar - is only in NY. Use the website to see what they have, then call in advance to see if they have it locally.)

Mike Schryver said...

I remember the summer anthologies of failed pilots. From a mass-entertainment point of view, they weren't very good. Most of the rejcted pilots clearly deserved it, and even the ones that were somewhat entertaining, being pilots, spent a lot of time setting up characters and situations that we'd never see again.

However, they were far superior to "Celebrity Fat Camp", or whatever reality garbage is being thrown at us this year.

VP81955 said...

The best vocal teacher in Los Angeles is Darlene Koldenhoven (I know. Great name, isn’t it?).

Is she a real person, or did Preston Sturges invent her as a distant cousin of Trudy Kockenlocker?

chuckcd said...

My degree in Radio/TV/Film was completely useless. The key is to be related to the ones doing the hiring.

HCarvalho said...

I've started to read the bok Top of the Rock, the Rise and Fall of Must See TV. What's your oppinion on that book?

David Baruffi said...

I just wanted to mention that I had a very working Television writing class at UNLV, with Prof. Sean Clark. He previously worked on many shows including "Lonesome Dove," "Coach," and "Early Edition", and I must say, he was very good at emulating the workroom environment of a sitcom writer's room. We all worked together, we pitched different ideas, we worked out some scripts, etc. I don't know if it compares to your class Mr. Levine, I'd love to one day take that course of yours, but I just wanted to say that there are some other good courses available on TV writing, but I very much appreciated his.

God Shammgod said...

Do you prefer a compact set or a bigger one? Remember when "I Love Lucy" moved the action from the cramped apartment set to the huge farm set? It didn't seem to work as well. And then there is the lunch counter in Wing's and the diner on Becker. It was like the actors were practically sitting on each other's laps....

Doug Thompson said...

Ken, I'm halfway through Warren Littlefield's book about his NBC years and I've come to the opinion, through some of what he says, that he thinks Brandon Tartikoff got more credit than he actually deserved for NBC's success.

Warren sites his own involvement with Cheers, Frasier, Seinfeld, Law & Order etc.

Since you worked on several of those NBC shows during Warren's tenure, what was your experiences working with him (network notes etc).

cadavra said...

I loved Summer Burn-Off Theatre (as I called it) because the rejected pilots were often superior to the crap that did get picked up. Two I remember with great fondness were DAKOTA'S LAW, with Patricia Charbonneau as a cheerfully loose-cannon cop and Bruce Davidson as her long-suffering partner, and THE BAKERY, a Bochco-esque cop show that cut back and forth between three different time periods--with actors doubling in some parts--with it all eventually tying together to solve the crime. (I can kinda see why that wasn't a go: Who could keep that level of complexity up for 22 episodes a year?) I also recall a sitcom set in the Old West, starring a young George Clooney as the saloon owner. Great stuff, all.

BTW, in at least one instance it did make a difference. The pilot of BLOSSOM got such a high tune-in that NBC reconsidered and ordered it to series, though somewhat changed. The rest is history.

Lyle said...

This is probably the third time I've asked this question and I've yet to see an answer . . . so I'm wondering if I'm doing this correctly.

Will try again.

If/when a writer submits a series idea and supporting scripts and the network buys it . . . how is the price determined? You have the fee for the writer, the salaries for the artists, the film, lighting and sound crew . . . . and other contingent costs. Then you have a fee for the creator of the series, separate and distinct (presumably) from the writer fee. Then you factor in profit as the difference between the total costs of producing each episode, and the agreed price per episode.

How is all that determined? The artists, presumably, are above scale . . but how much? Who negotiates that.

A primer, please, on the business side of the business . . . approximate or typical costs, etc.


lyle e davis
escondido, ca.

(Now, we'll see (a) if this gets through to you and (b) if you respond. Am waiting on pins and needles which, as we all know, is very uncomfortable.

Lou H. said...

There was one episode of Louie CK's show where he's part of a panel of around 20 people that have been hired to fix a movie script. One guy is going through the script paragraph by paragraph, each one resulting in several minutes' worth of brainstorming by Louie and his peers. (Amazing, they finish up by lunchtime; I guess the movie was a Looney Tune). However fictitious this is, it made me wonder: in practice, how big of a crowd can you tolerate in a writing room before it gets too chaotic and people get frustrated at how slowly progress is being made?

An (is my actual name) said...

Friday Question about the Cheers finale: Could you talk a bit about the thinking behind ending Sam and Diane? I know a happily ever after might have been too neat and tidy for them, but it seemed like the reunion of such an iconic couple was given the bum's rush. I'd love to know more about the behind the scenes decision making on that. It's the one aspect of the finale that doesn't feel right. Thanks!

Gareth Wilson said...

Thanks for the answer. I didn't mean to offend anyone who teaches screenwriting, but it just seems like one of the most difficult subjects to teach, and to evaluate what people have learned.

Roger Owen Green said...

Oh, agreed that failed pilots were MUCH more entertaining than what ever fills the summer months on the networks now.

al said...

Really? I would love to come check out your pilots someday.

Johnny Walker said...

That's very true, Wendy!

I'd also love to read the scripts that got people jobs. I don't know if you remember, but I asked if writers who had made it would ever consider letting aspiring writers read them. Jane Espenson fielded the question and said she'd considered it before, even going so far as contacting publishers.

These days anyone can publish something to Kindle/iPad, so maybe she'd consider it again.

I'd certainly love to read such work.

Anonymous said...

friday question: how often do sitcom writers in the writers room talk about theme when breaking stories?



Dana Gabbard said...

Lyle, all that is negotiated by agents and or entertainment lawyers. And all the way back to the golden age one thing all the producing companies do is share salary information, so usually they know what one was paid for their last gig.

Orion Anderson said...

I am writing a pilot, but I can't get enough substance for an actual "pilot." Is it better to write a pilot without an origin and just make it like a regular episode than to make an origin episode?

WendyElaine said...

Love the blog. I am working my way through Cheers again after enjoying the original on tv the first time. I have noticed a regular extra that isn't mentioned (as far as I can find) here or elsewhere. She is an older, distinguished looking, blonde woman. Who is she? I notice her in at least half of the episodes. Thanks.