Final Call: 30 Essential Movies for Screenwriters to Watch

October 17th, 2013 by

For my original post, go here.

For your suggestions yesterday, go here.

Let’s do one more day to solicit your take: What movies would you consider to be essential for us to watch? Movies where we can learn something substantial about the craft. Movies that are critical to watch and analyze to be able to converse capably with people involved in the Hollywood film development community.

Please post 3-5 movies in comments that you feel would best fit an Essential Movie list for screenwriters to watch.

One last chance for your suggestions.

Thanks for your help with this project!

Update: 30 Essential Movies for Screenwriters to Watch

October 16th, 2013 by

For my original post, go here.

What I’d like to do today and probably tomorrow is solicit suggestions from the GITS community: What movies would you consider to be essential for us to watch?

This is not necessarily a Best Of list, but rather movies tied to the craft of screenwriting.

For example, here is a thought from Shaula Evans:

For a GITS-generated list, I’d love to see people suggest movies that they have learned from as screenwriters, along with what they’ve learned. That would supply the data to create a diverse set of movies that can teach us a broad set of writing lessons.

That’s a good place to start: What movies have you learned the most from in terms of your understanding of the craft?

Please post 3-5 movies in comments that you feel would best fit an Essential Movie list for screenwriters to watch.

Thanks for your help with this project!

October: Hidden Gem Month?

September 17th, 2013 by

Note: I intend this post to gauge your interest in taking on what I think could be a cool series, but I take my damn sweet time getting to that point, so please be patient and read through my musings until you hit the payoff toward the end. Thanks!

Here in the Wonderful World of GITS, I’m always trying to think of ways to provide information, inspiration and insight for readers. That was the driving force behind my commitment to doing interviews with screenwriters on a regular basis, a weekly series that judging from the email and Tweets I get, is quite popular. As well it should be. What better way to learn about how to write and think like a professional screenwriter than hearing first-hand from professional screenwriters.

Another thing that emerged this year is a rotating monthly series of daily posts occupying the Noon (Eastern) 9AM (Pacific) slot. Thus far this year, we have had the following:

April: Story Idea Each Day for a Month

May: Movies You Made

June: 30 Days of Screenplays

July: Movie Story Types

August: Scene Description Spotlight

September: Scene-Writing Exercises

I look at that list and I think that’s pretty good, as it c0vers a lot of ground. But what to do for October?

Then it hit me: In my never ending quest to motivate folks to watch movies, why not a Hidden Gem Month? What’s more, what if I reached out to the GITS community and offered any of you interested to write a guest blog post? Do you have a favorite movie that deserves more attention than it gets?

Perhaps an older film hidden in the shadows of time.

Maybe a cult classic.

How about a foreign film.

I’d like to gauge your interest in taking this on. If I can get 25 people to commit to writing a brief Hidden Gems guest post, I think that would be totally cool. Imagine the variety of movies we could amass. I would create a post template to make it easy on you, all you’d have to do is plug in the information, provide a couple of paragraphs about why you love the movie so much and why we should all watch it, and you’d not only be doing a public service, you’d also get your name in some bright bloggy lights!

So who’s up for PROJECT HIDDEN GEMS?

I can think of so many hidden gems I’d love to promote. Here’s one:

That’s right, Repo Man, a cult classic if there ever was one, the 1984 movie written and directed by Alex Cox, starring a who’s who of great character actors including Harry Dean Stanton and Tracey Walter, where many of the key characters are named after beer (Oly, Bud, Miller, Lite), and featuring a musical appearance by none other than The Circle Jerks doing an acoustic version of “When the Shit Hits the Fan.”

How about you? Surely you’ve got a hidden gem you would love to brag on. Here’s your chance.

Can I get 25 movie loving souls to step up for this project? And to sweeten the pot, each one who participates will receive a special batch of GITS creative juju!

So whaddya say? Are you in… or are you in?

Keys to the Craft: Think Concepts. Watch Movies. Read Scripts. Write Pages. Live Life.

December 2nd, 2012 by

Here is a compilation of the series on screenwriting I wrote this week:

Think Concepts.

Watch Movies.

Read Scripts.

Write Pages.

Live Life.

Keys to the Craft: Watch Movies

November 27th, 2012 by

If you want to learn the craft of screenwriting, here are five practices you need to adopt:

Think Concepts. Watch Movies. Read Scripts. Write Pages. Live Life.

Okay, the last one is pretty unavoidable. That said, I will have some thoughts on it this Friday. Why? Because I am running a series this week on each of these practices.

Yesterday, I wrote about Think Concepts.

Today: Watch movies.

I’m often surprised when I interface with aspiring screenwriters how few movies they have seen. This is wrong in so many ways.

* You gain inspiration from seeing, studying, and analyzing movies.

* Every time you see a movie, you learn something about the craft.

* There is a Gestalt understanding of the craft you gain from watching a multitude of movies.

And then there’s this warning: If you expect to work in Hollywood, it’s critical you have a broad exposure to movies in order to be able to traffic in the countless film references people in the industry use every day.

You simply must watch movies.

Let me delve into this further by parsing the word “watch.” Broadly speaking, there are two ways to watch a movie.

The first is simply for sheer enjoyment and entertainment. Go to a theater. Rub shoulders with a real crowd to remind you of your target audience. Buy a big overpriced tub of buttered popcorn. Kick back and give yourself over to the story universe.

The second is for analysis and understanding. Cue up Netflix or pop in a DVD, and study it. Track its characters and their respective narrative functions. Identify themes. Note the story’s major plot points. Better yet, do a scene-by-scene breakdown.

Both are critical, the latter to inform your mind, the former to feed your soul.

Seriously you should watching two movies per week — minimum.

Where to start? Here: The IMDB Top 250 movie list. Go through this list and note which movies you have seen and which you have not. Then work your way through the titles you haven’t seen, one by one.

You can do this. You know you need to do this. The time to get started is now.

Watch. A. Movie. Today.

Tomorrow: Read scripts.

How To Succeed At Screenwriting… By Really Trying, Part 2: Watch Movies

November 8th, 2011 by

You may remember a 1967 movie How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. Here is the IMDB plot summary:

Twenty-seven year old New York window washer J. Pierpont Finch believes he can be a success in the corporate world after he impulsively picks up the book “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”. The book promises its reader that he can climb the corporate ladder simply and quickly. The Worldwide Wicket Corporation, the business in the office building whose windows he washes, is, according to the book, the perfect type of business. There, he meets secretary Rosemary Pilkington, who sees in Ponty, as she calls him, an unassuming man whom she believes the corporate world will eat alive. But Ponty, memorizing what the book tells him, does quickly climb the corporate ladder, but not by doing any real work.

Ah, if only learning the craft of screenwriting was so easy. It’s not. Despite all the products in the marketplace promoting “proven systems” and “secret formulas,” there is only one way to become proficient at the craft: You have to really try. That is the only legitimate path to success as a screenwriter.

This week I’d like to present to you five things you can do to help you learn the craft of screenwriting and put you in a position to succeed. They are completely free. They don’t require anything at all except this — your time, commitment, focus and effort.

In other words, by really trying.

Can it help to read books, attend seminars and take screenwriting classes? Absolutely, I wouldn’t have co-founded Screenwriting Master Class if I didn’t think Tom Benedek and I could help mentor writers in what it takes to write and approach the craft like professional screenwriters. But no matter what you learn in any formal setting or through your own ad hoc approach to educating yourself about the craft, these five practices I’m presenting to you this week are important and should be an essential part of your learning process.

Part 2: Watch Movies

Like Read Scripts, the admonition to Watch Movies should not come as a surprise even to casual readers of this blog. It is the second part of the triumvirate ["Read scripts. Watch movies. Write pages."] I promote on a semi-regular basis because I think they are each a critical component of how to learn the craft of screenwriting.

Today I want to dig down into reasons why I think watching movies provides an enormous benefit to a screenwriting aspirant.

* While reading scripts is important, watching movies provides a way of experiencing a story that highlights one key fact: Film is primarily a visual medium. You may or may not get that from a script, depending upon how visually the script is written and how attuned you may be to visual nature as you read it. When you watch a movie, however, you simply can not ignore its visuality.

In my experience, most fledgling screenwriters rely too much on dialogue. While important, what a character says in most movies is nowhere near as critical as what they do, what happens around them.

Somewhere along the line, you absolutely need to learn to think visually first in your screenwriting. Again: Film is primarily a visual medium. The best way to grasp that fact is to watch movies. Every second of every frame is a reminder of that most basic fact.

* Watching movies not only reminds you film is a visual medium, it also schools you in visual grammar. Every movie, even bad ones, features scene composition, framing shots, movement, cross cuts, perspective, point of view, scene transitions, all of that and much more. We may think that is the job of the director — and during production it is — but that does not translate into the writer simply setting up an imaginary camera in a locked-off position, then describing the action. Rather the fact is we get the first chance to direct the movie by how we orchestrate scene description, scene construction and so forth.

Do we use camera shots and directing jargon to convey that in our writing? Not nowadays, that goes against current screenwriting style. However there are numerous ways — from breaking up paragraphs of scene description into single lines, each representing a camera shot, to the use of secondary sluglines (or shots) to emphasize points of focus — to ‘direct’ the story on the page without resorting to directing lingo.

Ultimately this is about the combination of watching movies and reading scripts. You watch movies to inform and train your visual sensibilities. You read scripts to see how good, contemporary screenwriters traffic in imagematic grammar to convey their story visually.

* As noted yesterday, there is a difference between learning how to write a screenplay and how to be a screenwriter. The former is a very narrow, focused aspect of the craft. The latter is much more expansive, requiring an immersion — there’s that word again — into the world of cinema. This is especially true in Hollywood. You simply can not expect to transact any pitch, open writing assignment, or script notes meeting without a broad exposure to movies. Why? Because movies are reference points.

I would hazard to guess that in any Hollywood meeting about a script project, there will be on average 25 movie references. A studio exec wants to make a point about an action scene and may bring up the shoot-out in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid or the final sequence in The Expendables. A producer may remind you to come up with a funny bit of business for a specific character like C.C. Baxter in The Apartment or Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean or. A director may have specific camera shot in mind from Rear Window or Drive. Conversely you may want to make a point about the use of a talisman object like the snow globe in Citizen Kane or the spinning top in Inception. Indeed there may very well be references to obscure movies, early films by Peckinpah or Wyler, foreign films by Bunuel or Itami.

Now multiply those meetings each day — your manager, other writers, a producer, after screening chit chat — it’s likely your conversation will involve hundreds of movie references.

How are you going to be able to build your movie vocabulary in order to keep up with all those film references? Simple. Watch movies.

* It’s more than just about being able to cover your bases in terms of movie vocabulary, it’s about becoming an active part of the culture of cinema. Tarantino may never have done much in the way of formal film studies, but when he worked at Video Archives in Manhattan Beach, he dug into cinema by watching thousands of movies. In face he is quoted as saying, “When people ask me if I went to film school I tell them, ‘no, I went to films.’”

This is not just about immersing oneself in the culture of cinema, it’s about exposing yourself to a variety of styles, genres, and forms so that you may find your own voice. Does this sound similar to what I noted yesterday about reading scripts — “Every script by every writer has its own style, its own take on format, its own approach to pacing and handling scenes, its own unique feel and tone. What better way to expose yourself to a variety of approaches than by reading a wide selection of scripts?” Absolutely, it is the watching movies equivalent.

* In fact there are different ways to watch a movie. There are times when all you want to do is kick back, relax, and let yourself go with a film, enjoy it as pure entertainment. Great. Nothing wrong with that, indeed you are more than likely picking up something in that process either consciously or subconsciously. On the other hand, there is enormous value in analyzing a movie as you watch it. Whether that involves checking your watch every time a plot point happens, tracking them by their minute count, creating a scene-by-scene breakdown, or turning on a DVD, flipping your chair around and listening to the movie, you will learn something new and add to your understanding of how movies work.

The opportunities for learning involved in watching movies are limitless, but the single most important key here is to make sure you slot in time each week to screen a film… or two… or three.

How well versed in movies are you? Check out the IMDB Top 250 movies. How many of them have you seen? It it’s less than 100, you have some catching up to do. More on that Thursday.

A few questions for you:

* How many movies would you guess you have seen in your lifetime?

* How many movies do you see each week?

* How do you think watching movies can benefit you in learning the craft of screenwriting?

For Part 1 of this series [Read Scripts], go here.

Tomorrow in Part 3: Write pages.

Watch Movies. Read Scripts. Write Pages.

December 16th, 2009 by

I received an email yesterday from a student who began writing in high school and is now studying at a community college. She has written “a few” spec scripts. Her basic inquiry was where to go with her spec scripts. Here is my response:

First of all, congratulations on finishing your spec scripts. In my experience, a lot of people talk about writing a script, but most don’t, so to get that far is an accomplishment.

Assuming what you’re talking about is how to break into the movie business as a screenwriter, let me be candid: It’s extremely difficult. In the past, the best way to do it has been to write a great spec script – by great, I mean a script with a fantastic, commercial high concept, compelling and multidimensional characters, a strong story structure, memorable dialogue, and overall a superior read. That is still one route into the business, but the odds are increasingly long as more people write and submit spec scripts than ever before, while the studios buy fewer specs, favoring instead, at least for now, preexisting source material (i.e., books, graphic novels, TV shows, toys, video games).

Even if you do write a great spec script, the next challenge is to figure out how to get someone who has ties to the movie business to read it. I wish I had all the free time in the world, then I would open my virtual door to every writer, but I simply can’t do that.

My suggestion to you is this: Focus on the writing. There are various theories – to which I generally subscribe – that a writer has to write x amount of scripts / x amount of words or spend x amount of hours writing in order to really learn the craft. The time you spend worrying about how to get your script to Hollywood is time you could be writing.

So three things: Watch movies. Read scripts. Write pages. That should be your focus for the next several years. Because if you’re not ready to work in Hollywood as a screenwriter, then it doesn’t matter who you get to read your script: You won’t sell it.

Watch. Read. Write. That’s my big advice. Trust that if you do that, you will meet whoever it is you need who will help you advance your career in Hollywood.

Two things I’d like to expand on. First, the focus must be on the writing. That’s a given even if you’re lucky enough to break in as a screenwriter. Yes, the networking, following business trends, and the rest is important. But it always comes back to what you put down on the page. And to feed your screenwriting, you need to watch movies and read scripts – to give you both a broad framework in which to place yourself, what you like and dislike, to find your voice, and to bump yourself up against all the minutiae that is a part of writing a script, forcing you to learn what works and doesn’t work, which helps you to shape your style.

Second, I know that living in some remote outpost, far away from Hollywood, writing screenplay after screenplay may not seem like the most direct route into the business. But as I suggested in my email, what good is it for you to develop solid contacts with people who work in the business if what you submit to them is not worthy of their attention? Moreover I really do believe that if you write it, they will come. Part of that will be about the material itself – it will be flat-out good enough to warrant Hwood’s attention. Part of that will be your growing self-confidence – when you write a script that know is a killer screenplay, there won’t be a hitch in your voice, a lapse in your determination, you will find a way to get somebody’s attention who can make a difference. And part of it is that no matter how much Hollywood recycles stories, they are always and will always be on the look-out for great stories. That will never change.

There is no one-way to do it. There is no one formula to write a great script. Every writer is different, every story is different. What worked for Diablo Cody (Juno) and Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine) may and probably won’t work for you.

You have your own writer’s journey to chart.

But I can’t think of three better pieces of advice than these:

Watch Movies.
Read Scripts.
Write Pages.

As the Canadian clergyman and writer Basil King is quoted as saying, “”Go at it boldly, and you’ll find unexpected forces closing round you and coming to your aid.”

UPDATE: In comments, James makes a really good point:

Hey Scott – I’d add another route to all of this — find like minded fellow filmmakers in the city where you live. If you are writing quality scripts that can be produced on microbudgets, and you are able to get something off the ground with other talents in the rough, not only will you do what we are all ultimately wanting to do — make movies — but you will also become a produced writer, which in my opinion has more value and cache than any number of well received spec scripts. Particularly if what you produce is good.

First time screenwriters are constantly looking to win the Hollywood lottery. But those of us who aren’t in Rome need to take advantage of the technology that’s available to us. You probably won’t make a Paranormal Activity (although you might) but you will build a credit list and you will work and you’ll see what works on the page may or may not work on the stage.

Make films. Write a lot. Make more films. Don’t just hope and dream of hitting it big off the page. Build a career as a filmmaker.

Go read the rest of it as James has an anecdote about Neil Blomkamp (District 9) that illustrates his main point.