Thursday, June 29, 2006

How Old is Too Old to Be a Screenwriter? (Part One)

I recently read an excerpt from the introduction to Stephen King’s epic volume The Dark Tower series in which he personalizes the Evil that chases us all into grave. King calls him the “Patrol Boy”... "One day you’re nineteen and full of x%&!!@#, and then you’re dead!"

Okay, it hurts to ask. But the question just doesn’t seem to go away – especially, in an age of graying boomers, quantum career-shifting, and the compromises of mid-life. How old is too old to be a screenwriter?

More and more writers over 40 are asking this question. (Heck, even guys in their mid-thirties in tinsel town sweat bullets over it – especially TV writers!) But what about the host of would-be-scribes out there that just never took the plunge until later in their lives?

First, the bad news – the Big A’s: Ageism and Access are linked. Ageism is not hard to understand. In Hollywood think, a 22-year-old will write a more commercially viable script than a 47-year-old or 52-year-old. And, they might be right, especially, if the plot has to do primarily with high school kids, keg parties, pot smoking, or panty raids.

Seriously, there are a lot of wonderful young writers in Hollywood, today, who talk about a reality those who are over forty don’t know about (or would like to forget!). Still what’s missing in many of those scripts is depth of experience. Consequently, all you get are thin movies about something topical that doesn’t even exist by the time you start the next project. It’s not that screenwriters over 35 aren’t capable of writing dumb, inane and just plain awful scripts, too. Dog dirt on the page is “dog dirt” at any age! But when it comes to stories with depth and weight to them, it’s probably fair to say that age and life experience will top youth and inexperience any day of the week. Right? Well, maybe.

We can’t assume for even one second that there aren’t young screenwriters who’ve written wonderful, complex, smart, wise-beyond-their-years scripts. It happens more often than you think. (Remember Finding Forrester?) And with so many colleges and universities offering Screenwriting Tracks, more and more high school students are enrolling in them and coming out with BA’s in Screenwriting. In fact, if a student goes to the right school (Northwestern, NYU, Columbia, UCLA, USC – you get the picture), s/he will likely be pursued by agents and producers before they even graduate.

Aside from the question of talent, the real problem is one of market perception and “marketability” in Hollywood. The place is in love with youth. It feeds on youth culture and its own vanity, and consequently tends to run about a mile wide and an inch deep … most of the time.

Scr(i)pt’s own Sally B. Merlin shares how in a recent New York meeting with three executives from a major studio, a writer friend of hers reported that, when he referenced The Searchers, not only had none of the story execs ever seen the film, none had even heard of it. Certainly, the lack of film history is a common epidemic among today’s young producers. But worse yet these buyers are raised on a steady diet of remakes and comic book characters; normally the stuff no writer over 35 wants to “waste” her time with.

Let me let you in on a little secret: Hollywood “gambles” every day. But it also hates the game, and loses millions of dollars every year doing it. It’s the nature of the beast. Enter: market perception and human ignorance, which drive the machine. Nobody on the West Coast has a crystal ball, so the studios tend to want to “hedge their bets” by catering to what they perceive is the “bankable” movie-going demographic. Can you guess who that is?

During the Studio and post-war era, Hollywood successes were driven more by adult fare, high quality storytelling, etc. That demographic gradually change, however, over the years to become a more youth-oriented, block-buster-driven market.

Screenwriters don’t normally ask which came first, the chicken or the egg. But they should. We tend just to go with the flow. And as long as we’re getting meetings and writing “fresh” material, ageism seems a faraway notion. But it’s not. It’s as close as that line-up of kids at the movie box office. (By the way it’s not their fault – it’s a free country!)

So is it possible to write to and discover entirely new markets? Might the older writer turn the ravages of old age to his/her advantage? (Like they say – write what you know…) And what about the growing faith and values market, increased demand for family fare, and movies boomers would flock to? The point I’m making here is that not everybody out there is willing to settle for more American Pie, Road Trip, or simply another comic-book-come-to-life? You decide. Older writers don’t have to feel victimized by the system. Yes, Hollywood is pretty much a closed-shop. So find a need and fill it. Better yet, create a need and write that. Then you’ll succeed.

In part two of this series, I will address the really good news for older screenwriters and more of the issue behind “access” to potential story markets.

Until then, screw the “Patrol Boy” and keep writing!

Kevin C.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

The Heart of Art

Since coming to Graduate School, I've been challenged to defend my art.

Before coming to Graduate School, my thoughts on the matter were quite clear. Here is a passage from a book I studied from when I was a 16 year Christian, trying to figure out what it means to be a Christian artist:

"Many fine Christians who have a talent or interest in the arts are forced to defend their involvement by saying that art is an excellent means of evangelism(political or religious). When art is used as a tool for evangelism (political or religious), it is often insincere and second-rate, devalued to the level of propaganda. I would call this a form of prostitution, a misuse of one's talent... art is the ability to make something beautiful, just as God made the world beautiful and said, "It is good." Art needs no justification;"

H R Rookmaker, "The Creative Gift"

Any thoughts on the matter?


This is Chester Elijah Branch. Elias is spanish for my middle name, Elijah. I just want to say hey out there and thank you Kevin for inviting me to this erudite group of writers.

Monday, June 26, 2006


Fritz Lang's "M" with Peter Lorre
Anyone seen it?
I wonder why Lang was so sanguine to let the shots last for such long periods. It seems that he was either 1) out of enough story to last 2 hours, or 2) trying to paint the image of bleak society, that would turn to its criminals to stop a sick sinner. I think it was the latter.
What do you think?

Friday, June 09, 2006


I vote for long line 3. The rest went blurry in my mind. Made no picture. I'm intrigued by the story, which is only really glimpsed in #3.


Vote for Best Logline...

Fellow Scribes,

I have been struggling to decide which of the following loglines packs the most punch. By the way, I often use my logs as the basis for forming the "30-second pitch" (... best delivered in an elevator, or so I'm told!).

The four versions below are from my most recent script -- "THE HOLE" -- a film noir piece wrought from a fusion of Sci-Fi/Horror/Suspense genres:

Suggested Loglines:

(Version 1)

For over ninety years the nature of the known universe has defied explanation at the sub-atomic level. Until now. But there are some things man was never meant to know. This summer, experience "the hole" . . . a maximum security prison where anything may enter, but nothing escapes!

(Version 2)

A maximum security prison in 1947, a particle accelerator two hundred feet beneath the Cumberland Mountains, and an "exotic matter" explosion 80 years into the future, hold the keys to everything that was, and is . . . and is to come. Unspeakable Evil – Infinite Terror – No Way Out!

(Version 3)

When death row inmates at a maximum security prison suddenly begin “dying” before they can be legally executed, signs point to a visiting female apparition. As notorious Cell Block Thirteen comes under investigation, everything the newly crowned Warden discovers makes her blood run cold. Something darker than evil and lighter than justice is taking over Red Onion State Prison, and time is running out. A young prison chaplain with no memory of his past and only visions from the future may be all that stands in the way of the lock-down from hell!

(Version 4)

A quantum conjuring of ultimate Evil, the fallout of a crude thought experiment involving death row inmates in 1947, and an exotic matter explosion eighty years into the future, opens a portal outside of normal space-time, setting in motion a chain of events destined to alter the course of human history.

Okay, which logline intrigues you most... Vote here!

Kevin C.

(P.S. - Be sure to defend your "vote" -- that is, tell me why you liked it over the others, etc.)

Writing is a Transcendent Act!

Writing is a transforming, transcendent act. As Annie Dillard said, "The sensation of writing is one of spinning, blinded by love and desire." It all starts with one word, one line, one small picture, a song remembered, a fragment of memory heavy with meaning that stirs your emotions, beats inside the chest, and takes your breath away.

When you create a scene, you're tapping the mallet of words against some rich vein of memory that only grows with tenderness, ruthlessness, and care -- like manufcturing deja-vu!

Writing is not about having "ideas" about plot, structure, or narrative. It is the creation of a feeling, a nuance, a snapshot taken, recalled, then established by allowing one scene to suggest the next -- of allowing the work to create itself. That's organic.

But this is more easily said that done. Nothing happens without putting words to paper, then shaping them. The process is the product. The secret is to write, then rewrite. To sift words until their essence emerges. Although writing is a solitary pursuit, sharing it with others along the same path, through triumph and error, refines craft and skill and allows for discovering new ways to see, to write, to enter into fictive reality -- the vivid and continuous dream that good story is about.

Contributors to this Blog should feel free to post scenes and descriptive passages from your past or more recent work for comment, here.

Crush the internal editor, trust the perception of your fellows, and FADE-IN...

Kevin C.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

The Business of Being a Screenwriter

Deep down we all care about originality, message, and leaving our mark, but if our work never hits the “marketplace” of ideas, sells, or better-yet “lives on screen,” then we are laboring in vain.

Writing commercially has probably been a bane to writers since Pliny the Elder plied the trade. But the truth is that today, writers can have the magical imagination of J.K. Rowling, the wit and wisdom of William Goldman, the perfect economy of Robert Towne, and the inspired brilliance of (whoever really wrote) Shakespeare. Yet we still have to pitch, sell ourselves, find and maintain adequate representation.

Unless your 110-page masterpiece falls unheard like a tree in the forest… and unless that’s where you as a writer are content to remain, it’s more than finding the right words on the page – it’s getting the right people to read them.

Okay, guys and gals, if you’ve got a favorite query to share, great pitch story, or other technique – let’s help each other … and the band of brothers and sisters coming behind us to get there, too.

Hollywood may be a closed-shop, but not forever. “Networking,” simply put, is one beggar showing another where to find bread…

Post here, answer please – how did you break-in? If screenwriting is an art form (and it is!), then breaking-in and staying “in” may also be an art form and experience worth your sharing.

Kevin C.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Jewish Roots of Hollywood


Has anyone read the book that Coleman (Luck) recommended to our Writing for TV class about the Jewish Roots of Hollywood?

Has anyone read Tarkovsky's "Sculpting in Time?"


The Story On The Top Of Your Head…

The story on the top of your head ... often runs deeper than you think.

I can remember sitting in one of my screenwriting classes hearing the Prof’s warning that the story “sitting” on the top of your “head” … is very often little more than an amalgam of things recently read, viewed, or seen in theaters. In other words, it is B-O-R-I-N-G, cliché-ridden, and woefully derivative.

Far be it from me to question one of my learned mentors (or even my own “psychosis”). But there may be more ... to the story, on second glance. Namely, all writing is “personal”…

My most recent script, The Hole, is a story borne from that first lesson – one I guess I never quite fully abandoned. From it, I learned again that writing is not just about creating worlds in which we can lose ourselves, but it also about creating worlds in which we can find ourselves

The script’s protagonist, Dr. Paul Adamson, shares a similar history with me, but we are not the same. And yet, in telling his story, I find mine. Paul, and the friends he introduced me to on his journey – Eva, Kathleen, Colonel Zahn, a Scotsman named O’Malley, and a certain Prisoner – taught me that surviving is just something we humans do. It is instinctual, but not easy. What’s difficult, what lies before each of us as our greatest goal, is redemption – really living – in a world that is too often but “a memory” of what it might have been. Most of us know that life isn’t simply one long perfect day, but what gets us through “hell” on earth is the belief that it can get better. Even when we have become the instruments of our own judgment, the end is greater than the beginning.

Write what you know. Just be prepared that, in those moments when your life opens up to reveal itself as something wonderful (or even terrible!) that you could never have anticipated, what you “know” can change you or someone else.

As Stephen King is fond of saying, “… listen to your boys in the basement.”

Kevin C.