Sunday, August 31, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 339: Why Writers Fail

It’s that time of the year. Okay, technically it’s all the time, but I just notice it more right after Labor Day.

The first week of September in Canada traditionally marks both the return to school and the arrival of the Toronto International Film Festival.

With school comes a new crowd of fresh faced, energetic innocents –- most of them it seems entering film school. The vast percentage of these will already have a script (if not on paper then in mind) destined to shake the cinematic firmament –- or at least land them their first industry job.

Likewise, the streets of Toronto as well as Vancouver and the other lesser city film festivals that follow will be abnormally populated with screenwriters hoping to connect with the movers and shakers of film and television at every seminar, industry forum, screening and cocktail party they can crash.

Most of these writers will fail. And the biggest reason for that is --despite their talents or abilities, they don’t have what it takes to be a writer in the first place.

It’s something those of us who make our livings at screenwriting rarely discuss, even among ourselves. And it has nothing to do with one’s skillset.

Frankly, I’ve always believed that screenwriting is a craft which can be learned as easily as welding or carpentry. That’s basically how I taught myself. Out of “How to” books, by attending lectures by the masters, the trial and error of working in the sausage factory.

But knowing how does not translate to being successful or having a career. That takes something more. Something most writers don’t confront early enough to know whether their perceived path to fame, fortune and creative realization can be travelled.

Of all the script Gurus I’ve met along my own path, which has included such renowned names as Syd Field and Robert McKee, the one I’ve respected most is John Truby.

John has a way of cutting through it all and speaking simple, understandable truths. Basically, exactly what you expect of any kind of Guru.

And today, I want you to listen to what he says about why writers fail. Because I can tell you from experience and from watching dozens of writers far more intelligent and talented than I’ll ever be fall away, that he is speaking the truth.

If you are not the person John Truby describes, save yourself while there is still time.

And Enjoy Your Sunday.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Lazy Sunday #338: Shake It Off

The theme of last week’s world news seemed to be Genocide, both real and perceived.

In the Middle East the slaughter of innocents reached inconceivable proportions, with people in no manner capable of influencing events being beheaded, crucified and buried alive by those who can only be described as deluded, deranged fanatics.

In the United States, riots and protests erupted over the death of a young Black man, although no one yet fully knows the circumstances that led to his death.

Perhaps he was, as some claimed, executed by a Racist cop. Perhaps not. However, to many in the social media sphere his death was proof of everything from white privilege to over-militarized police forces or a “war on young Black males”.

At times there seemed, among some of the media and more than a few self-appointed pundits, a desire to ignite the powder keg and start some kind of race war.

I don’t like dealing with Racial issues in America. Mostly because I’m White and don’t live there. So I don’t have a lot of first hand, daily experience.

And yet, unlike most of the loudest talkers, I do.

I spent several years writing and producing a TV series about cops. And in the process I spent countless hours working alongside American cops in dozens of Major cities. White cops. Black Cops. Hispanic Cops. Asian Cops. Women cops.

They worked in communities that both reflected or were the polar opposite of their own social or racial status. Yet, not once did I encounter a single officer who based arrests or conducted encounters with the public in a manner that suggested he or she would be just as happy to take one of those different somebodies out.

I spent a couple of hours one night with a young black cop who had just shot a man, a man his own age and of the same ethnic background. He was completely justified in discharging his weapon. And yet he was utterly inconsolable.

Those who choose law enforcement as a career are rarely those who can easily take another life. And most take it as a mark of professional pride that they never had to draw their weapon on duty, let alone open fire.

Yet when they do their training requires two things. When their finger touches the trigger, they must have exhausted all other options and they keep firing until the threat no longer exists.

At the time I was shadowing cops in the US, something like 83% of violent crimes were being committed by young Black men. And the reasons for that were easy to see on the streets but far more complicated to solve. They included poverty, drugs, unemployment, lack of education, broken homes and lack of hope.

Last week while so many were screaming that White cops (or even all cops) were conducting a war of Genocide, FBI Homicide stats showed that 91% of all the young Black men murdered in the United States were killed by other Black men.

But solving the problems that led to those deaths still took a backseat to widening the racial divide, for slights real and imagined.

The low point for me was the online magazine Salon, of which I was in its earliest incarnation a paid subscriber, calling Pop singer Taylor Swift a racist because of her latest video “Shake It Off”.

What became clear almost immediately is that those pillorying Ms. Swift hadn’t even seen the video. They had become just that caught up in their own need to get something going or be part of the story that the facts didn’t matter.

But facts and being honest do matter. It’s myths and conspiracies and outright falsehoods that those who conduct Genocide depend on to justify their crimes.

You can’t let your life and emotions be directed by those who are so without purpose in their own lives, they just gotta find somebody else to blame for their situation.

The Cheerleaders of Doom had a banner week spilling their venom. It’s time we all start  to “Shake It Off”.

Taylor Swift is as good a place as any to start.

Enjoy Your Sunday.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Death Goes North

Hard as it may be to believe, the original “Hollywood North” was located on Vancouver Island. And like most of the Canadian film booms that followed, Canadians had little to do with it.

Oh, we had made films long before Hollywood discovered us. And many of them were quite successful.

The first Canadian film was shot in the fall of 1897, by a Manitoba farmer named James Freer. Freer basically chronicled life on the Prairies, drawing crowds with catchy titles like “Six Binders at Work in a Hundred Acre Wheatfield.

The Canadian Pacific Railroad liked what he did so much they sent him on a European tour to show his movies.  Not wanting to be left out of the limelight, the Government stepped up to sponsor a second tour in 1902, believing it would encourage immigration.

By then Freer was toting around a feature length collection of shorts entitled “Ten Years in Manitoba” –- or – what we would refer to today as “What a weekend in Winnipeg feels like”.

Things in the Great White North really got cooking in 1919, however, when a promoter named Ernie Shipman talked a bunch of Calgary Cattlemen into financing a romance entitled “Back to God’s Country” starring his wife.

It won worldwide distribution and returned a 300% profit to its investors, largely due to the fact that some of Mrs. Shipman’s scenes were performed in the nude.

But Hollywood still ruled. And while Canadians seemed okay with that, a lot of European countries weren’t and threw up trade barriers to protect their own burgeoning film studios.

Among these was Great Britain, which passed a law requiring 15% of the films shown on their screens to be “of British or Commonwealth origin”.

Worried about losing market share, Hollywood suddenly noticed that the USA shared a long undefended border with one member of said Commonwealth and rapidly launched a genre known as “The Quota Quickies”.

These were basically B-movies that could’ve easily been lensed on the backlot at Universal. But instead they were transported to Toronto, Montreal and Calgary where they could be quickly shot with virtual unknowns and sent back to Hollywood for editing.

The most successful of these ventures, however, was established in Victoria, BC by a producer named Ken Bishop, who would shoot a total of 14 films on Vancouver Island between 1932 and 1937.

The last of these was a ripping yarn entitled “Death Goes North” featuring one of the biggest stars of the time – Rin Tin Tin Jr.

“Rinty”, as he was known to his friends, was certifiable Hollywood royalty, son of the far more famous Rin Tin Tin, who had received the most votes for the first Academy Award for Best Actor in 1929. But at the last minute, the Academy decided it might be better for the industry if a human received the prize, so it went to Emil Jannings instead.

Kinda gives you a new perspective on Award shows, doesn’t it…

Anyway, although most people didn’t think Rin Tin Tin Jr. was as talented as his dad, he could still draw a crowd and the movie was a huge hit.

It might’ve also been the film that made the British rethink their quota system. For following its release they changed their quota law to exclude movies made in Canada.

And just like that -- an industry about to take root immediately withered. Eager to assure Canadians that while there was no longer a reason to shoot here Hollywood had not abandoned us, producer Lewis Selznick promised, “If Canadian stories are worth making into films, American companies will be sent into Canada to make them.”

A sentiment that still resonates today –- and won Ben Affleck an Oscar

But for those who would like to relive a moment of Canadian Hollywood history –- on Saturday night, the Victoria “Free-B Film Festival” will be screening “Death Goes North” at the Broadmead Village Shopping Centre –- which now stands on the site where the film was originally shot.

And as is fitting for any B movie, it’s part of a bill that includes cartoons and a chapter of the Republic Serial “Canadian Mounties vs Atomic Invaders”.

We just don’t make ‘em like we used to, do we?

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 337: The Fart Car

Although we’re clearly a society in transition from fossil fuels, governments seem intent on steering us back to them –- and for no other reason than to cover their own butts.

Drive across Canada these days and you won’t find a province that doesn’t have giant windmills dotting the horizon. And walk down virtually any urban street and you’ll spot rooftops glittering under a covering of solar panels.

I have friends who now meet their energy needs, if not “off the grid”, then close to it. And while a future completely free of coal fired power plants is still a distance away, it’s clearly coming with the cost of solar panels dropping between 40-50% per year.

The same is true of the automobile, still among our leading polluters. The electric car has arrived, with models like the Tesla now boasting 400 km ranges before recharging and said recharging accomplished by most owners with a home unit powered by a couple of solar panels.

Our governments have long insisted that we need to drive cleaner and, for a time, encouraged us to switch to electric vehicles, especially those with a daily commute.

But now, several provinces are finding themselves flush with Natural gas and they’ve changed their tune, hoping we’ll swap to that as our road fuel of choice.

Of course it means installing a home NG pump (average cost $5000) and encouraging gas stations to install the same –- both of which Consumer Reports says will require of drivers a special instructional course to learn how to use correctly.

And all to burn a fuel which, while less polluting, still holds the consumer at the mercy of corporations with a profit motive.

I’ve always looked at governments as being mostly populated by bureaucrats with either skillsets that just wouldn’t allow them to succeed in the real world or an inability to embrace independent thought.

I’ve also never felt they actually have our best interests at heart. If you don’t truly believe that, talk to anybody undergoing Cancer treatment or dealing with a chronic illness in our already overburdened and government managed medical system.

Given all they try to do and the bills that process generates, our governments are stretched and therefore cling to the desperate need to sell off the vast oceans of Natural gas they’re sitting on as fast as they can.

If you want hospitals, educated children and jobs, they insist it’s your only option. And that’s an argument that smells a little like the product they’re peddling.

Enjoy Your Sunday…

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

The Hemingway Hamburger

Ernest Hemingway having diner with a cat

While not every writer is a great cook, all of us know how to eat.

I believe that comes from the tradition of other people buying writers breakfast, lunch or dinner.

Whether you are meeting with a publisher or a producer, the unspoken rule is the guy who wants the book, TV show or movie pays.

They usually get to pick the restaurant too, so you can find yourself in a lot of trendy, nouvelle places, where the cuisine often takes a backseat to being seen. But hey –- if they’re buying, what the heck.

Writers are also pretty good at writing about eating. One of my favorites in this regard is Jim Harrison, author of “Legends of the Fall” as well as the screenplays for “Revenge” and “Wolf”.

Harrison used to write a food column for Esquire magazine which became about the best book about eating ever written – “The Raw and the Cooked”.

It was through Harrison’s columns that I also found Bob Sloan’s astonishing “Dad’s Own Cookbook” which has the power to turn any writer into a remarkably accomplished chef.

Among the writers who were apparently exceptional cooks was Ernest Hemingway. And while you’d expect Hemingway to excel at Tuna steaks or “Criadillas de la Corrida” he apparently specialized  at grilling –- hamburger.

Ernest Hemingway Original Copy of his Burger Recipe

Above we have Hemingway’s original recipe, with his own hand written notes. But it includes items common in his era that are hard to find today, so I’ve simplified it for you below.

1 lb. ground lean beef

2 cloves minced garlic

2 little green onions finely chopped

1 heaping teaspoon Chutney

2 tablespoons capers

1 teaspoon sugar

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon soy sauce

1 egg (beaten)

1/2 cup dry red wine

1 tablespoon cooking oil

Once you’ve gathered all that:

Crumble the meat and add the garlic, onion and dry seasonings, mixing it all together by hand.

Let the mixture sit fifteen minutes while you fire up the BBQ and dump tequila and lime juice in the blender.

Add everything else (except the cooking oil) work it into the meat and let it sit for another fifteen minutes while you have your first Margarita. 

Make the patties. At least one inch thick.

Brush the patties with cooking oil.

Cook on high heat –- no more than four minutes per side.


Write something macho.

And stay away from shotguns.

Monday, August 11, 2014



My heart is broken.

Somewhere in the mists of time, I had a magical Summer in Los Angeles, spending time watching Gary Marshall work on the set and writing rooms of “Happy Days”. Not really a writer yet, but trying.

The proximity allowed me the gift of watching Robin Williams shoot the first few episodes of “Mork & Mindy”, months before it would debut and catapult him to stardom.

We never spoke. He was so stunningly talented I honestly felt I’d catch fire if I got too close. He burned that brightly.

It’s hard to fathom how his world got as dark as it did early today. I’ve had the misfortune of knowing a few who’ve taken their own lives. It never makes sense, no matter how much you knew or thought you knew of what tormented their existence.

Even the most wise and experienced can’t stretch past what it might take to get them to reach out of the darkness for a hand. It’s a constant lesson in humility.

Most will remember Robin Williams for the laughs. But I’ll always recall the depth that lay behind the fun. He accessed levels most of us cannot even imagine are there.

It’s said that acting is about honesty and once you can fake that you’ve got it made. For him the honesty was real.

My heart is broken.

Friday, August 08, 2014

Cable Cuts Its Own Cord

For the longest time, TV specialty channels have been the success story of our industry. As traditional networks struggled with the problems of trying to satisfy a vast number of demographic and regional viewing habits, the specialties have been able to establish goldmines in their individual niches.

What’s more, unencumbered by the content controls that “censor” network programming, they’ve been able to launch the widely recognized “New Golden Age” of TV programming.

But a few weeks ago, an American study on television revealed the one potentially life-threatening chink in Specialty TV’s armor-plated business model. It relies on repeats.

Now repeats have always been a reality in television. They’ve meant that no broadcaster needs to program original content all year round or 24 hours a day.

Even such Blue Chip Specialties as HBO spend most of their broadcast hours re-running the shows people paid hefty subscriber fees to see in Prime Time as long as a decade ago.

The Canadian Specialty model is even more repeat heavy with the same shows running on tier after tier of every conglomerate’s myriad of channels until their cost has been amortized more often that a one bedroom bungalow in Vancouver.

But this study found that we’re now living in a world with so much new and “Original” programming that nobody has to settle for repeats anymore, so viewership in repeat hours is plummeting.

It’s plummeting further among those who’ve opted for a set-top box like AppleTV and Roku, where new content libraries (many of them free) seem to appear on a monthly basis.

Studios, recognizing that trend, are already licensing their product for Netflix, Amazon Prime and the like, making the viewing windows for their content either limited or completely unavailable to cable channels.

As a result of all this, in the last US Quarter alone, 305,000 Americans cancelled their cable subscriptions, cutting the cord and most likely saving a ton of money without losing either couch time in front of their screen of choice or entertaining content to fill that time.

And now it seems, even cable companies are beginning to free themselves from the bundled world of repeat programming that no longer meets the needs of their customers.

Opting for something they’ve dubbed “Virtual Cable”, DISH Network will begin providing channels via the Internet by the Fall of this year.

Deals already done with major content providers mean that DISH will offer Internet subscribers channels like Disney, ESPN and History without all the lesser (and most repeat heavy) channels they are normally bundled with.

Viewers will no longer have to purchase Fox to view CNN or vice versa; or pay for a bunch of reality channels in order to get TCM or AMC.

It all indicates that the age of Bundling is quickly coming to an end, and maybe even the age of Specialty channels and Networks.

While the CRTC will gather in its windowless rooms next month to contemplate saving our broadcast entities and production finance models in an unbundled future, we’re at the point where you can pay for only what you actually watch and not to finance all those channels that you don’t.

Wednesday, August 06, 2014

Reversing The Commercial Paradigm

Everyone who works in television understands the Faustian bargain. Your show is only there because somebody needs to sell something.

There’s a guy with a brewery and the people most likely to buy his brew like to flop on the couch after a hard day and look at some cleavage and dinosaurs. You have a show featuring cleavage and dinosaurs. You get green-lit.

If he sells a lot of beer, you get to make more episodes with cleavage and dinosaurs. His beer doesn’t sell, you’re done and pitching an anti-fracking Lesbian time travel show to the CBC.

For as long as there has been television, the “make the advertisers happy to have a successful career” model has been what drives the industry.

And advertisers can be tough. Not only on showrunners but with networks. If the promised audience for their product doesn’t show up, networks have to make up the difference, either by giving the sponsor some of his money back or cramming his ads into every gap in the schedule.

And you wondered why there were ads for adult diapers on kids shows.

But what if the sponsor didn’t care who was watching what?

What if he couldn’t care less about the show he sponsored because he was making money no matter what was on?

What if you could watch anything you wanted just because you’d purchased his beer in the first place?

Carlsberg Breweries is currently testing a product called “Movie Unblock”. The way it works is –- you buy a Carlsberg and pop the top next to the device on which you wish to view something.

A Bluetooth beacon under the cap releases a code the device verifies and unlocks the content you want to see.


And nobody needs to sit through a commercial.

Or even make one.

Is the day coming when you don’t need to buy a specialty channel just to see the one show they make that everybody is talking about?

Will there come a time when you don’t need that special sports package to catch your team’s distant road game?

Could we be on the verge of an era where creatives create what they think an audience wants and that audience accesses them directly?

That moment may already have arrived.


Sunday, August 03, 2014

Lazy Sunday # 335: The Hoverbike

All my life I’ve been promised a flying car.

When I was a kid, they were featured on the cover of just about every other issue of Popular Mechanics. My dad was certain that by the time I was old enough to get a driver’s license, I’d need pilot certification as well.

But long before I started Driver’s Ed, the Flying car had become more science fiction than automotive fact. And not even serious science fiction. They were considered on a par with the wise-cracking robot maids and auto-hygiene machines of “The Jetsons”.

“Star Wars” speeders gave me brief hope. But even that was dashed when I realized George Lucas was more interested in creating toy franchises than creating the future.

But now I’ve got some hope I’ll soon fly to my destinations rather than drive. For Australian inventor Chris Malloy is close to perfecting the Hoverbike.

At the moment his working prototype is 1/3 scale and available as a high-end drone through a Kickstarter campaign you can access here.

I did my first shoot with a drone a couple of weeks ago. And despite one hard landing that chipped a GoPro housing, the results were spectacular.

And if drones will soon be considered safe enough to deliver Pizzas and books from Amazon instead of just high explosives, the airborne commuter can’t be that far away.

Here’s a taste of what Malloy is doing. I can’t wait.

Enjoy Your Sunday.