I arrive at the Regal LA Live Theater in the heart of downtown LA. It is Thursday, April 26, Opening Night for Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Infinity War. I’ve been counting down the days to this night for past two months. Everything about the marketing campaign for this film has been immense and this campaign, more than any other, has kept me awake at night.
I’m standing in front of an art installation breathing a sigh of relief. I have been working with James Raiz, an illustrator from Toronto, on this Marvel Studios 10th Anniversary celebration piece. He spent 250 hours hand-drawing 18 character panels, representing each of the 18 films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The centerpiece is a giant Thanos – the villain in Infinity War. Ten years of movies have all been leading up to this. The piece is impressive. Fans are engaging and taking pictures. The artist texts me. He is on his way to the theater.
I see the team from Moviebill arrive. I’ve also been working with them to launch the debut issue of their publication. It’s like a Playbill, but for movies and with a 3D augmented reality overlay. It features interviews with talent, behind-the-scenes editorial, and exclusive art. The Avengers: Infinity War Moviebill will be handed out to one million people at Regal cinemas opening weekend. The excitement of launching a new product is evident on their faces. It’s a big day for them, and I’m curious to see how fans respond to the product.
But I’m not at the theater for either for the artist or Moviebill. I’m here for the fan event – a premium ticket early screening of the film that includes a collectible coin, exclusive bonus content, and popcorn. My team planned these events at nearly 600 locations across the country. This morning, I received word from the studio PR team that Joe Russo, one of the directors of the film, would be coming to the LA Live theater to make a surprise visit. My phone rings. It is Joe’s driver. He’s here.
I meet Joe outside, and I bring him into the theater. We make a stop to get popcorn. He is relaxed and easygoing. I lead him to the holding room where we wait until it’s time for the introduction.
Joe is glancing at his phone to see who his Cleveland Browns take in the first round of the NFL draft. We make small talk. We talk about the shocking ending. If there was any concern about the movie, it was how fans would react. The film opened the previous night in European markets. So far, the response has been positive.
Joe tells me that he has some time before he has to be at USC for a lecture, maybe he’ll stick around for a while and watch the movie with the fans. I tell him no problem. I text my co-workers and tell them we need a seat for Joe. It’s a sold-out show. Fortunately, they find a fan sitting near the exit that is more than happy to give up his seat for the director and a fifty-dollar gift card.
The trailer package ends, and we enter the side of the darkened theater. The anticipation is palpable like the eagerness of a child waking on Christmas morning. I take the microphone and step to the front of the theater. I introduce myself and welcome them to the Fan Event. I tell them that there is someone here that wants to say something. They gasp. Immediately and in complete synchrony, I see 200 faces disappear as 200 camera phones are lifted to record whatever happens next. I introduce Joe, and the fans erupt.
Joe is a pro. He thanks the fans for being so great and talks about the year-and-a-half journey leading up to this night. He takes his seat. The movie begins. The excitement hits a fever pitch.
I stand off to the side and watch the first 10 minutes. The fans’ reaction was mix of laughter and cheers. So far so good. I leave to find James, the artist, who has just arrived at the theater.
I find James in front of the art installation interviewing for his YouTube channel. His wife, kids, and parents watch from a distance. The previous day, James and I connected over lunched. He told me his story. His parents emigrated from the Philippines to Canada before he was born. His parents hoped he would become a doctor. When he was in high school, he told them he wanted to go to art school. The news did not go over well.
In his parents' mind, an artist was a person on the street who draws pictures for change. That is not why they moved to Canada, so their son could beg for money on the street. He brought his parents to Los Angeles tonight to show them how far his art has taken them. He wants them to see, to understand, that he can be successful with his art. I speak to his parents, beautiful people who sacrificed much so that their children and their children’s children might have a better opportunity to prosper. I point to the art piece and say, “Look what your son has done. I hope you’re proud of him!” “We are proud of him.” They respond with a gracious smile.
Here are a couple pictures of the art installation. I snapped these pics with my phone, Not great pictures, but you get the idea. That's James giving an interview in front of time-lapse videos of him drawing the pieces.
My phone buzzes with a text. Joe is heading out of the theater. I reunite with him to thank him for coming. He doesn’t know it yet, but he is the director of the movie that will have the biggest box office opening of all time, but right now he is hungry, and he is going to grab a bite to eat before his next engagement.
I’m hungry too. A few of us decide to grab a drink and satisfy our appetites.
I arrive back at the theater during the final minutes of the movie. The tone in the room has changed. That ending. The fans are stone silent. When the final scene plays, and the movie rolls to credits, a collective exhale releases from the audience with audible “No!” What?” “Holy S***.”
One fan cannot contain himself. He jumps out of his seat and runs to the side exit hall where my co-worker and I are standing. “Oh, my God.” He cups the temples of his head with his hands. “That was so epic!” He recognizes us from the beginning of the show and introduces himself. “My name is Cameron.” He can’t stand still. He is checking his phone, rubbing his head, swaying back and forth. He is processing.
No one leaves the theater. Everyone is waiting patiently for the end credits scene. It comes and drops a reveal. The audience erupts. Cameron runs out of the theater. I follow him and find him half-running half-skipping down the hall toward the lobby yelling “That’s what I wanted! That’s what I wanted!”
I stand to the side and watch the fans stagger out of the theater. Their heads down, they look like they have just come back from the front lines of a major conflict. One fan, heavy-set, long hair, wearing a shirt with pictures of the Avengers on it, looks at me. “Devastating man.” He shakes his head. “Devastating.”
I drive home that night, and I am relieved. Avengers: Infinity War is finally out in the world. All the long days at work have paid off. I think about the movie. It’s just a movie, a fantasy/adventure with a bunch of costumed superheroes. I think about the reaction it solicits, the way it affects people, and I understand that for many it’s not just a movie.
We live in a time of deep polarization. Maybe a movie like this, which brings people from all countries, languages, and worldviews to a theater to sit next to each other and watch our heroes try to be the best versions of themselves they can be – because the fate of the world depends on it - is just what we need.
IO West, my improv theater, has closed its doors. I heard the ugly rumors, then received the e-mail confirming it to be true. My heart sank when I heard the news. The official statement credited the closing to ongoing disputes with the landlord. Little did I know that the development of the Hollywood & Vine district that revitalized the area would also force the little theater on the corner of Cosmo and Hollywood to go dark. Los Angeles will never be the same now that “my theater” is gone.
I discovered IO West over a decade ago during my first year in Los Angeles when I wasn’t sure I was going to make it in this town. The theater introduced me to long-form improv, a new way of thinking about comedy and performance. Pursuing “truth in comedy,” a core teaching at the theater from day one, has forever shaped my approach to writing, my understanding of character development, and my philosophy on the creative life.
I spent over a year at the training center. At the time, I couldn’t afford the classes, so I worked as an intern to pay my way. I took classes at night. I performed shows on the weekends. And on Friday nights I ran the lights in the “black box,” the small experimental theater behind the main stage. I watched countless hours of improv, some good, some not so good. I learned from it all. I met some of my closest friends there and performed with a group called “Camelot” for about a year before we went our separate ways.
In recent years, I spent less time at the theater. My life moved on to a full-time job, writing, and the pursuit of personal goals, but there was always a comfort in knowing that IO West was there. Whenever I stepped into the place, the smell of the bar, the pictures of improv legends on the wall, the roaring laughter of the audience, the familiar faces, it all felt like home.
The thing that made it special was that it was a place in the middle of Hollywood, known for cynicism and cut-throat competition, that still felt pure. There was no money to be made. No fame to be found. Teams performed at 11:30 pm on a Tuesday night because they loved what they were doing and loved the people they were doing it with. It didn’t matter if there was a packed house or three people in the audience who simply didn’t want to go home. When performers stepped on the stage, they knew that something unscripted was going to happen. It was often funny, and it was always revealing.
I’ve learned a lot, and continue to learn, from studying and performing improv. But there was one lesson that stood out. I had an instructor tell us that you can't do improv with your weight back on your heels and your shoulders pressed against the wall. If you do that, you’ll never get to play. She said you have to lean forward with the full weight of your being over the balls of your feet ready to move, ready to step into the unexpected. Improv taught me to live life forward, in bold anticipation, ready to step into the unknown.
Though the theater is dark, its lessons still light my way.
I have a pretty rad day job. I do in-theater marketing for the largest studio (by market share) in Hollywood, a studio that also happens to be on one of the most successful runs of films in the history of the movie business. Not a bad gig at all. There are a lot cool things about my job, but one of my favorite roles if finding and working with artist from around the world to commission custom art in support of a film.
We do this because while we have the best creative print team in the business (my humble opinion), sometimes we’re limited on the amount of marketing art available, or we decide that want something that looks different from anything else we are doing in our campaign. That’s when we commission a piece of art. We call it “fan art” but the artists we use are professional, who also happen to be fans.
My job is to find the artist, negotiate the terms, and give feedback on the piece from concept to completion. All creative must get approved by our marketing execs and by filmmakers, so I liaison between the studio and the artist until everyone is happy with the art and we can share it with the world.
To find the artists, sometimes I work with curators of the fan art. I have a great relationship with Poster Posse (posterposse.com) who has introduced us to some great talent over the years. Sometimes we find an artist online and reach out directly to him or her.
Here is a selection of some of my favorite pieces from the past couple years. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Artist: Dan Mumford - London
Artist: John Moody – New Orleans
Captain America: Civil War
Artist: Kaz Oomri – Osaka, Japan
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
Artist: Tom Whalen - USA
Captain America: Civil War
Artist: Matt Ferguson - UK
Artist: Jackie Huang - Los Angeles
Note: This was a paper cut piece
Artist: Eren Unten – Los Angeles
Artist: 100% Soft – Los Angeles
I’ve heard something lately that I haven’t heard in a while: genuine interest from a management agency in my work. I picked up an insight at the Austin Film Festival last October and when I came back to LA I thought try something I’d never done before. I sent a query letter.
Query letters have been a tool for aspiring writers in Hollywood for decades. It’s a letter written to agents, managers, producers, or production companies that basically says, “I’m So-and-So and I have a script call ‘The Great American Screenplay’ and it’s about …“
For a myriad of legal reasons, very few companies accept unsolicited scripts. So the goal of the query is to pique the interest of the reader enough that they solicit your script.
Before the internet changed everything, these query letters were old school, requiring ink and paper, a roll of stamps, and a lot of envelope licking. It was common for aspiring writers to send dozens of query letters with the hope that someone would take interest and respond. The problem, as you might imagine, is that all these companies and agencies are bombarded with queries every day and the likelihood of a response is very low. So, the general perception among writers is that query letters don’t work.
I was somewhat surprised to hear from a literary manager speaking on a panel at the film festival that his agency still accepted queries via e-mail. I thought, my script pitches well, what do I have to lose?
In early November, I sent three query letters to three different talent management agencies with a short pitch for “The Resurrection of Dennis Munson.” Two weeks later, I got a response from one of the companies. They asked for the script. So, I sent them the script. Their instructions are explicit: don’t follow-up. If we’re interested, we’ll contact you. The holidays came and I didn’t hear anything. To be honest, I kind of forgot about it.
Last Friday, exactly two months after I submitted my script, an e-mail appeared in my inbox. “Thanks for sending your script to us – we enjoyed your writing and want to read more from you.” They asked if I had any other completed scripts that I could send a pitch, or logline, for. Fortunately, I did have another script called “The Tinker Dreamer” that I’m proud of and it’s a story that I think reflects my creative voice.
I worked on the pitch over the weekend and sent it to them Monday morning. That afternoon, they replied and asked for the script, which was great, except for one big problem. The script wasn’t done. I thought for sure if I heard anything back from them it would take a week or two, which would give me time to finish it. I did not anticipate they would reply in two hours.
Before the holidays, I started on a rewrite. It was a significant rewrite that I thought I’d have done, maybe, by the end of the January. I looked at the script sitting on my desk, bloodied with red ink. Oh crap, I thought. I have to finish this now.
I rewrote the script in 36 hours. It was intense and to be honest kind of fun. I wrote late into the night and got up early to keep going. Tuesday night I finished the new draft and sent it off to my editor for cleanup. Amazingly, my editor, who lives on the east coast, had the script edited by the time I awoke Wednesday morning. I addressed my editor’s notes and submitted the script to the agency Wednesday night. Phew.
Now I just have to wait and see what happens. I may never hear from the agency again. But then again, who knows? Anything is possible.
Here is the pitch I sent them for “The Tinker Dreamer.”
The Tinker Dreamer is a Capra-esque sci-fi drama set in rural post-war America of the 1950s, before Sputnik and the space race, in a time when mankind’s ideas of outer space were formed by science fiction comics and B-movies. Max, an inventive dreamer, comes of age longing to explore the outer reaches of the known universe, but entangled love and family loyalties keep his feet firmly on the ground. Max’s unconventional beliefs are put on trial after a mysterious machine he builds falls into the wrong hands. The town’s believers and cynics take sides as the fate of Max and those he loves rests on the flip of the machine’s switch.
I attended the Austin Film Festival and Writers Conference last weekend. It was a great time connecting with other talented screenwriters and filmmakers and gaining insights into the independent filmmaking industry. One of the best parts of AFF is that it isn’t in LA. It takes some effort and investment to go to the festival so everyone who is there is there because they are committed to their craft. It makes the connections and conversations thoughtful and rich. Plus, it is fun to watch rooms packed with introvert writers doing their best to be social and make good conversation. By the third and fourth day of the writer’s conference, I heard a lot of “I just want to go sit in a quiet room and stare at the wall for a few hours.”
While I was there I had the opportunity to pitch my script. The pitch competition worked like this: There were 10 pitch sessions. In each session around 12-15 people would have the opportunity to pitch their idea. The idea could be for a feature film or TV series. They have 90 seconds to make their pitch. Afterward, two judges have two-and-a-half minutes to give feedback and ask questions. Once all the pitches are complete, the judges select two pitches to advance to the pitch finale. I was the fourth person to pitch in my session and felt like I nailed it. The first words from the first judge were, "That was great". The second judge was in agreement. He suggested adding some details about the climax’s set piece but added it would be difficult to do that in a 90-second pitch. I also felt the room was with me and really engaged by the story. But in the end, only two pitches could advance and the judges selected two TV pitches over my feature pitch. To be fair, those two pitches were really great. I was disappointed that my pitch did not advance to the finals because I believe in the story and really wanted the opportunity to tell a large group of industry people about it. It turned out, the two pitches that advanced from my session went on to place first and third in the overall competition (and the woman who placed third, won the competition the previous year). My pitch session was pretty stacked. Perhaps had I been in a different session, well, who knows... That’s the business. That’s the way it goes.
I returned to LA late Sunday night thoroughly exhausted but inspired. My mind is spinning with new story ideas. I know my next script needs to smaller in scale, something that doesn’t require tens of millions of dollars to be made. I was also motivated to go back and revisit a script I wrote several years ago called “The Tinker Dreamer.” It’s a story that has a lot of heart but needs some fine-tuning.
Writers write and dreamers dream. That is my take away from the festival. We write because we have to. We dream because we need to. An audience may come or it may not. Fame or anonymity, it matters not. Answering the call is what makes the journey heroic. So I will continue to answer the call that says, “write write write.”
For those curious, this was my story pitch. It is not word for word what I said, but it will give you the idea. Every time I pitch the story, it is a little different.
The Resurrection of Dennis Munson is a four quadrant Fantasy/Adventure and Drama that is about the power of stories to help us connect with those from whom we’ve been separated.
Denny is a children’s literature author struggling with the loss of his infant son, so he writes a series of fantasy books where his son continues to live a life of adventure. The world adores him for his stories, but it comes at a cost as Denny’s relationship with his reality and his relationship with his wife crumble.
It is also the story of a boy, Anew, a young orphan who grows up in a fantastic world, raised by the fur-covered creatures of the Crescent Cove. The boy becomes self-aware of his differences and haunted by questions of his origin: Where did he come from? Why does he have no parents? He sets out on a dangerous quest through foreboding lands with malevolent monsters in search of answers.
The two story threads collide in a dramatic climax where the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred and Denny and Anew must decide if they will stay together or say goodbye and return to the own worlds.
I had every intention of writing something thoughtful this weekend, but, well... I decided I'd rather finish watching Stranger Things on Netflix. If you've watched the series, you won't blame me.
In the spirit of Stranger Things, I leave you with my favorite fantasy/adventure films from the 80s. Did I miss any?
If I am not the target audience for a film about an improv troupe written and directed by Mike Birbiglia and produced by This American Life’s Ira Glass, I am not sure who is. I made a point to see Don’t Think Twice this weekend. As I took my seat I looked around the theater and recognized the faces of several LA improvisers. The very funny Joe Lo Truglio was sitting in front of me. I wondered if they were thinking the same thing I was: who makes a serious film about improv?
I have written about my love for improv in previous posts. I am an alum of Improv Olympic and The Second City. I’ve taught improv for years. Every time I step into black box theater and see an empty stage with a couple chairs on it, I the get the chills. There’s always an urge within me to jump on the stage, to play, to see what happens.
Improv is like a splatter painting. Some say it is silliness; others claim it is art. I think it is both. Individual characters and performances can be quite silly, but the discovery that is made as a group is art. What I appreciate about the film is that even though the cast if comprised of very funny individuals, the story is about the group. The film is about the art of improv.
The question that drives the narrative of the film is one of success: what is success and what happens to the troupe when some members find success and others don’t? It is an honest story grounded in authentic characters and it hits close to home. I know these people. I’ve been there. I’m still there.
The irony of Don't Think Twice is that all the actors in the film have had what most would consider successful careers. I wonder if they made the film for all their improv friends that haven’t found success the way they did.
The film isn’t for everyone, but if you are familiar with performance theater and especially improvised theater - or if your twenties were all about hope and you’ve spent your thirties realizing how dumb it was to hope - I highly recommend it.
This past week my work sent me up to the Bay area to meet with our marketing partners at Pixar and Lucasfilm. (Who says your day job has to be a drag?) This was my first visit to both campuses, so I must admit I was pretty excited. I wrote a research paper on Pixar’s leadership during my MBA program, so I was familiar with Pixar’s story and the values that shaped them. I’ve read about their campus in Emeryville and I’ve seen pictures, but nothing prepared me for the delight of seeing the place for myself. We were treated with a first class tour of the campus, including visits to John Lasseter’s playroom – I mean – office and the legendary workspaces designed by the animators. I’m particularly found of the office that was dressed to resemble a plane crash in a jungle.
Here are a few pictures taken in the main atrium. For obvious reasons, I cannot post pictures from the restricted areas of the building.
We spent the afternoon at Lucasfilm, home to ILM (Industrial Light and Magic) a leading visual and special effects studio. I held it together for good while, but ended up geeking-out when we came across the props and models from some of my favorite films.
The trip was both productive and inspiring. Here is what struck me most:
The Elegance of Thoughtful Design – The Pixar campus is beautiful, but great design is not just a pretty face. It is the coalescence of simplicity and functionality. Each space is designed with a purpose that reflects the values of the community. For example, at Pixar they want to force people to encounter one another because they believe it is the interaction of people that sparks ideas and creativity. So the four restrooms are attached to the high-traffic areas near the central atrium. The mailroom is across from the dining area and all employees are required to pick-up their own mail. Everyday activities, like bathroom breaks and mail runs, can lead to encounters and conversations with co-workers, that would not happen if the restrooms were hidden down hallways and the mailroom was buried in the basement.
The Symbiotic Relationship Between Artists and Engineers – It is not about celebrity “creative types”. The right brain and the left brain need each other. At Pixar they say, “Technology inspires the art, and art challenges the technology.” It is the relationship between the two that has led to their success. The work of the one is not greater than the other.
Movie Magic is Indeed… Magic – Walking through the halls at Lucasfilm and seeing the matte paintings, models, and character designs from the incredibly rich history of films that ILM helped create reminded me just how much I love filmmaking. While computer generated visual effects have allowed stories to be told in ways we never thought possible, there is still something about practical special effects that I find magical.
The Importance of Playfulness – To step inside John Lasseter’s office is to see a big kid at work. His office is packed floor to ceiling with toys and collectibles. I noticed the same thing when I visited the restored offices of Walt Disney. For such powerful and influential men, they sure had a lot of toys in their offices. Playfulness and productivity are not mutually exclusive. We must never grow too old to be a kid.
Optimism – Beneath all the creativity and innovation I saw at both Pixar and Lucasfilm is an underlining optimism. “We didn’t know is was impossible, so we did it.” In a world where cynicism is having its day, perhaps the best reminder is that it is still possible to believe that anything is possible.
Hollywood is mostly noise.
The noise I am talking about is not the perpetual drone of the 6 million vehicles that pack LA County freeways or the 10 million people who take up residence here. I am talking about the noise that comes from the aspirations of a city swollen with “starving artists”. If you could take that noise and slow the babel down to hear each articulated pronunciation, you would hear one simple message: Look at me.
Each year roughly 50,000 screenplays are registered with the Writer’s Guild of America. Hollywood studios release around 150 films a year. If you include the independent films that get limited releases (some very limited) there may be as many as 600 films released a year. Some basic math will reveal that the work of an aspiring screenwriter has a 0.003% chance of getting made into a feature film by a Hollywood studio and a 0.012% chance that the screenplay will get made at all. Furthermore, those 50,000 unproduced screenplays don’t go away at the end of the year. They are deposited into an ocean of existing screenplays that float around with scripts from the year before, and the year before that, and the year before that…
To be honest, a large percentage of those 50,000 unproduced screenplays are poorly written and do not warrant consideration to be made into a feature film. However, I assure you that not one of the writers would say their screenplay is not good enough to be made into movie. This is why Hollywood is so noisy. The supply obnoxiously exceeds the demand. So you have a city full of dreamers clamoring, “Look at me! Look at me!”
Aside: While I cannot speak for my actor friends – whom I personally think have tougher go of it than us writers – I believe the odds are similarly stacked against them. The same goes for musicians and other performing artists.
When people say they got their “break” they mean they broke through the noise. They said “look at me” and someone with influence paid attention.
One of the ways a screenwriter can rise above the noise is to have his or her work place in a screenwriting contest. The Nicholl Fellowship is an annual screenwriting competition hosted by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (the same Academy that presents the Oscars). It is a well respected competition and while winning the competition can change your life, you don’t need to win. Simply placing as a semi-finalist or quarter-finalist can make a difference. It means your script was scored higher than 95% of the scripts entered. It gives you legitimacy and a chance to rise above the noise. Your name gets on the list.
I received my gently worded letter from the Nicholl Fellowship this week. I was informed that my script, The Resurrection of Dennis Munson, did not place in the top 5%. The letter went on to say that it missed placing by the “thinnest of margins, only a point or two.” In fact, it placed in the top 6%. But, like placing 4th in the Olympics, that is not good enough to get on the list.
So for now, I remain in the ranks of the noise, but I raise my glass for being among the best of the noise.
I caught up with this fun and delightful film from New Zealand over the weekend. I really enjoyed it. Quirky, funny, and heartfelt this film is a refreshing change of pace from the effects driven blockbusters we typically see this time of year. Like many I was heartsick after the events of the last week; finding this life-affirming film was good for my soul.
It is getting harder and harder for small independent films to see the light of day, so if you get the chance to see this film, please do. You won't be disappointed. The film is in limited release here in the States. Check your local listings to see if it is playing near you.
A WRITER KEEPING THE FAITH IN LOS ANGELES