September 2006 Archives
A while ago, I wrote an essay about an editorial on copyright. I thought the author of that editorial was hopelessly naive and so misguided as to be proposing suicide as medicine for what ills us.
This evening, I read an article that’s quite the opposite. Copyright Jungle, written by Siva Vaidhyanathan for the Columbia Journalism Review, takes a far more rational and realistic approach to the state of copyright law.
First, Mr. Vaidhyanathan talks about how various media pundits and futurists are fond of imagining brave new Google-dominated worlds:
“So what happens when all the books in the world become a single liquid fabric of interconnected words and ideas?” [Wired editor Kevin Kelly] wrote. “First, works on the margins of popularity will find a small audience larger than the near-zero audience they usually have now… . Second, the universal library will deepen our grasp of history, as every original document in the course of civilization is scanned and cross-linked. Third, the universal library of all books will cultivate a new sense of authority … .”
Riiiiight. Just one problem with Mr. Kelly’s utopian vision of the free all-books-now library.
Google has steamrolled the internet, and yet it’s copyright law that has frustrated Google more than any competitor ever could. Google can’t follow its plan to create the universal library because publishing is a right, and that right is retained by the copyright owner.
Yet, as Vaidhyanathan notes, you won’t hear much from the media about this, because the media barely seems to understand copyright itself. The fact that an industry creating the intellectual property known as “journalism” doesn’t quite get the rules that govern its own product is…well…disturbing.
The most recent headline-grabbing copyright battle involved The Da Vinci Code. Did Dan Brown recycle elements of a 1982 nonfiction book for his bestselling novel? The authors of the earlier book sued Brown’s publisher, Random House U.K., in a London court in the spring of 2006 in an effort to prove that Brown lifted protected elements of their book, what they called “the architecture” of a speculative conspiracy theory about the life of Jesus. In the coverage of the trial, some reporters — even in publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The San Diego Union-Tribune — used the word “plagiarism” as if it were a legal concept or cause of action. It isn’t. Copyright infringement and plagiarism are different acts with some potential overlap. One may infringe upon a copyright without plagiarizing and one may plagiarize — use ideas without attribution — without breaking the law. Plagiarism is an ethical concept. Copyright is a legal one.
Perhaps most troubling, though, was the way in which the Da Vinci Code story was so often covered without a clear statement of the operative principle of copyright: one cannot protect facts and ideas, only specific expressions of ideas. Dan Brown and Random House U.K. prevailed in the London court because the judge clearly saw that the earlier authors were trying to protect ideas. Most people don’t understand that important distinction. So it’s no surprise that most reporters don’t either.
Most reporters…most screenwriters…
It’s quite sad, really. It may also explain why those who do understand copyright and copyright law—like the corporations who own and exploit intellectual property—continue to wield tremendous influence over the evolution of those laws.
Still, Vaidhyanathan sees a silver lining in the battle between those who wish to protect their property rights and those who wish to liberate information and expression such as the films we writers help create.
Yet copyright, like culture itself, is not zero-sum. In its first weekend of theatrical release, Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith made a record $158.5 million at the box office. At the same time, thousands of people downloaded high-quality pirated digital copies from the Internet. Just days after the blockbuster release of the movie, attorneys for 20th Century Fox sent thousands of “cease-and-desist” letters to those sharing copies of the film over the Internet. The practice continued unabated.
How could a film make so much money when it was competing against its free version?
The key to understanding that seeming paradox — less control, more revenue — is to realize that every download does not equal a lost sale. As the Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig has argued, during the time when music downloads were 2.6 times those of legitimate music sales, revenues dropped less than 7 percent. If every download replaced a sale, there would be no commercial music industry left. The relationship between the free version and the legitimate version is rather complex, like the relationship between a public library and a book publisher. Sometimes free stuff sells stuff.
Sometimes free stuff sells stuff.
This concept isn’t new. It’s just new to the intellectual property industry. In fact, anyone familiar with “loss leaders” knows that sometimes stuff that costs the owner money sells stuff. My father-in-law was a Burger King franchisee. He rarely made any money on hamburgers. Usually he lost money on hamburgers. Lots of money if there was some kind of special offer.
But the fries? The drinks? Enormous profit margins.
However, Vaidhyanathan never quite explains why free downloads might help spur purchased downloads. I know why burgers sell fries. But why will someone watching a pirated but pristine HD download of a film ever bother to spend money on a file that is the exact same aggregate of zeros and ones?
Right now, it appears that digital piracy is something enjoyed largely by the impoverished who probably wouldn’t pay to see the movie otherwise, or the inveterate naughty, i.e. those who love getting something for free so much, they’ll put up with the crappy quality and long download times.
Those days will change.
In the coming year, downloading DVD quality movies will accelerate. Shortly thereafter, we’ll be routinely downloading HD quality movies.
The industry for which we work will face a choice. Does it continue to build the walls higher and higher, or does it hope and pray that freebies will simply serve to entice people to do the right thing and buy the official version?
I remain cautiously optimistic. Anyone can jump online right now and download any song they so desire for free…and in less than a minute. And yet, iTunes continues to move files at a ferocious pace. Last February, it sold its billionth song.
That’s a billion reasons to be hopeful.
Just as copyright law was the only thing that could trump the ambitions of Google, an inherent human decency may be the only thing that can defeat piracy.
Ed. Note: This is actually a reprint. It’s one of the first (maybe the first) essay I ever wrote for this site, which basically means no one ever saw it. Since I’m in New York for the premiere of School For Scoundrels, I figured I could cheat a little and run with this. Oh…and next week, go see the movie!
I start every non-spoof movie I write with an investigation into theme. The theme is the argument at the heart of every good screenplay.
I believe that the protagonist’s relationship with the theme is ultimately what defines the structure of the film.
You be the judge…
A Three Act Structure Defined By The Hero’s Relationship With The Theme
Theme: A proposed argument, e.g. “There’s no place like home,” “It is better to love and lose than never to have loved at all,” “The unexamined life is not worth living.” In this sense, “theme” could actually be referred to as “The Answer.”
In Finding Nemo, the theme could be stated as: “Sooner or later, you have to let your kids go and hope for the best.”
Act One: The hero is unaware of the theme. Even though he doesn’t know it, it’s his ignorance of The Answer that is the reason his world is either unhappy, unstable, unfulfilled, chaotic or all of the above. After all, it’s not circumstances that upset a character. It’s the manner in which they react to them.
Marlin, having lost all of his children but one, is obsessed with protecting Nemo. This obsession is a manifestation of his ignorance of theme. This ignorance has led to unhappiness; in response to the parental smothering, Nemo tells his father that he hates him.
Note that Marlin thinks his problem is that a barracuda ate his wife and 399 other kids. It’s an understandable mistake. Even so, tragic circumstances are still, well, merely circumstantial. It’s Marlin’s choices (all motivated by his ignorance of theme) that are causing the real problems.
Act Two: As the hero begins to confront obstacles and/or the antagonist, he begins to gather experiences that hint at the existence of The Answer.
When thinking about the second act, it helps to define the purpose of the experiences the hero will have. My suggestion is that the purpose is to instruct the hero in the ways of The Answer, or theme. Consider the wise old turtle who directly demonstrates the theme to Marlin (letting children take risks in order to grow). Consider Dory, whose character has made peace with risk and the possibility of failure. Consider the jellyfish minefield, which requires Marlin to take a risk in order to succeed.
It’s that last kind of scene that’s particularly powerful. Circumstances force the protagonist to behave as if he understood The Answer, and the resulting success is too compelling to deny.
Act Three: Armed with faith in The Answer, the hero commits to a final course of action, no matter the cost. The matter of faith is essential; the hero must believe first in order to receive the reward. Once the hero risks it all to live The Answer, order is restored and stability returns.
Marlin is faced with a choice at the end of his adventure. He’s found Nemo, but Dory is trapped in a fishing net. Only Nemo can save her. In order to truly reach Themehood, Marlin must prove his faith in The Answer. He risks his own son in an act of faith by allowing Nemo to rescue her. Once Marlin passes this final test, it’s clear that he truly believes The Answer. Order and happiness are restored, and the tragedy of the film’s first scene is overcome. In the epilogue, Nemo tells his father that he loves him.
This perspective can provide a useful sense of limitation when crafting sequences for a story. After all, you could write practically anything on page 48, but you’re trying to write the right thing. And when readers say “this scene/character/moment feels inorganic to the story,” what they really mean is “this scene/character/moment is disconnected from the development of the theme.”
And what that means is that no matter how clever or original or thought-provoking the material is, it’s ceased to be about something. When that happens, return to your Theme.
To summarize (and please forgive the dogma of acts…it’s just a shorthand…)
Act One: The Hero is ignorant of the truth of the Theme, and demonstrates this ignorance clearly.
Act Two: The Hero faces tests that begin to slowly reveal the truth of the Theme (and the non-truth of the Hero’s current belief system). At the end of the act, the truth of the Theme is fully revealed, and the Hero is faced with the tragic fact that he’s been living an ignorant life.
Act Three: The Hero attempts to do that which believers-of-the-Theme would do, but only in the moment when he actually believes is he finally able to triumph.
So I’m sitting at a little get-together with some other screenwriters recently, including Masters of the Scribosphere John August and Josh Friedman. Naturally, we talk briefly about blogging, and I mention that my site is a bit on the boring side compared to John’s because I never really talk about anything personal per se.
John pointed out, correctly, that this is going to have to either change, or I’m going to have fewer and fewer posts to make as time goes on.
In a desperate effort to avoid a future where you guys log on to read about some intestinal problem I’m having, I’m going to fill the gaps here and there with some more posts about the actual craft of writing.
And yet…who am I to theorize on writing?
I’ll be honest. My ideas come with no force of authority. They’re yours to take or leave as you’d like. In fact, they’re mostly half-baked. Here’s my first half-baked theory: event compression.
Now, we’re all familiar with character, theme, narrative and all the other good stuff that make up a screenplay. Recently, though, while working on a script for an animated film, I started thinking about another variable.
How much movie time does an event of X importance take?
Event compression is different than pacing, which is the relative sense of “how much stuff is happening in X amount of movie time.” Instead, event compression describes how expansive or cursory each “stuff” is. Here’s the example that led me to think about this.
In my current script, a penguin is going to travel from the south pole to the north pole. In order to get to the north pole in time, he must seek the help of a magical creature who lives on an island a few hundred miles off the coast of Antarctica.
The penguin begins his journey on page 23. Now, I know that there’s a lot of stuff that’s going to happen once he gets to the island, and I know there’s a lot of stuff that’s already happened.
But when the penguin sets off on his journey, he’s a bit sanguine about how easy this will all be, because he’s a naive little creature who’s seen nothing of the world.
Hmmm, sounds like I, the screenwriter, should give him a quick dose of reversal even before he gets to the island (so that I can re-reverse by making the island seem great, then re-reverse again by revealing the island and the monster to be treacherous, etc. etc.).
I decided to have the penguin hit by a terrible storm. A tempest. A tempest with tsunami-sized waves and a massive, penguin-eating giant squid for good measure.
If done the way I intend, the tempest will last about 30 seconds.
Why? Well, because the tempest isn’t exactly story-advancing. It’s designed to reveal to our hero that he’s not as well-equipped as he thought. He’ll get that point quickly. No need to belabor it.
Now, let’s imagine I were writing in live action.
A 30 second tempest? Ummmmm, no. No one is going to go through the time, energy, expense and danger of a simulated tempest just for a 30 second bit of character illumination.
The fact is that animation provides me the freedom to…
…and this is where I thought, “event compression!”
Event compression works both ways, of course. Any story event can be compressed or expanded for effect. We can do this without speeding up the story itself, in fact. We can choose what to make a meal of, and what to let go in the blink of an eye.
By altering event compression as you desire (within the limitations of our production medium), you can often avoid a sense of plodding or flatness or linearity. Changing up your event compressions keeps the audience on their toes. It offers a strange verisimilitude to life itself, which doesn’t have actual event compression, but often feels like it does.
Remember, compressing an event doesn’t mean it has to be paced quickly. Pacing and compression are two different things.
For example, let’s say your hero is about to box for the first time. You can write a slowly-paced, highly compressed scene in which he steps into the ring, and we watch in “real time” as he and his partner dance around each other for 30 seconds, not even touching each other. And that’s it. Next scene is the lockerroom. Your hero is getting his gloves cut off. And his face is hamburger. We can extrapolate.
The pacing was languid, but the event itself has been compressed to almost nothing. Two different variables manipulated independently.
Or you can write a fast-paced, highly-expanded scene, which would be similar to any of the climactic fights in a Rocky movie. They’re long—you see every damned round—but each round is full of fireworks.
This independence of pacing and event compression is true for both scenes and the overall feel of the movie’s time.
Dinner parties, first dates, car rides, fist fights, strolls through the park, a hitman’s first kill…doesn’t matter what the event is, and you should feel free to expand or compress as you desire.
But do think about it, though. It was something I was doing before I knew I was doing it, and all things being equal, a conscious understanding of a writing variable is probably better than an unconscious one, if only because you have more control.
So that’s what getting hacked feels like! No, the picture to the left isn’t what the homepage looked like. That’s just my spoof of the classic hacker yadda yadda…the laughing quaker is a staple in the forums at Fark.com. For those of you who emailed me to let me know, I thank you.
Of course, waking up to the laughing quaker would be one thing. Waking up to a screen full of Arabic text followed by a ten digit number is another. Granted, this site doesn’t seem like something terrorists would be too interested in attacking (frankly, why would ANYONE be interested in hacking me?), and as always, Google came to the rescue. By copying and pasting the Arabic text into their translator, the mysterious hacker’s true motive became clear.
“Site infiltrated by Moshari The Phallic. Questions: 4829754834.”
That’s not the real number, of course. And then he listed a fake hotmail addy.
Well, Moshari The Phallic, you have bested me today!
Sort of. I mean, it took about two minutes to undo what he did (which was basically change the index page). Naturally, I’m going to be spending a little time in the upcoming days to try and patch up any security holes here and maybe reevaluate some of the peripheral software we use on the site (possibly change our chatware), but this, I suppose, is a cost of being on the web.
For now, this wasn’t as much a crime as a bit of silly teenage vandalism. I guess, in a way…I’m flattered. I mean, it’s great to have you guys as readers, but…Moshari The Phallic? Here? On my site?
Ed. Note: Today’s post is written by a guest author, Howard Michael Gould. This piece originally appeared in Written By (the WGAw magazine), and I really enjoyed it. Howard has generously allowed us to reprint it here for your enjoyment.
Each word is garbage. If I can even think of a word. When I do somehow manage to spit out a line, or couplet, my characters all sound the same, bland and lifeless. I’m sure as hell not funny any more. Who knows, maybe I never was. And I’ve lost all sense of how to shape a scene. No one would want to read this script, let alone produce it. My mother was right: I should have gone to law school. Who am I kidding? I couldn’t have hacked that, either.
Face it: my talent, such as it ever was, is gone — again — and this time it’s never coming back. This is the script, this is the job on which when I finally won’t be able to fool them, when I’ll get found out for the fraud that I am and always have been, and I’ll never work again. And then it’s all over.
That’s what it’s like, every line, every page, the first time through, from “FADE IN” until “THE END.” Two decades, maybe forty full-length scripts, plus all those TV episodes, you’d think it would get easier. But it never does. It gets harder with every year, more terrifying with every script.
I call it Page Fright.
I haven’t discovered a cure, but over time I’ve lurched into a design for living with it. Basically, I do everything I possibly can to shorten the hell.
I start by noodling notes for as long as I need to, just a conversation with myself on the computer screen, toward figuring out all the answers, all the story lines, all the basic beats. Then I put each beat on a virtual index card (with my beloved Writer’s Blocks software), using a different color for each story. Next, I separate the cards into acts, then shuffle them around until they’ve landed in an order which feels like it has some kind of a flow. I transfer these cards into a word processing program, and spend as long as I need to fleshing that out into as full a prose outline as I can manage. Every character is named and described, all sluglines accounted for, there’s even some dialogue if it happens to come to me. Unless it’s a production rewrite with a tight clock, I’ll allow myself as many unhurried weeks as I need to complete all those steps, and the outlines can run anywhere from fifteen single-spaced pages (on, say, a book adaptation) to almost fifty.
I find this “pre-writing” period relatively painless; some parts, like pushing the index cards around, are almost fun. Sure, there are points when I get stuck, but somehow, even when I’m under a production deadline, it all feels fairly free of pressure. I know how to do this stuff.
It’s only when that process is complete, when I’m at last ready to “write,” that the terror descends. My mantra becomes this: as fast as I can; as bad as I have to. I compose on the computer (I’m a very quick typist) and I don’t look back, don’t even re-read the page I’m on, even if I know something I’m writing now doesn’t square with something from before. I back up the file regularly, but never print it. I’ll only quit for the day at the end of a scene, and not until I’ve knocked off at least eleven pages if it’s a weekday, six pages on the weekends. On a hurry-up production rewrite I might force a fifteen page minimum. If, by some miracle, I catch a wave, I might even race through twenty or twenty-five. I think I did my whole first pass at Mr. 3000 — probably 95% new dialogue — in five days. As fast as I can; as bad as I have to.
On average, I can get this over with in a week and a half. But once in a while the script runs long, and by the time the draft presses into its third week, I start feeling physically ill, as if my heart is going to stop beating unless I consciously will it to keep going. I’ve had moments, in fact, when I’ve decided that it would be easier just to let the heartbeats stop than to try to fake my way through one more wretched and humiliating scene. Of course, that’s never worked, either.
Eventually, though, the ordeal does end. I can finally press “print,” and then hold in my hands something which at least looks like a script, oddly unfamiliar to me though it still is, not having re-read a word of it. I usually say that this document has no value except, literally, as an insurance policy; that is, I always let my wife know that if I get run over by a bus tomorrow (please?), she can turn this in and get paid for the step.
Then, unless I’m under a tight deadline, I’ll let it sit for two or three dreadful days, not out of some well-considered intention to gain critical distance, but because I simply can’t muster the courage to actually look at what I’m sure must be absolutely the worst piece of cow dung anyone’s ever slopped onto paper.
Finally, I face up to reading it. And guess what? It does suck. Always.
But here’s the thing: it never sucks quite as badly as I thought it would. First off, the structure is generally sound, thanks to all those weeks of outlining. And there are also pleasant surprises, every time, lines or half-pages where somehow I’d actually managed to hit the ball pretty cleanly, though they must have happened so fast and amidst so much misery that I’d totally forgotten about those happy little accidents the instant they occurred.
Anyway, during this read I make notes on the script, both general and specific, trying to treat it like somebody else’s writing, like something from back when I used to run TV shows, maybe a disappointing first draft delivered by some freelancer who turned out not to be as talented as I’d thought. I scribble notes into the margins, notions on how to fix every scene — again, in a nod to my TV days — as if I were giving these instructions to a bunch of staff writers who’ll go and do a pass on this script while I’m off running a different room.
The next draft, the second, is the one where I get serious, where I work and re-work each scene and each line painstakingly, where I won’t move on to the next until I feel like I’ve truly licked it. I do this scratching by hand, in red pen on the script and in black on extra looseleaf pages. This second pass could easily take longer than the first one. But a few years ago, under the pressure of a hard deadline, I discovered that if I hole up somewhere out of town, away from my family and away from the comforts and distractions of my home and office, and with the pressure of a hotel bill and a check-out date, I can manage this entire grueling draft in four long and intense days. I also found that the work itself gets better through this kind of immersion, that I’m more likely to stumble on some felicitous connection between page 78 and page 16 when I’ve been working on those scenes only a day or two apart. I’ve been going out on the road to do my second draft of every script ever since.
What I bring home looks laughable, whole pages crossed out in red and rewritten in the margins, almost no pages with even half of the original writing untouched. But once this scrawl is retyped cleanly, it’s an almost reasonable facsimile of a presentable script. The back of the beast has been broken. One more pass over several easier days, and it’s ready for my wife to read; two or three more brief passes after that, and it’s ready for the world.
And guess what? Now the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and I’ve got 110 pages or so which represent the best that I’m capable of.
And by that point I’ve pretty much forgotten that I was ever worried about this script at all.
Ed. Note: If you’re a member of the WGAw, you should have received a voting packet recently. One of the ballots is for the Board of Directors. The other is to ratify the appointment of David Young as Executive Director of the WGAw. I think you should vote NO on this, and I wrote a “con” statement in the booklet. In case you’ve chucked it in the trash, here’s why I think you should vote NO. Thanks for reading.
As a member of the Executive Search Committee as well as the Board of Directors, I have the difficult task of asking you to cast your “No” vote today and refrain from ratifying David J. Young as our Executive Director.
When faced with a ballot choice of “someone” or “no one,” “someone” usually seems like a better option. But understand that a “No” vote does not mean we will be left without leadership or an Executive Director. A “No” vote today will not impact the upcoming negotiations, which are so important to our economic survival. A “No” vote simply instructs the Board and the Search Committee to provide you with a better option.
I’m not here to bury David Young. David is a good man with an area of expertise. Yet, simply put, the Search Committee found a better candidate. I wish I could tell you everything I know about the other candidate, but the constraints of confidentiality prevent me from doing so. I can tell you this.
The other candidate is an executive for one of the country’s most successful and powerful unions. David Young has never held that kind of responsibility prior to joining the WGA.
The other candidate has decades of experience negotiating with a very powerful owners’ cartel similar to the networks and studios we negotiate with. David Young does not have experience negotiating collective bargaining agreements, much less under the unique circumstances we face every three years.
The other candidate represents a union of highly talented, highly-paid employees whose interests intersect with the media, intellectual property law and profit sharing. David Young’s experience is with seamstresses, carpenters and plumbers whose employment issues are not similar to ours.
The other candidate’s union was faced with a threat from a new, non-union work force (like we are with reality TV). The other candidate organized those non-union workers before they began day one on the job. David Young has not had that kind of success, and his last major organizing effort on behalf of seamstresses for Guess Jeans was a complete failure.
The other candidate has solid labor roots that go back 30 years, with connections to the AFL-CIO. David Young does not.
For the last year, I’ve watched David Young carefully, and I’ve been modestly impressed. He’s risen to the challenge of being the interim Executive Director but not, in my mind, to being our permanent leader.
Indeed, there have been significant failures.
Despite the statement of one candidate in the last election that all reality writers would be under our jurisdiction by the start of 2006, we haven’t brought one single reality writer into our union. Under David’s leadership, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent on expensive miscues, such as employees that David has hired and then quickly fired, ineffective corporate campaigns like Subservient Donald and the Product Invasion website, and various guerilla tactics that have done little more than garner fleeting curiosity from the press. Our expenses are way up, and our income is down.
In short, David’s heart is in the right place, but his strategies for our union have been scattershot and ever-changing. We simply can’t afford that. The other candidate brings a track record of focus, achievement and vision, and the Search Committee’s impression of this candidate was unanimously positive.
I believe it is this other candidate, not David Young, who can strike fear into the hearts of the networks and studios. I believe it is this other candidate, not David Young, who can last beyond any one President or any one negotiation. I believe it is this other candidate, not David Young, who can bring our union into the 21st century.
I know that David is a popular choice among our current Guild politicians. They’ve worked with him, and frankly, they gave him this job. He’s “their guy.” But you’re not electing their guy today.
You’re electing our guy.
Vote “No.” David can still lead our Organizing Department, but we have superior choices for the top job, and there’s never been a more important time to be choosy.
We can do better than our last Executive Director, John McLean, and we can do better than David Young…a man that John McLean found and hired.
Vote “No” and give us the chance to bring you a candidate more worthy of your support.