Mad Men, a series that follows the lives of people working in the high-powered world of advertising in the 1960’s, just began its sixth season this April. The series premiered in July 2007 on AMC; and has since received continuous critical acclaim. It’s been nominated for 85 Emmys; winning three for Outstanding Writing and four for Outstanding Drama Series. It has also won two Golden Globes for Best Television Drama and set a record with five Writer’s Guild of America awards for Best Dramatic Episodes of a Television Series.
With a show this well written, entertainment executive must have been tripping over each other to get a chance to work with the writer to develop the new series, right? Well it actually took many years from the time series creator Matthew Weiner first sat down and put his idea on paper until he finally saw his creation come to life on the screen. It all started in 1999, when Weiner was working as a staff writer on the series “Becker.” Although it was a good job, it wasn’t what he really wanted to do, so he decided to spend his free time working on his own idea for a new series.
For most of his life, he was fascinated with that time in American history that saw so much change in our culture—the late 1950s and early ‘60s. So, he thought it would be interesting to set his story in New York City, at a Madison Avenue advertising agency in the early 1960s:
“It’s a great way to talk about the image we have of ourselves, versus who we really are. And admen were the rock stars of that era, creative, cocky, anti-authority. They made a lot of money, and they lived hard.”
He knew he wanted to explore the theme of “the conflicting desire in the American male and the people who pay the price for that.” Though successful in his career and happy in his family life, he had feelings of dissatisfaction in his own life that he wanted to explore in his new show:
“The basic question of the series to me was…you reach a certain point in your life where, if you’re lucky, you get almost everything you wanted on some level, not everything, but enough; and you still look around and say ‘Is this it?’”
When he finished the pilot screenplay, he started using it as a writing sample. In 2002, he sent it to “The Sopranos” creator and showrunner David Chase. Chase read the pilot and was so impressed, he hired Weiner to write for his show. Chase also submitted the pilot to HBO, but the network decided to pass. Showtime also passed, so Weiner focused on writing for “The Sopranos.”
Then, when “The Sopranos” was in its last year, Weiner started focusing on “Mad Men” again. This time, his timing was perfect. AMC was looking for an idea for an original series that was cinematic and would complement their core offering of classic American movies. The historic setting and theatrical quality of “Mad Men” was a perfect match for the network, so AMC announced that “Mad Men” would become their first original dramatic series.
The pilot episode began shooting in New York City with Weiner as showrunner. He supervised all details of production including casting, set design and props, costumes, and even hairstyles. He wanted to make sure that everything was historically accurate; and also make sure that nothing about the production, especially the acting style, felt like the typical television show. After all those years of hard work and patience, his vision was finally being realized:
“When you have an idea from zero, and you walk into a three dimensional environment where the people are dressed like you imagined them, and they are saying the things that you imagined they would be saying to each other, it was one of the most awesome experiences of my life.”
Supernatural is a series about two brothers traveling along the back roads and through the small towns of America hunting down evil demons and investigating paranormal activities. It debuted on WB on September 13, 2005, and eight seasons and one network change later (to the CW), Supernatural has built a large and loyal cult following that is still going strong today. But before Supernatural became the show loved by its loyal fans, it was just an idea in screenwriter Eric Kripke’s head—an idea that was ten years in the making. So, how did this show about monsters and myths go from an idea to a hit series?
Since he was a boy, Kripke was fascinated by all manners of myths and urban legends. He wanted to create a series that tapped into the largely overlooked collection of American mythology:
“We have a folklore in mythology that is as rich and developed as any world culture’s and as uniquely American as baseball…A lot of these stories are cautionary tales, and they reflect what our culture was afraid of at a particular time.”
Kripke spent years pitching the original idea for his show about a tabloid reporter roaming the country in his van searching for demons to fight, but no one would pick it up. Then, through connections he had made while working as a writer on a WB series, Kripke got the opportunity to meet with WB network executives to pitch his idea for a new show. But, like the other executives he pitched, they were not impressed with the idea of a reporter/ghost hunter as a main character for a series. Kripke made a last-minute change from a lone reporter to two brothers working as a team to hunt demons, and that grabbed their attention.
With the change in the main character to brothers—Sam and Dean Winchester—and the concept of a story based on American folklore and mythology, Kripke and his writing team got to work writing the script for the pilot, and went through many revisions trying to work out the complicated backstory they developed for the brothers. The backstory was complex because in the early versions of the script, the boys’ mother and father both die in the pilot’s teaser. Kripke said: “I worked so hard on that script and it was just a mess, and so it didn’t work.” Then he said they got a better idea:
“What if dad is still alive, and what if the boys grew up with dad as demon hunters, you know, what if they grew up in this sort of fractured family. And to me, that’s what made the show work. It gave me the ability to have fun with it, and have funny lines, and have a kind of a breezier tone”
Eventually, they settled on the backstory that the boys’ father, John Winchester, raised them to be hunters of the supernatural after the eerie death of their mother. But, one of the brothers, Sam, decides he wants a normal life and leaves to attend college. While he’s away, his father, John, disappears and Dean asks his brother for his help finding him. Sam says no, but changes his mind when his girlfriend is murdered the same eerie way as his mother. So, the bothers join forces to become warriors against evil as they search for their missing father and the demons that killed Sam’s girlfriend and their mother.
Through all this reworking of the script, there were two concepts from Kripke’s original show idea that remained constant—one of course was the idea of exploring American mythology and urban legends; and the second, as Kripke explained it, was the idea of the road-trip series:
“[road trips are] the best vehicle to tell these stories because it’s pure, stripped down and uniquely American… These stories exist in these small towns all across the country and it just makes so much sense to drive in and out of these stories.”
Kripke said he would love to take credit for getting the pilot made, but much of the credit goes to the pilot’s director, David Nutter (director of early episodes of The X Files and several successful pilots), who had read the script, liked it and signed on to direct. On the morning that they got together to discuss the script, Nutter made the decision to direct at about 11:00 am; and, based on his involvement, the network gave the pilot the greenlight by 3:00 pm that afternoon.
Public television has existed in the United States since the early 20th century, serving local communities and national audiences with non-commercial, informational and educational programs. It began as a means of broadcasting information that was of public benefit and has become much more than that over the years. With children’s programs (Sesame Street and Barney), news programs (Frontline and Newshour), scientific programing (Nova and Discover: The World of Science), and sophisticated dramas (Downton Abbey and Mr. Selfridge), public television has become a staple of our television viewing life.
On a national level, today’s iteration of public broadcasting was created by the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which chartered the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) as the steward and dispensary of public money to local broadcasters. The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) is a non-profit public broadcasting television network in the United States, with 354 member television stations which hold collective ownership. Funding for individual stations comes partly from the CPB and partly from local fund-raising on each station. Content is also a mixture of shows supplied from PBS and shows from third party sources, such as the BBC (British Broadcasting Service).
Predating PBS, local public broadcasting stations have existed since the early 1950’s, servicing local communities and regions with news and entertainment. In fact, early public stations were operated by state colleges and universities, and were often run as part of the schools’ cooperative extension services. Houston’s KUHT was the nation’s first public television station, and went on the air in May 1953, and was broadcast from the campus of the University of Houston. These earliest stations were internally funded, and did not rely on viewer contributions to operate; some even accepted advertising.
Pittsburgh’s WQED became a model station as the first “community sponsored stations.” In the early 1950’s, the federal government put a hold on licensing new television broadcasters. Then mayor of Pittsburgh David Lawrence, wanted to start a station in Pittsburgh that would serve the community with local, non-commercial, educational programs. He secured a waiver under the condition that the project be funded externally—completely from donations—setting the stage for the famous fund raising drives we frequently see on public stations. WQED became the fifth public TV station in the U.S. and became home to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in 1968, and produced the National Geographic specials from 1975 to 1991.
Boston’s WGBH-TV is also a major player in the world of public television; and, as another member station of PBS, produces more than two-thirds of PBS’s national prime time television programming. Some of the original content WGBH has brought to the world includes The American Experience, NOVA, This Old House, and Discover: The World of Science. It was also the birth place of The French Chef, the iconic television cooking show created and hosted by Julia Child from 1963 to 1973. WGBH is probably best known for having co-produced numerous period dramas and has collaborated for years with British production companies, especially Masterpiece Theatre, a drama anthology television series that premiered on January 10, 1971, making it America’s longest-running weekly prime time drama series.
Public television has truly embraced the ideal of President Lyndon Johnson when he chartered the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) in 1967 to “enrich man’s spirit.” With its cutting edge news reports, original programming; public television has been creating compelling content rivals anything we see on the commercial networks and cable television.
When a screenwriter is creating a script for a movie or television show, they always have much more information than they can ever use to tell their story. It is up to them to decide which pieces of information are important and which are not, and then determine how they will present that information to the audience. Characters, events, settings, circumstances, and objects in the story may have a history or significant details that are important to the understanding of the story. Information that is essential to the audience’s understanding of the story may need to be revealed at a specific time and in a particular way in order to prevent audience confusion. The conveying of this essential information is called exposition. Screenwriters use exposition to reveal relevant information about the backstory or explain what is difficult to understand. Exposition presents the information that the audience needs to make sense of the story.
In most well written screenplays, this essential information is presented in the most natural way possible: through the story’s action, through images, and, when necessary, through realistic dialogue. The written word can also be used for exposition, and is usually used to establish time and place or a short history of events which are about to take place in the story (“London 1891” or “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”). Voice-over and flashbacks are often used for exposition and, though there are many examples in film and television where they are used very successfully, many critics believe that they are often used inappropriately, especially by novice screenwriters. Voice-overs can be used to simply explain the necessary information directly to the audience, but they can also result in less creative and visually dramatic story telling. Flashbacks, if not done extremely well, can actually add to audience confusion.
In discussing the proper use of exposition, Alfred Hitchcock said that “these scenes are a must,” especially when “accounting for a number of strange, bizarre events.” In his films, Hitchcock strove to use exposition only when necessary and to make it as natural and unnoticeable as possible:
“…like all exposition; it’s a pill that has to be sugar coated. In other words, you are telling the audience, giving them some information, that at the time you give it, it must appear to be something else.”
The opening sequence of a film or television show is often used to convey the information that the audience will need to understand the characters and the context of the story. This is often done through the use of visual images and action rather than through dialogue. In the first four minutes of the pilot for the series LOST, before any character speaks a full line of dialogue, we get an incredible amount of the information we will need to make sense of the story. We meet a character lying in a jungle but wearing a suit and tie; he is confused, afraid and hurt; there’s a mini liquor bottle in his pocket; he runs toward loud noises and ends up on a beach; a passenger jet has crashed on the beach; the engine is still running so it just happened; he runs toward the crash; people are crying out in pain and confusion; he runs to help; he is capable and brave. Presenting the exposition at the beginning of a story visually rather than through dialogue is usually much more effective.
Presenting exposition in a natural way can be very challenging, especially if it must be placed within dialogue. Even when written and acted extremely well, exposition in dialogue can seem awkward and unnatural because these types of explanations are rarely part of real life conversation. The following dialogue is an example of exposition from the scene in Skyfall where M (played by Judi Dench) has been summoned to Gareth Mallory’s (played by Ralph Fines) office:
M: “Forgive me, but why am I here?”
Gareth Mallory: “Three months ago, you lost the computer drive containing the identity of almost every NATO agent embedded in terrorist organizations across the globe. A list, which in the eyes of our allies, never existed. So, if you will forgive me, I think you know why you’re here.”
Yes, M does know why she’s there, and she knows exactly when the computer drive was lost, and what was on the computer drive, and the international consequences of losing the list; but, the audience needs that information to make sense of the story, so it needed to be expressed in some way. This type of exposition—presenting information that the audience needs but all the characters already have—is the most difficult to do well.
The other type of exposition—presenting information that some of the characters don’t already know—is much less challenging to accomplish. But even with this type of exposition, the necessary information is usually presented as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. This can be done through simple techniques such as one character showing something to another, a conversation in which questions are answered, or when a character confesses a secret. When exposition is presented in a conversation, it can be more effective if one of the characters has to work at obtaining information from the other.
When a lot of detailed information needs to be given at one time, certain techniques are used to make the presentation of the information seem a natural part of the story. Some commonly used techniques include briefings (presidential briefings in The Day After Tomorrow and 24), a visual presentation of collected clues or evidence (the collage in Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows and the touch screen in Hawaii Five-0), short videos or films (the ‘dino’ DNA video in Jurassic Park and the Dharma training films in LOST), and questioning an expert (the shark expert in Jaws and CDC expert in The Walking Dead.) The list could go on and on, there’s the guided tour, the press briefing, the network news report, and of course, the detailed confession—no James Bond movie would be complete, or comprehensible, without the villain’s detailed confession of their sinister plan.
As Alfred Hitchcock said, like it or not, exposition is necessary to make sure that the audience doesn’t leave the theater completely confused. When done badly, exposition disrupts the story’s action and draws attention to itself; but when done well, the necessary information can actually be added in such a way that it moves the action forward, thereby creating a much more interesting and enjoyable story for the audience to follow.
We all know Warner Brothers as one of the major film studios that has produced thousands of pictures including Argo, The Dark Knight trilogy and the Harry Potter series. But, Warner Brothers has many subsidiary companies involved in television, interactive entertainment, animation, home video and music. Now known as Time Warner, Warner Brothers Entertainment Inc. was once an independent and thriving production company started by four brothers named, you guessed it, Warner. So, how did four brothers from Pittsburgh break into the movie business in Hollywood and later become a major force in television with The WB and the CW television networks? Let’s find out.
The Warner brothers were actually four in number; Harry, Albert, Sam, and Jack. Their real name was Wonskolaser, changed to Warner after the family immigrated to North America from Poland following the take-over by Russia of their home region. Sometime around the turn of the 20th century, the three older brothers (Jack was the youngest) got their hands on a movie projector and traveled around the mining towns of Pennsylvania and Ohio, showing films to the miners. One of the first pictures they showed was The Great Train Robbery, the first motion picture to tell a definite story.
With the profits from their traveling movie show, in 1907 they converted a small store into a nickelodeon movie house in New Castle, Pennsylvania which they named the Cascade Theatre. The brothers did everything; sold the tickets, ran the hand-crank projector, and even got their sister, Rose, to play piano and sing songs during the intermissions. Within a year, the Warner brothers had opened two more theaters in New Castle. In a short amount of time they had acquired about 200 different film titles and began to distribute films around the Ohio River Valley under their newly formed company, the Duquesne Film Exchange. As business grew, they expanded their distribution network to include Norfolk, Virginia and Atlanta, Georgia.
Not satisfied just to show movies, or even distribute them, Harry Warner (the oldest) decided to get the brothers into the movie making business; a bold move for immigrant brothers from Poland. He established a film production company, which he called Warner Features, and the brothers were off to Hollywood. Their first full-scale picture premiered in 1918, a film called My Four Years in Germany, which was based on the best-selling book by America’s German ambassador. The film grossed an amazing $1.5 million (around $30 million today).
Over the next decade, Warner Brothers expanded and established itself as a complete film company, showcasing both successful commercial and artistic properties. They produced F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and Damned, and hired Fitzgerald to adapt his novel for the screen. They also produced Beau Brummel, which starred the great stage actor John Barrymore. In 1924, they created the world’s first animal superstar, Rin Tin Tin, whose popularity would always bring money into the studio. They also hired the famous German director Ernst Lubitsch as head director, and his movies The Marriage Circle and Kiss Me Again brought critical acclaim to the studio.
Despite all of these successes, the Warners were still unable to be seen as equals to the other Hollywood powerhouse studios. That all changed when they produced The Jazz Singer. Released in 1927 and starring Al Jolson, The Jazz Singer was the first “talking picture” to be released to the public, and was an instant blockbuster, playing to standing-room-only crowds throughout the country. The Warners quickly followed up with the first “all-talking” movie and their first “talking” gangster film, The Lights of New York. By late 1928, all of the other studios were scrambling to get in on the sound craze, and the Warner Brothers were well out in front.
Warner Brother’s television story began in 1955 when the studio decided that they had to be in the new arena and debuted a show called Warner Bros. Presents; which featured a rotating series of shows based on three of the studio’s film successes, Kings Row, Casablanca and Cheyenne. The company expanded Cheyenne into a one hour TV show and began the era of television Westerns with such later hits as Maverick, Sugarfoot, Bronco, Colt .45, and Lawman. By the 1960’s Warner Brothers television began producing a series of popular private detective shows beginning with 77 Sunset Strip, followed by Hawaiian Eye, Bourbon Street Beat and Surfside Six.
By the 1970’s, Warner Brothers created another innovative concept when they were at the fore-front of a new genre of television programming–the mini-series. The studio produced some of television’s most-watched and most-honored productions, including Roots, The Thorn Birds, North & South and Alex Haley’s Queen. In the late 1980’s, Warner acquired entertainment powerhouse Lorimar Studios, a highly regarded production company that had created such Emmy Award-winning series as The Waltons and Dallas, as well as a number of other noteworthy series, including Knots Landing, Falcon Crest; Eight is Enough, Full House, and Family Matters. The new consolidated network went on to produce such giant hits as ER, Friends and The Drew Carey Show.
The 1990s were critical for the Studio, starting with the 1990 merger of Warner Communications, Inc. and Time Inc. to form Time Warner, Inc., one of the world’s largest communications and entertainment companies. In 1995, Time Warner launched The WB Network, finding a niche market in teenagers. The WB’s early programming included an abundance of teenage fare like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Smallville, Dawson’s Creek, and One Tree Hill. The WB also helped launched the careers of such writer/producers as Joss Whedon, who was able to get Buffy on the air because the fledgling WB network was eager for innovative programming.
Two dramas produced by Spelling Television, 7th Heaven and Charmed also helped bring The WB into the spotlight, with Charmed lasting eight seasons and “7th Heaven” surviving eleven seasons and being the longest running family drama and longest running show for The WB. In 2006, Warner and CBS Paramount Television decided to close The WB and CBS’s UPN and jointly launch The CW Television Network.
So, the company that began one hundred years ago became a dominant force in the production of movie megahits and first-run syndicated programming. Adding to the innovations that Warner brought to light was the early adoption of the internet as a promotional tool and outlet for original content, and they led the development and the launch of both DVD format and now Blu-ray. Pretty amazing accomplishments for four Polish immigrant brothers who started with a movie projector in Pittsburgh.
In the 1990’s, when Tyler Perry was launching his career in show business in Atlanta, he was sometimes so poor, he had to live in car. But through hard work and perseverance he developed his incredible talent and keen business sense, and went on to much bigger and better things. By 2011, Forbes magazine named Tyler Perry the “highest paid man in entertainment”—and listed him just ahead of blockbuster producers Jerry Bruckheimer and Steven Spielberg. Since then, his entertainment empire has continued to grow. Now, when he is touring with one of his plays, he still likes to sleep in one of his vehicles; but today, it’s not a car, it’s a two bedroom, two bath, mahogany-paneled, double-wide bus.
Tyler Perry was born as Emmitt Perry, Jr., on September 13, 1969, in New Orleans. His challenging childhood was filled with fear and abuse. Though the abuse made him angry and confused, his faith and his mother—who took him to church every Sunday morning—helped him get through those rough years. When he was sixteen, he was kicked out of school because of an angry outburst (he later got his GED). At about that same time, he changed his name from Emmitt to Tyler in an effort to put his painful childhood behind him. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, he explained how his childhood influenced his career:
“I know for a fact if I had not been born to this mother, this father, this family, if I had not been born into this situation, then I wouldn’t be here using my voice and my gifts to speak to millions of people.”
Winfrey was a very important inspiration to Perry years before they met. When he was about 20 years old, he saw an episode of Oprah that discussed the cathartic and therapeutic nature of writing. That show inspired him to start writing for the first time. He wrote in the form of a series of letters to himself, that he hoped would help him work though issues from his childhood:
“There was nobody around me that told me I could fly. Nobody at school, no teacher, nobody who said, ‘You’re special.’ But I saw you on television and your skin was like mine. And you said, ‘If you write things down, it’s cathartic.’ So I started writing. And it changed my life.”
In those letters, he used fictitious names to avoid embarrassment if the letters were discovered by anyone. Some of what he wrote was seen by one of his friends. That friend told Perry that he really like his play; which inspired Perry to turn his letters into a real stage production called I Know I’ve Changed.
In the early 90’s, Perry moved from New Orleans to Atlanta with the goal of getting I Know I’ve Changed on the stage. He had saved over $12,000 working several jobs, and he intended to use all of it to make his dream come true. He rented a theater and put on his first production of I Know I’ve Changed. But only 30 people came to the theater, and it quickly closed. Over the next several years, he kept rewriting and restaging the show, but all five of his attempts failed. It was during these lean years that there were times that Perry—a six-feet-five inches tall man—had to sleep in his tiny Geo Metro.
Then, in 1998, he tried one more time to stage his show—and this time, things were very different. This time he used a marketing campaign focused on drawing in what would become his core audience, African Americans who were involved in local church communities. Properly identifying and reaching out to his core audience was the difference between failure and success. His seventh production of I Know I’ve Changed was so successful in its opening weeks that it was moved to a bigger theater, and still sold-out. Tyler Perry was finally a successful playwright and producer. When asked why he never gave up trying to make it all work, he responded: “there was something in me that said—this is what you’re supposed to do.”
With the success of his first show, he then went on to write, direct and produce many more shows, both in Atlanta and on tour around the country. These sold-out productions were also videotaped and sold on DVD. Then, something incredible happened when he was doing a production of his play I Can Do Bad All by Myself.
The play, which premiered in 2000, introduced Perry’s most famous character, Madea; a grandmother in her 60’s, based on his mother and aunt, and played by Perry himself. She was only a minor character in the play until a last minute problem made it necessary for Perry to expand her role: “it was supposed to be a very quick five-minute scene, but when the lead actress didn’t show up, Madea ended up onstage the entire time.” Needless to say, the Madea character was a huge hit, and continues to appear in many of Perry’s works.
With the great success of his stage productions and DVD sales, it was then time for Perry to take his stories to the big screen. His first feature film production was an adaptation of his play, Diary of a Mad Black Woman. One production company he was trying to make a deal with wanted to bring an experienced screenwriter to work on his script, but Perry wanted to maintain creative control, so he turned them down. Lions Gate Films agreed to Perry’s terms regarding creative control, and gave him the green light to make his first film in Atlanta on a modest budget of about five million dollars. Diary of a Mad Black Woman premiered in 2005, hit number one at the box office, and earned over 50 million dollars.
Since then, he has gone on to start a film and television production company, Tyler Perry Studios, in Atlanta; which is one of the largest film studios outside of Hollywood. Many more of his movies have hit number one at the box office. Perry was also an executive producer on the critically acclaimed film Precious, and has been taking on a few acting roles in other screenwriters’ productions (including the lead role in Alex Cross and a small role in Star Trek). He has also expanded into television, creating the successful sitcoms Tyler Perry’s House of Payne and Meet the Browns. Of course, he didn’t stop there. Currently, Perry has several projects in the works, including the films Single Moms Club and Tyler Perry’s A Madea Christmas.
For many famous writers and producers, their big breaks came when someone gave them an opportunity to prove their talent. For George Lucas, things happened a little differently. While he has been helped by people who recognized his talent, he also created a lot of his own breaks by seeing opportunities that other people failed to see. By taking advantage of those opportunities, he was able to find the resources he needed to launch his career, create blockbuster films, and build a business empire that will ensure that his stories and his characters will live on—in new films, television series, books, toys, and video games—for many years to come.
George Lucas was born on May 14, 1944, in Modesto, California. Unlike so many other successful writers and producers, Lucas didn’t want to be a film maker when he was growing up. He loved reading history books, art, building things, photography, and racing cars. In his teens, he wanted to be a mechanic and a race car driver. That all changed when he had a very bad car accident that came close to taking his life.
After that, Lucas became much more focused on his studies at Modesto Junior College, where he became interested in anthropology, sociology and psychology. He also became more interested in photography, and wanted to transfer to an art school where he could pursue this new passion. As fate would have it, he transferred to University of Southern California (USC), which didn’t have a major in photography, but did have a major in film studies, so he decided to study film.
Lucas’s first break came when he was at USC. Many of his fellow first year film students were upset because they couldn’t get into production classes and, therefore, couldn’t get film to make a movie. But Lucas saw an opportunity that no one else did:
“The first class I had was an animation class. It wasn’t a production class…They gave us one minute of film to put onto the animation camera to operate it, to see how you could move left, move right, make it go up and down. It was a test…I took that one minute of film and made it into a movie, and it was a movie that won like…twenty or twenty-five awards.”
The awards Lucas won for that sixty-second film, Look At Life, were the first of many he would receive while at USC. He won first prize at the 1967/68 National Student Film Festival for his short film Electronic Labyrinth THX-1138 4EB, and in 1967 he was awarded a Warner Brothers scholarship to observe the filmmaker of his choice. He chose to observe Francis Ford Coppola who was working on the film Finian’s Rainbow. They became friends and started a film production company called American Zoetrope. Their first project was a full-length film remake of THX: 1138.
When Coppola started production on The Godfather, Lucas started his own company, Lucasfilms, and started production on his new movie American Graffiti. He had trouble getting it made until Coppola, who by now was a big name in Hollywood, signed on as producer. Getting the movie made turned out to be a long process, but getting it released was even more challenging. After it was finished, the studio decided that they didn’t want to release the film. Lucas went from studio to studio showing the film to everyone he could in the hope of getting it released. One person he showed it to was Alan Ladd Jr., who was then President of Twentieth Century Fox. Ladd was impressed with the film and wanted to know if Lucas had any other projects he was working on:
“…he said I love this movie, you’re very talented, and what do you want to do? Well I said that I’m trying to get this space thing off the ground, and he said okay well I’ll fund the screenplay. And so I got the deal to do the screenplay, and it wasn’t really until six months later that American Graffiti came out and was a hit. This was all done while I was starving, and the twenty thousand dollars I got to write the screenplay was like more money than I had seen in two years. So I was very relieved that I could sit back, write a screenplay, have a job, eat a decent meal…”
So Lucas spent that year writing his six hour screenplay for his “space thing”—which of course turned out to be Star Wars. In the meantime, all those screenings Lucas did in his effort to get American Graffiti released finally paid off: a positive response from many of the people at those screenings caused the studios to release the film. American Graffiti was a big hit. It won the Golden Globe for Best Motion Picture: Musical or Comedy, and received five Academy Award nominations (including best director). This changed everything for Lucas:
“After I did American Graffiti, and it was successful, it was a big moment for me because I really did sit down with myself and say, “Okay, now I am a director. Now I know I can get a job. I can work in this industry, and apply my trade, and express my ideas on things and be creative in a way that I enjoy.”
Fox, the studio that funded the screenplay for Star Wars, expected Lucas to use his new found fame to negotiate more money for his work on Star Wars; but Lucas had other ideas that were more important to him than negotiating a bigger salary. He knew his screenplay for Star Wars was clearly too long to be just one film. So he divided it into three separate screenplays, and now his biggest concern was making sure all three of them would be made. He didn’t expect the first movie to be a great success, so rather than ask for more money, he decided to negotiate for a few other things that would make it more likely that his other two films would be made.
Along with requesting part of the profits, he asked for the sequel rights—so that the decision to make any future movies would be up to him—and the licensing rights—so that he could promote the first movie and make it successful enough to get the other two made. The studio didn’t see much value in the sequel rights and didn’t see any profitable licensing opportunities, so they agreed. Of course, Star Wars became the biggest blockbuster hit in the history of film:
“After Star Wars came out, I looked at it and I said I have a chance now to be really independent from the system, the studio system…I’m going to set myself up now, using the profits from Star Wars, to build a company, completely independent up here in San Francisco. And that’s what I did.”
In his 45 year career, George Lucas has created some of the world’s most loved films, created the popular television shows The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles and Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and has built a business empire that completely changed the way films and television are made. Recently, Lucas sold Lucasfilms to Disney, and turned over day-to-day operations of the company to Lucasfilms’ new co-chair Kathleen Kennedy. Lucasfilms is currently working on three new Star Wars sequels (Star Wars: Episode VII, which will be directed by J.J. Abram, is in pre-production) and a live-action television series Star Wars: Underworld.
Now that Lucas is semi-retired, he plans to work on a few much smaller film project (films without deadlines that he calls hobby movies), but has said that he will definitely be involve in the new Star Wars films as a creative consultant on the screenplays. He loves the characters and the world he created for Star Wars, and said he will always be there to answer questions and serve as “The Keeper of the Flame.”
As with many of the early TV writers and producers in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, Rod Serling came to television from a career in radio. He was a prolific writer—authoring hundreds of radio and television scripts, novels, and plays—but, of course, Serling is best known today for creating the science-fiction anthology TV series, The Twilight Zone. Serling created something unique; he invented a genre that had never been seen on television (or heard on radio) before, a type of realistic psychological drama that some have called speculative fiction, with a scientific/horror kicker. As J.J. Abrams said in a recent interview,
“In The Twilight Zone, he [Rod Serling] did my favorite thing—he took outlandish situations and told them through emotional characterization.”
His accomplishments as a writer are legendary; nine Emmy Awards for outstanding writing, three Writer’s Guild of America awards, three Hugo awards for best science-fiction writing, two Golden Globes, an Edgar Allen Poe award, and a Peabody. But, he was also an intense, sometimes melancholy person, who expressed a deep social conscience in nearly everything he did, as evidenced by the fact that he won two Christopher awards, which are presented to the producers, directors, and writers of books, motion pictures and television specials that “affirm the highest values of the human spirit.”
Rod Serling was born on Christmas Day in 1924, in Syracuse, NY. Following his high school graduation, he enlisted in the Army in 1943, and was sent to the Pacific to fight the Japanese. During heavy fighting in the Philippines, he was wounded, but later returned to combat after recovering, and stayed in the army until the war was over. Serling’s army combat experience affected him intensely. He had always been a moody fellow; but, the horrors of war instilled in him a profound morality and influenced much of his writing, especially the unpredictability of death.
“I was bitter about everything and at loose ends when I got out of the service. I think I turned to writing to get it off my chest.”
With his return to the States, he went to college on the G.I. Bill and majored in physical education at Antioch College in Ohio. He soon changed his major to English literature and became active in the campus radio station. He wrote, directed and acted in many radio programs on campus; and was also allowed to work in professional, local radio stations as part of a work study program. Just before graduation, Serling won a trip to New York City and $500 for a radio script he had written; and, that convinced him that writing for radio and television might be a good career path. He started at small radio stations, but soon moved to WKRC-TV in Cincinnati as a full-time writer.
By 1954, he moved to New York City, where he wrote for such early television shows as the Kraft Television Theater, Appointment with Adventure, and Hallmark Hall of Fame. In 1955, the Kraft Television Theater televised one of his plays called Patterns, a story about the ruthlessness of the business world. It was critically acclaimed and was so popular that a second live production was staged by the network, making it the first television show to ever do a second live broadcast of a teleplay due to audience demand. It was also the first Emmy Award that Serling would capture for best original teleplay writing. He followed up his success with two more critically-acclaimed stories, Requiem for a Heavyweight in 1956, and The Comedian in 1957, winning Emmy Awards for both of these teleplays as well. Requiem was later turned into a Broadway play and a feature motion picture starring Anthony Quinn and Jackie Gleason.
It was then that Serling decided to stir things up a bit. The story goes that he grew more and more frustrated with the complications of writing about serious issues and then having to constantly fight conservative networks and sponsors on censoring his work. No longer happy to write teleplays, albeit critically-acclaimed ones, Serling turned to the world of science-fiction and fantasy, where he was free to invent situations that didn’t have to be based in reality. So, in 1957, he unveiled The Twilight Zone, a show so innovative, nothing like it had ever been seen before and has few comparators since. In a film-maker interview Serling did with American Masters, the interviewer Susan Lacy writes:
“Through an ingenious mixture of morality fable and fantasy writing, he was able to circumvent the timidity and conservatism of the television networks and sponsors. Self-producing a series of vignettes that placed average people in extraordinary situations, Serling could investigate the moral and political questions of his time. He found that he could address controversial subjects if they were cloaked in a veil of fantasy, saying ‘I found that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say.’”
The Twilight Zone ran for five seasons and 156 episodes, most of which were written by Serling. With its iconic music, cerebral morality plays and Serling, himself, as the host and narrator, the show was a tremendous hit with critics and viewers alike. It was also the place where many young actors got noticed: Robert Duvall, Carol Burnett, William Shatner, Robert Redford, Dennis Hopper and many others all had their starts on The Twilight Zone. Though the show was a tremendous success, Serling had many of the problems he had before, including run-ins with the sponsors and network officials; and, in the end, he conceded that television was an innately difficult medium to work in. Though the series earned him two more Emmys and a Golden Globe, he again needed a change.
Throughout the 1960’s and 70’s, he was writing for the big screen as well. He penned a screenplay for Requiem for a Heavyweight, and wrote other screenplays such as The Yellow Canary and Assault on the Queen. But, it was his screenplay for Planet of the Apes (co-written with Michael Wilson) which continued Serling’s reputation as a science-fiction icon. He continued working in television, and won yet another Emmy for his adapted script, It’s Mental Work, that aired on The Chrysler Theatre show. He also wrote and narrated his 1970-73 anthology series Rod Serling’s Night Gallery, but left the show after creative differences with the network and sponsors. Fed up with television, he returned to academia as a professor and lectured on college campuses across the country.
Rod Serling died of a heart attack in 1975, but his stories and his accomplishments as a television pioneer will live on and continue to inspire many generations of television and film writers. There is no doubt that The Twilight Zone has become one of television’s most widely-recognized and favorite series, and it has achieved a permanent place in American culture. This is best described by Serling, himself, in the opening narration to the first season:
“There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call the Twilight Zone.”
Walt Disney is known for having accomplished many things in his life. He was, of course, a very successful animator and movie producer, creating scores of full-length and short animated films, as well as many live features. Walt Disney was also a talented director, screenwriter, voice actor and entertainer; who, in his later years, became an international icon with the success of his Disneyland theme parks. But, forgotten among all his other accomplishments was the fact that he also was a talented and successful television producer, and a pioneer in the new world of television.
In the early days of television in the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, many filmmakers thought of TV as the enemy. Why, they thought, would anyone want to travel to a theater and pay for a seat when they could watch an entertaining television show right from the comfort of their living room – and for free? But, Disney was a “big picture” person and saw TV not as the enemy that was stealing his audience, but as another way to entertain people. TV was a way to increase his audience. On a side note, he also foresaw that having one of his TV show airing on a network might entice that network to invest in his idea for a theme park, but that’s another story.
So, the Disney studio became one of the first studios to produce programs directly for television. Disney reasoned that, as networks transitioned away from radio to television, they needed new programming that was very visual—a TV show that featured his cartoons would be just the thing—and he was right. His TV life began in 1950 with a one-hour special called One Hour in Wonderland. The show was a hit and morphed into what became the long-running TV show, The Wonderful World of Disney. It featured Disney cartoons and some live-action skits, but it also featured Walt himself as the host. His gentle demeanor and grandfatherly way instantly grabbed an audience of both children and adults. At one point, the show was only second in ratings to I Love Lucy.
From there, Disney produced The Mickey Mouse Club show. This seemed natural since Mickey Mouse clubs were very popular with kids and the clubs had thousands of members across the country. The clubs spun-off a carton strip that ran in over 40 newspapers around the country, which made even more kids want to be a member. So, the TV show was born in 1955 and ran five days a week. It featured a newsreel, a cartoon (of course), and songs and dances by a group of young actors known as the Mousketeers. The story goes that Disney was so interested in the show that he went back into the sound-booth and acted the voice of Mickey in the show’s animated segments during its original 1955–59 production run. This was also the place where Disney began his famous merchandising; kids would hound their parents for money to buy things such as Mickey Mouse dolls, pencils, and toothbrushes.
As Disney expanded his film business from only animation to live-action features, he also began to produce live-action TV shows as well. He created a western miniseries, called Davy Crockett, about the life and time of the legendary frontiersman. The show was such a huge hit that it seemed every boy in America had to have a coonskin cap just like Davy Crockett. Disney’s next TV show was Zorro, based on the well-known Zorro character. The show ran for three years on ABC. And his flagship television show, The Wonderful World of Disney was renamed Walt Disney’s Wonderful World of Color to highlight the innovation of broadcasting in color. This show aired Sunday evenings and became a staple for families all across America.
Walt Disney’s death in 1966 ushered in what some call the “rock-bottom” phase for Disney Studios in both film and television and one that lasted for almost two decades. Then in the mid-1980s, things began to rebound for Disney productions with the release of a string of acclaimed and profitable movies such as The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Aladdin, and The Lion King. The television production division also had a rebirth. In 1983, Walt Disney Productions launched The Disney Channel, a family-oriented premium cable channel that was available to a half million subscribers in the U.S.
The Disney Channel produced such series as Good Morning, Mickey and Welcome to Pooh Corner. They also aired The All-New Mickey Mouse Club, a revival of one of the company’s early hits. The new version had many of the original elements and a stellar young cast, including Christina Aguilera, Ryan Gosling, Britney Spears, Justin Timberlake and others. Walt Disney Productions made a major move into television when, in 1995, they bought Capital Cities/ABC for $19 billion and in 2001, Disney acquired Fox Family Channel and renamed it ABC Family. They continued their cutting edge ways when Disney was the first to license TV episodes from ABC and series from the Disney Channel for download on Apple’s iTunes Music Store.
Whenever we hear someone mention Walt Disney, we immediately think of his parks: Disneyland and Disneyworld. Or, we think of his movies: Snow White or Fantasia. But, with his early understanding of the value and potential of television, and his production of ground-breaking programming, we can add one more accolade to the long list of accomplishments for this amazing man: television pioneer.
You just finished writing a script or a screenplay, so what do you do with it now? Whether it’s a screenplay for a movie, a pilot for a new TV series, or a spec script for an existing TV show, you need to prepare your script to be read and noticed by the right people.
The first thing you will want to do is prepare your script for presentation to studios and production companies. The Writers Guild of America (WGA) website has a wonderful formatting guide you can use to make sure that your script is properly formatted. Once it is formatted properly and you’ve checked for typos and spelling mistakes, make copies of your screenplay. You may also want to have your script read by a professional script consultant who can point out problems and suggest solutions. But before sending your script out to anyone, it’s a good idea to register it with the WGA script registration service (get instructions at wga.org).
The next step, getting your script noticed by the right people, can be a bit more challenging. If you have an agent, your agent will handle this for you; if not, you may want to start thinking about trying to find someone to represent you. Finding an agent is an important step because most studios and large production companies are prohibited from receiving unsolicited material from screenwriters. They will only take scripts from entertainment professionals; such as agents, lawyers and producers.
The best way to find a qualified agent who will represent you is through a personal referral from another writer. You can find an agent on your own by researching the Hollywood Directory and on the WGA website. You will probably have to make a lot of phone calls and send a lot of query letters to find an agent who will be willing to read your work. Most agents want to work with writers who have a portfolio that proves the writer is talented, creative, diverse, and productive.
If you’re like many first time writers and are unable to find a qualified agent that is willing to represent you, there are other ways to get your work noticed. You can make contacts at writers’ conferences and pitch festivals; or you can enter your script in competitions and fellowships. If you are among the finalist for one of the more respected competitions (eg, those organized by Sundance, Project Greenlight, and the Academy), you may attract the attention of an agent, or you may even get an invitation to meet directly with the studios or production companies.
If you are lucky enough to get an agent to read your script and take you on as a client, your agent will send your script out to the appropriate studios and production companies for their consideration. Then, a “reader” at these companies will read your script and determine if it is a “recommend” or “pass.” If the reader recommends that your script be given further consideration, it will be read by decision makers at the company, and if they like the script or your writing style, they may request a meeting. This meeting may be a chance to pitch your script idea, or it may be a meeting to get to know you. They may be looking for freelance writers to write scripts for an existing TV show or a freelance writer to work on another writer’s movie screenplay. If you are successful in either selling your script or being hired as a freelancer or writing staff member, you agent will negotiate the deal, set up the contract, and receive ten percent of either your writing fees and/or salary.
Even if you try all these things and and are still not able to generate interest in your new screenplay, you must understand that most screenwriters do not find success with their first screenplay. This doesn’t mean that the effort is a waste of time. With each attempt at writing a screenplay and trying to get it noticed by the right people, an aspiring screenwriter learns new techniques and skills that will make it more likely they will succeed in the future. Agents, studios, and production companies are all looking for writers who have a lot of great ideas and are passionate about their writing. The more you write and the more screenplays you produce, the better you’ll be able to demonstrate your talent and passion. The important thing is to keep learning, keep trying to get the attention your work deserves, and above all else, keep writing.
What to do With a Script
o Crafty TV Writing —by Alex Epstein
o The Script Selling Game—by Kathie Fong Yoneda