Thursday, June 27, 2013

My Relevant Production Company... ies.

This week my assignment is to blog about a relevant production company. I'm picking three:

Crescendo Productions, helmed by Don Cheadle and which has a first-look deal with Showtime. Don plays Marty Kaan in Showtime's black comedy House of Lies.

Gerard Butler Alan Siegel Entertainment, primarily because Gerard is Scottish and I like him, but secondly because he has (make that had) a deal with James Franco to direct and star in The Garden of Last Days, and James Franco does interesting things such as his current Idiegogo campaign to raise $500K for his Palo Alto Stores. His walking out, and effectively killing the production, may not be cool, but... According to Deadline Hollywood, "Franco’s exit had to do with a disagreement with financier Millennium over the crew he wanted to hire. Basically, Franco put together a few that didn’t have the experience to get approval from the bond company. Millennium wouldn’t approve his choices." Read the story here

Media Rights Capital, producers of House of Cards. Don't need to say much about that Netflix breakout success. On their slate are a number of interesting projects, among them a crime science fiction, The Shining Girls, for which Leonardo CeCaprio will be an executive producer; and a medical drama, Knifeman, to be directed by David Cronenberg.

TV is going to be very interesting to watch as more and more big screen talent moves to smaller screen productions.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Getting Closer... Two Questions.

As a social media consultant, it behooves me to know virtually all social media platforms, which means, often enough, joining up and participating in them. I’ve been a member of Quora for some time, but never really used it. Today I fell in love with Quora!

Someone posted a link with the question, “What is the most important thing you have ever learned from a movie.” I posted the link on Google+ for you all to see. In the thick of it all was the following response:

• How much can you know about yourself if you've never been in a fight? • This is your life and it's ending one minute at a time. • Without pain, without sacrifice, we would have nothing. • It's only after we've lost everything that we're free to do anything. • Losing all hope is freedom. • You are not your job. You're not how much money you have in the bank. You're not the car you drive. You're not the contents of your wallet. You're not your fucking khakis. You're the all-singing, all-dancing crap of the world. • The things you own end up owning you. • On a long enough time line, the survival rate for everyone drops to zero. • Fuck off with your sofa units and strine green stripe patterns, I say never be complete, I say stop being perfect, I say let... lets evolve, let the chips fall where they may. • We're the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War's a spiritual war... our Great Depression is our lives. • We're consumers. We are by-products of a lifestyle obsession. Murder, crime, poverty, these things don't concern me. What concerns me are celebrity magazines, television with 500 channels, some guy's name on my underwear. Rogaine, Viagra, Olestra.

And in the thick of that response is my little nugget, “Our war is a spiritual war; our great depression is our lives.” THAT is what I want to write about… in an entertaining way. After all, nobody tunes in to become depressed; we want entertainment.

So, having identified my overall theme, how do I wrap it up in a proven formula? And, the formula I want to crack is the “will they or won’t they?” concept. It's the basis for Cheers and not until I started talking it over with my buddy, Craig, did I realize the basis for so many other shows from Sex and the City (will Carrie and Big get together?) to The Good Wife (will Alicia get back with her husband; will she get back with her lover?); to Californication (will Hank and Karen get back together, with the subplot will Charlie and Marcy get back together?); to House of Lies (will Marty and his employee get together?) and even Orphan Black (will Sarah get together with the boyfriend of the woman whose life she now inhabits?). And, when they do, how do we act as though it never happened to repeat the “will they or won’t they” question season after season?

In conclusion, two of my questions:
1) How does the “will they or won’t they” concept play out in seemingly completely different storylines/genres?
2) What devices are used to keep the question repeating?

The Elusive Big Question...

My goal is to write a TV series. One of those 22 minute shows that get people addicted, like Californication, House of Lies, and Orphan Black.

Californication and House of Lies are both American productions on Showtime in the genre drama/black comedy. Showtime in fact seems to have perfected its formula, although I have to say the closing of the second season of House of Lies felt forced and inauthentic. Orphan Black is a sci-fi thriller and because it’s a BBC America production I had assumed it was British, but in the show they reference New York (which you never see), and characters appear from Minneapolis in fairly short shrift i.e. not the time it takes to cross the Atlantic. The characters’ accents, though location neutral, are English… at least to my ear. Where the show takes place is unclear and somewhat of an irritant. Here’s my surprise for the day, BBC America is based in New York. AND, Orphan Black is shot in Toronto. AND, the cast is Canadian.

In a casual survey of my family in Scotland, I learned that they watch American shows, but they have no idea what channels or studios produces them. My nephew watches Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead, while his wife watches Dexter, Vampire Diaries and True Blood. My sister watches Criminal Minds, Family Guy, The Following, and Mad Men. Again, she is not channel aware. And here’s something I find interesting, her husband, a taxi-driver, downloads “a lot” of shows so he can view them in the car.

So my question of, “do British shows translate in the U.S. and vice versa?” is clearly yes. Here’s another question, did BBC America deliberately keep location and cast country-neutral?

Picking up on my nephew and his wife’s different tastes, I notice that my friends and their husbands go to different rooms in the house to watch their own shows. Rarely is there a crossover. For example, he likes The Walking Dead (as does their 12-year daughter), Game of Thrones, and various other reality shows like Pickers, Pawn Shop, etc. She watches The Good Wife, Californication, House of Lies, and Luther.

Since I’ve always considered TV viewing as a community activity i.e. the family sits around and watches a show together, I’ve never asked the question of whether TV execs create shows targeted at different audience segments in the way the film industry does, other than the obvious kids, teens, adults segmentation. So when it comes to writing, do I chose my target audience based on gender rather than nationality, which may be more of a relevant question.

In the way that a fellow student wants to quantify the “fear” factor, I want to identify the “crack” factor, which I’ve distilled down to the “shock” factor, as in “did s/he really just say that?” Viewers of Sex and The City will never forget when Carrie admits that she farted while having sex, or had the first discussion of anal sex we’ve ever seen on TV. This week, we mourn the passing of James Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano, in The Sopranos, the number one television show of all time. Who ever heard of a mobster going to a shrink? We love our characters wrought with angst.

So for my TV show what angst can I wring up that hasn’t been seen or done before? I have this idea about exploring religious beliefs in the setting of a dive bar, kind of like a priest, a rabbi and a monk walk into a bar… except not that obvious. I want it wrapped in dark humor. I want it to open people's eyes to other points of view.

Should I be researching what is it about religion that touches people’s nerve points? Are Catholics shocked by different things than Muslims or Jews? My guess is yes, but I'm happy to be wrong. Is their humor different? My guess is no, but I'm happy to be wrong. Is this what I should be researching? If so, how? I could talk to a priest, a monk and a rabbi and get their take on things. I can talk to muslims, monks and Catholics and get their take on things... and write it all up in a paper… or just, maybe, I can create a YouTube Channel with different religious content from around the world and invite commentary. Or… ????

Suggestions, please? Thank you:)

Thursday, June 20, 2013


If only I wanted to do an animated film, I’d have all the resources up the wazoo with Pixar in my backyard and friends who are VFX production gurus. But, alas, I want to learn about TV and the industry for that is non-existent in San Francisco. Even when they locate a series in my beautiful Baghdad by the Bay, they only shoot the postcard scenes here. Trauma gave it a good shot but, sadly for our local production crews, the show didn’t take. (Add to my to-do list: watch failures and compare them to successes.)

Last week, in the name of networking, I went to Project Reboot, the second annual open house of production houses aiming to revitalize the film and TV industry in San Francisco. The equipment is here and the crew is here, just no projects to produce. Maybe I should stick with my original idea of creating a show set in San Francisco, where I’ve lived for thirty years and know like the back of my hand. Something to explore when I attend my first “Bay Area Film and TV Connection Meetup.” I also joined the Transmedia Meetup and am going to an event next week on Connecting the Cloud. Hopefully, I’ll learn something and even meet people.

There are a couple of groups of indie filmmakers, the co-op Scary Cow and MMTB (Making Movies Throughout the Bay Area), which are fun if you want to play at making movies, but I more interested in elevating the professionalism. These are good to know, however, if I do indeed choose to produce a pilot.

We also have a local chapter of Women in Film and Media, and maybe one of these days they’ll have an event that doesn’t conflict with something I already have on my calendar. I do subscribe to their Yahoo Group Chic’s Chat to keep in touch, as well as the Yahoo Lo/No Budget Film Group.

None of this, however, feels like it could lead somewhere. The co-writer of my script, It’s Not Always What It Seems, makes more connections through her part-time job in a consignment store. Even when she was in Mexico earlier this year (where I live half the year) she made a connection with Linda Hamilton! (BTW, Linda Hamilton is a very nice lady – says she read our script three times, but, ultimately, it just didn’t tickle her.)

Of course I have the Internet and am corralling my research into two other blogs – Quora and Scoop It. And, the pile of books to read is piling up by the day. How do I find time to read when I’m watching so much TV?!

I did find a TV consultant, (who’s book I bought) and who’s White Paper I downloaded, who offers a free 30 minute consult, so that could be a resource down the road ( I also reached out to my friend Frank whose brother is the Executive Editor of Variety. Frank’s in Paris, so we’ll see what he can hook me up with when he returns.

And, incidentally, two screenplay properties dropped into my lap this week. Can’t talk about them just yet, but I’m editing the novel manuscript and… just maybe that’s what should be the basis of my TV show. It has all the elements… famous people, drugs, rock and roll, family betrayal, backstabbing and heartbreak.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Six TV Worlds

In my analysis of what makes irresistibly intriguing characters, I learned that, fundamentally, they’re all the same. So let’s look at what’s different…
a) their internal struggles
b) the worlds in which they live.

Mad Men brings us into the sexy advertising industry in 1950/60s' New York Madison Avenue.

Californication brings us into modern-day Los Angeles where it’s all sex, drugs and rock and roll.

House of Lies makes the boring world of management consulting sexy. One of the fundamental basics of the show is how our main characters keep score on who gets laid.

Orphan Black transforms our punk rock protagonist into a woman with a sexy pad, a phallic status symbol of a car, stiletto heels and pencil skirts. Then they put a gun in her hand and sprinkle the show with gratuitous gay sex for her brother.

The Good Wife is about faithfulness set against the backdrop of law, politics and ambition in Chicago.

Sex & the City is about exactly that… the sex lives of four high-flying women in glamorous New York City.… incorporating journalism and publishing, public relations, the law, and the world of art.

And their struggles? Well, as we learn when writing for the big screen, there are only two types of protagonists… those who are broken and those who are incomplete.

All three of our male protagonists are broken. All three of our female protagonists are incomplete. In the immortal words of Rowan and Martin's Laugh-in... very interesting.

I’m finding this stream of consciousness very useful… still need three compelling questions, one of which may be: What world can I create that people will want to get into?

There's also something else that strikes me as consistent in these shows, one I'm going to call the "GLAM" factor.

Definition of glamorous:
An air of compelling charm, romance, and excitement, especially when delusively alluring.
Archaic. A magic spell; enchantment.

Modern Day TV Heroes

I’ve chosen three characters to analyze in my study of what constitutes fascinating, can’t get enough of, men ~ Mad Men’s Don Draper (played by Jon Hamm), Californication’s Hank Moody (played by David Duchovny) and Marty Kaan of House of Lies (played by Don Cheadle).

I began with my own list of characteristics that they may have in common and created a matrix. Then I thought, Wonder how this rates against what traits women want in a mate? It didn’t take much digging (in this world of advice columns for dating singles) to come up with the following: Honest
Sense of Fun
Sexual Mastery
And last, though not least… a great smile! Well all of our Hollywood hunks have that. Here’s an interesting question – how many times in an episode do each of our protagonists smile? I'm guessing, a lot!

Conclusion: while exhibiting flaws, these characters are 'designed' to appeal to modern day ideals.

My next line of inquiry took me to, “What men look for in women?” As it turns out, men and women are not from different planets after all, according to a recent study reported in the New York Times.

So what do men want in their women? Turns out to be… confidence, intelligence, spontaneity, playfulness, sensuality, honesty, independence, supportiveness. And, here’s something I find interesting – “moderate neuroticism” – which is to say that they accept women are neurotic, they just want it tempered. I wonder if how much neurosis they’ll accept is correlated to how much sex they get? And, according to Ask Men’s #9, wearing red lingerie?

Interestingly enough, in a recent Mad Men episode in which Don was playing his own version of 50 Shades of Grey (or was it more akin to the Story of O?), he had a package delivered to his love slave. Can you guess what it was? Comment below and retweet to win a prize of… in this case only my gratitude. And here’s another observation, if advertisers were on the ball, or maybe just on the web, sales of red dresses would have skyrocketed. Yes, I answered the question.

#8 on Ask Men’s list is waist to hip ratio. Is it any wonder that Christine Hendricks is a hit?
#7 – large eyes and a balanced mouth. I’ll keep that in mind when it comes to casting.
#6 – a hot body. Even in Orphan Black, a BBC America, drama/thriller, the protagonist gets to strip and show off her hot bod on more than one occasion.
#5 – from a U.K. survey - men may find women who are extroverted, agreeable and highly empathic more appealing than women who exhibit these traits to a lesser degree. This definitely applies to Alicia Florick in The Good Wife; Carrie Bradshaw in Sex & The City; and even, to some degree, Sarah Manning in Orphan Black. These same characters also exhibit #3 on the list… self-sacrificing.

And what’s number one on our Ask Men list? Facial attractiveness. Well, we all know that we don’t have “ugly” protagonists, at least not in Hollywood.

So, even after this analysis of human characteristics, such as kindness and empathy, what all our protagonists share are good looks, hot bods and active sex lives. Mmmm.... I wonder what TV has learned from the porn industry?


Ask Men:

Yahoo Lifestyle UK:

Decoding Women:

Men’s Health:

New York Times:

Ask Men:

Sunday, June 16, 2013

How Hard Can It Be?

... to come up with three questions? Not hard at all... one would think! But...

What goes into a groundbreaking TV show? I sort of know the answer... writing material that is "groundbreaking," as in covers content that hasn't been touched before, such as... dealing weed in the suburbs, living and fucking in L.A., polygamy, producing and selling meth...

Behind these stories are memorable characters with ~ and I think this is what motivates me most to watch them ~ uber cool dialogue.

To hear Marty Kaan (played by Don Cheadle) ask of his ex-wife, "which of these cunties are you fucking?" is laugh-out-loud shocking, especially when it's shouted out in a professional setting. To hear him tell his employees that the client's wife wants his black cock (and prove to be right) is OMG did he really just say that?

So, this stream of consciousness is proving useful... the CRACK factor of House of Lies lies in its shock value and making you feel uncomfortable. For those not familiar, Marty Kaan leads a posse, aka pod, of three employees who keep a "score" score, which is to say they've created a game that awards points for getting laid. One of the characters is hapless, socially-inept Doug Guggenheim, a Harvard grad who's a numbers genius. As the others tease him mercilessly, we squirm, embarrassed for the guy while, at the same time, laughing at the joke. I introduced this show to one of my dearest friends this week. I was happy to watch it with her... for my third time. I lost count of how many times she smacked me (gently) with each WTF as we watched one show after another... after another... and another.

So, maybe, one of my questions is "What's the crack factor?" and how do I crack it?

And so that it's clear to my readers when I say crack, I don't mean the Irish version of craic (although I definitely want that in everything I write). I do mean the highly-addictive drug that makes people want more.

Speaking of more... to be continued.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Brilliant Beginnings ~ Part Two

A dapper Don Draper sits alone jotting on a napkin in a stylish, crowded bar. He asks the Black waiter if he has a light for his cigarette. The waiter strikes a match, to which Don comments, “Old Gold man, huh? Lucky Strike here,” indicating his own brand of smoke. A Caucasian boss intercedes, assuming that the Black waiter, “Sam” (not Thomas, Paul or Peter, but SAMbo) is being a bother, calling him "chatty" in an accusatory way. As an audience, we sympathize with Sam, as does Don, because deferential Sam has yet to utter a word. The head honcho leaves to fetch Don another “old fashioned.”

Don resumes his line of questioning, which is, in fact, research into brand loyalty. Sam is committed to his brand of Old Gold, but, pressed, admits that if there were no Old Gold on the planet, he’d probably be able to find something else. He explains, “I love smoking. My wife hates it. Reader’s Digest says, ‘It will kill you.’” They both snicker. Sam adds, “Ladies love their magazines.” They’re just two regular guys sharing a harmless observation of the opposite sex, right?

The music in the b.g. gets louder, lyrics kick in, “Just want that little band of gold to prove that you are mine.” The camera (Don’s POV) pans the room of elegant cocktailers, nigh every one with a cigarette in hand. As the season progresses, Don’s client, Lucky Strike will play an important role and, ultimately, be the cause of his professional demise.

Meanwhile, in these opening three minutes of AMC's Mad Men, we learn that: Don is a loner, an observer of humanity, possibly an outsider, definitely a man at the top; racism is alive and well; and women are not to be taken seriously. The choice of music serves fabulous double-duty: is it referencing the addiction to cigarettes or, the requisite for female status in the world, a wedding ring?

Is it no wonder that Mad Men enjoyed instant “runaway critical acclaim?” The opening alone is packed with layer upon layer of nuance and that's without discussing the production values. Do mere mortals write this stuff? I’m encouraged because, as the San Francisco Chronicle’s Tom Goodman notes, “Almost none of the coverage for "Mad Men" explains that this is a show about interiors.” Phew! It’s within our realm; mere gods couldn’t possibly understand the interior turmoil of humans.


San Francisco Chronicle:

Groundbreaking Then and Groundbreaking Now

This is the trailer for Californication, now in its sixth season:

And the trailer for House of Lies, embarking on its third season:

The opening to Californication, described in my previous post:

Sadly, I can't find the opening to House of Lies to post here.

These are for my records as I pursue the question of what constitutes a groundbreaking and successful TV show. How is it projected to viewers to gain an audience? And how does it deliver on its promise? How are they similar? How are they different? Is there a formula? And... more importantly... can it be CRACKed?!

Would love to hear comments on these shows, if you're familiar with them, and others that you love.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Brilliant Beginnings

A beautifully-lit, plush bedroom in an expensive hi-rise ~ informed by designer white leather chairs, white shag rug, hardwood floors, silk curtains and city view. Man’s pants, a woman’s dress scatter the floor.

On pristine white sheets, a Caucasian woman, naked but for bitchy high heels, and a naked Black man, upside down, sprawled over her, are both asleep. He wakes up. His expression indicates he doesn’t remember what happened. He does a double-take on her ass. Oh, yes, he recognizes it. He scrambles to get dressed, to wake her up. She is dead to the world; even cold water thrown on her face has no effect. He struggles to dress her dead-weight body, wriggling her dress on from the bottom up. He falls, his face smacks between her ass cheeks.

Cut to him dumping her on a chair, dress barely on, boobs exposed. He props her up, plops a laptop in her lap, yanks up her dress. A young teen walks in the door. Dressed in lavender tights and skirt, buzz cut hair, we don’t know if this is a boy or a girl, but, judging by the voice, probably a boy. The kid calls, “Hey, Dad.” Dad leaps around, startled. The kid announces that Grandpa is making French toast. He then inquires, “What’s Mom doing here?” “Working,” says Dad. “Should I tell Grandpa to make her French toast?” Dad replies, “Absolutely not.” The kid does a twirl as he exits. Mom startles awake, her disheveled hair frozen in slow motion. Dad addresses the camera. “Don’t… ever…. fuck…. your… ex-wife.”

That is the first two minutes of Showtime’s House of Lies, billed as a black comedy about a big-moneymaking management consultant and his high-rolling, low-ethics team. How much better can the opening to a new T.V. show get?

How about… to the tune of a church choir singing “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”: A Porche heads up a cemetery driveway past lawns being watered by sprinklers (as filmmakers, we prefer our tarmac wet, right?) towards a church of Notre Dam proportions. The driver, handsome, scruffy, smoking a cigarette, gets out the car, pulls of his dark shades. The cigarette is thrown into a font of holy water. The man walks up the aisle, past white pews, towards a crucifixion, “Hey, Big Guy, you and me. I’ve never done this before but desperate times call for desperate measures. My name is Hank.”

A young nun appears, “Hello Hank.” She offers to help him. He doesn’t want to bother a real person, but explains that he’s “having a crisis of faith.” He can’t write. This sucks because he’s supposed to be a writer, a professional one at that. He is erudite and profane. He apologizes. She responds, “Normally, I would suggest a couple of ‘Our Fathers’ or ‘Hail Mary’s’, but I don’t think that’s going to get it done. What about a blow job?” She pulls off her wimple, shakes out her long blonde hair, gets on her knees before him. Hank holds out his hand to block Jesus’s view, saying, “Sweet Baby Jesus, Hank is going to hell.” Hank startles awake.

In less than three minutes, we know our protagonist, Hank Moody, and his chief problem in life. Thus begins another Showtime creation, Californication, which just finished its sixth season.

For more detail on the intro to Californication, read a review here.

For more detail on the intro to House of Lies, read a review here.

What other brilliant openings to TV shows can you recommend?

Friday, June 7, 2013


Serpico, directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Al Pacino, is a true-story crime drama made in 1973. It tells the story of Frank Serpico, an honest cop, who blew the whistle on the corruption running rampant in the force, only to have his colleagues turn on him. Shot in the face, he miraculously survived.

I chose this film because it has stuck in my memory these many years. Perhaps, as an impressionable teen I was struck by the fun bohemian lifestyle of Greenwich Village New York City, which, ironically, is where I lived when I arrived in America in 1982. More than that, however, I think the film is memorable because of the character, Frank Serpico, who stays true to himself, to his own values, his own code of conduct, in spite of what others may think or do. I believe this is the theme of the film, that individuals must do the right thing.

The movie opens with white on black titles against the sound of someone in pain and the blare of sirens. Our first image is a close-up of Serpico with, what we will learn is, a bullet hole in his face. We then cut to a police station where it is announced that Serpico has been shot and we are informed there are at least six cops who’d want to kill him. A reporter then wakes up someone important in the middle of the night, so we know that Serpico is not just ‘any old’ cop. A flashback of Serpico graduating from the police academy as the code of conduct is recited tells us that Serpico will uphold that code of integrity, courage, perseverance, character and courtesy. These are his values. In under five minutes, we know what this movie is about.

The story progresses with Serpico going beyond the call of duty as a patrolman only to be circumvented from credit and advancement by higher-ups. This happens at eighteen minutes and is repeated at forty minutes with the line, “Life is Unfair.” Meanwhile, we are introduced to police corruption: small at first, such as getting free food at a restaurant in return for overlooked parking infractions, that escalates into envelopes of cash for payoffs. His unorthodox methods, which include his physical transformation from clean-cut cop to long-haired Bohemian, rub other cops the wrong way. At the end of act one, Serpico is accused of being gay. This launches him onto the path to become a detective where his transformation continues as he continually plays with his appearance in the role of undercover cop that will ultimately be his demise.

The story resonates with me as a screenwriter because it is the epitome of the hero’s journey and the script hits every plot point on the mark. The Writers Guild of America awarded it the “Best Drama Adapted from Another Medium.” It also won “Best Picture” in 1974’s Golden Globes. For the Academy Award’s Best Actor, Pacino was up against Marlon Brando (Last Tango in Paris), Jack Nicholson (The Last Detail), Robert Redford (The Sting) and, the winner, Jack Lemmon (Save the Tiger).

As a producer and director, I find the movie interesting because it was shot “fast and loose,” as noted in TMC’s review, “with scenes being edited as they were shot.” This sounds like the precursor to modern filmmakers such as (one of my personal heroes) Robert Rodriguez when he shot Once Upon a Time in Mexico in digital hi-def.

Serpico is ranked 84 on the AFI’s List of 100 Most Inspiring Films of All Time, sandwiched between Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and What’s Love Got To Do With It. Frank Serpico is ranked 40 on AFI’s 100 Heroes and Villains, on a par with Freddy Krueger as a villain.

On a final note, I'd love to hear what others think of the score of the film. It seemed to really play a part establishing tone, especially when Frank was "back to his roots" with his family. I can't decide whether it was sentimentally OTT or "just right." Composed by Mikis Theodorakis, it was nominated for a BAFTA and, in 1975, for Album of Best Original Score Written for a Motion Picture in the Grammy Awards.

Oh! And what do you think of the trailer?!