Beyond Words: Celebrating 2015’s WGA-Nominated Screenwriters

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Photo credit: Variety

As awards season continues chugging along, the WGA-W, the Writer’s Guild Foundation, and Variety gathered together to celebrate 2015’s WGA-Award nominated screenwriters.

Andrea Berloff and Jonathan Herman (STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON), Aaron Sorkin (JOBS), John McNamara (TRUMBO), Charles Randolph and Adam McKay (THE BIG SHORT), Matt Charman (BRIDGE OF SPIES), Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy (SPOTLIGHT) and Drew Goddard (THE MARTIAN) took the stage at the WGA Theater to discuss their creative processes, what scenes they had to cut from their scripts, and how to approach script structure when dealing with real-life characters.

Even with original screenplay nominees Taylor Sheridan (SICARIO) and Amy Schumer (TRAINWRECK) unable to attend, the stage was packed as John August (this year’s recipient of the Valentine Davies Award) joined the 11 writers on stage to moderate. August told the audience we’d being seeing a lot of lightning round questions to keep the conversation moving.

August first asked the writers: How long was the production process of the film from initial conception to theatrical release?

THE MARTIAN: Three years

SPOTLIGHT: Four years

BRIDGE OF SPIES: Three years (11 months from pitch to production, an incredibly fast turnaround time)

CAROL: “Eighteen effing years,” as Nagy put it.

THE BIG SHORT: Five years

TRUMBO: Eight years

JOBS: Three years

STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON: Five years

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Ratings v. Downloads on the Black List Website

We’ve had some writers ask about the relationship between ratings and downloads, so I wanted to do a quick analysis on what writers can expect to see based on the ratings of their script. What I’ll do here is look at how the maximum score a script receives affects how much it’s downloaded.

The first chart looks at reader downloads and shows the max score a given script received and the number of downloads (5th, 25th, median, 75th, 95th percentiles; blue section is the middle 50 percent):

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The Black List Interview: Sean Macaulay

Description=By-line photo of Times Writer Sean MacAulay. Pic: Rupert Thorpe.

Photo by: Rupert Thorpe.

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Today, we chat with SEAN MACAULAY, a screenwriter of 20th Century Fox’s EDDIE THE EAGLE, which stars Hugh Jackman and Taron Egerton, and will be released on February 26th. Today we talk with Sean about how the Black List helped him continue to shape EDDIE THE EAGLE (the project’s first writer, Simon Kelton, maintains a “Story By” credit and a screenplay credit in addition to Sean’s), and how he continues to hone his craft as a screenwriter.

The Past:

What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?

Seeing THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN up on the big-screen was pretty mind-blowing. Laconic macho heroes, heart-pounding score, flick knife-fights – everything a 7-year-old boy could want. Years later, it all came full circle when I wrote a long article for British GQ about James Coburn.

Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? 

It wasn’t any one film. I’d always loved movies and even kept a folder of my own reviews as a kid (“RAID ON ENTEBBE. Serviceable hostage drama – 2 stars.”). The turning point for me was reading my first genuinely great script – SCHINDLER’S LIST by Steve Zaillian. It’s so taut and clear and powerful without veering into sentimentality – just a beautifully realized piece of storytelling. I actually go back to that script more often than the movie, and the movie’s pretty terrific. (“Searing wartime drama – 5 stars.”)

What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?

I had my first article published in a national newspaper on my 20th birthday, so not too many strange jobs before I became a writer, unless you count house cleaner and tool shop assistant. Nothing was stranger than working as a journalist in the last great days of Fleet Street. I had to dress up as a woman, a 6ft banana and a taxi cab rapist. I used to sit next to Piers Morgan when we worked on the Sun. He called me a dangerous intellectual because I admitted seeing a film with subtitles. I got to interview everyone from George Hamilton to Joseph Heller to Ron Jeremy. A particular favorite was the Sikh owner of a curry restaurant in Wales who serenaded customers dressed as Elvis Presley. He called himself Patelvis. I can still remember his song: “I don’t drink whisky, I don’t drink bourbon/All I want to do is shake my turban!”

After I moved to LA, I worked for one very long day as an extra on a porn set alongside the likes of Anita Cannibal and Jezebel Flair. I got paid $50 for playing a zealous Arab bidding at a love slave auction. I had some thoughts on the script, but to my continued amazement no one wanted to know.

The Present:

How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?

Thanks to all my years as a journalist, I still can’t help scouting for good stories. What’s the hook? What’s the angle? It’s like being a prospector, sifting away at articles, biographies, podcast interviews, dinner party conversations, anything… Spotting a good idea is usually instant: When you know, you know. Developing that idea to creative fruition is a whole other matter.

Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?

Every day is a battle to outwit the front brain. I have a trusty Mont Blanc fountain pen and do morning pages à la The Artist’s Way in these special notebooks I got given by a fellow writer. It’s one of the best ways to drain off the mental nonsense. That or a terrifying deadline. When I get stuck, I like to talk things through with my wife, who used to be a producer for John Woo, or go for a walk where, as if by benign magic, some kind of solution usually appears.

Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?

Anything by Billy Wilder or Preston Sturges always hits the spot. My pet love is wistful late 1960s/1970s crime buddy pictures that end in death: BONNIE AND CLYDE, MIDNIGHT COWBOY, BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID, THE SUGARLAND EXPRESS, THUNDERBOLT AND LIGHTFOOT.

The Future:

If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?

I would love to compile my own cut of PAT GARRETT AND BILLY THE KID. Three versions of the film exist, but none of them is definitive for my tastes. I would use the 1988 Turner Preview version as the basis, then add the Slim Pickens death scene from the 1973 version, and the wife scene from the 2005 restoration.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

There is no plan b. And I’m too old to go back into porn.

Dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive.

Drinks with Sam Peckinpah, dinner with Alfred Hitchcock, cigars with Orson Welles. And Robert Evans to host.

The Black List:

How did you first hear about The Black List? 

Pure word of mouth. For as long as I can remember, The Black List was this mythical holy grail showcase for aspiring screenwriters.

How did you come to work on EDDIE THE EAGLE?

I was hired by an English producer called Rupert Maconick who’d optioned Eddie’s life rights back in 2000. A previous writer, Simon Kelton, had done a couple of drafts, when I came aboard in 2002. It was a labor of love, no question. There was no real money in it. Not upfront anyway. We got my draft set up at Sony fairly quickly, but for various reasons, we wound up in turnaround a few years later. I was off it for three years while Steve Coogan was attached, then I resumed in 2010. I always knew it was a winner. Like Eddie, I never gave up. I just had to get it over the finish line creatively.

What made you decide to upload EDDIE THE EAGLE to The Black List? 

The original producer felt it was a way to get some fresh exposure. He always felt the script just needed to find the right champion. But we also knew the script had to pass the gatekeeper test, i.e., get consistently good coverage. When we got two 9/10s evaluations, we knew we were on the right track.

Any tips for writers when uploading their scripts to the site? How did you get the most out of your Black List experience?

Use the evaluations to face reality about your material. As painful as it is, a low score three times in a row is a clear sign that things ain’t working. Once the script is consistently scoring well, it can generate interest in a way the old cold call/snail mail method could never do.

Walk us through how the script was discovered on the site — what was the timeline from upload to being signed to the film going into production?

We put the script up in September 2013. Within four months, we were among the top 50 downloaded scripts of the year. Within another four months, it got me a manager, Leslie Conliffe at Intellectual Property Group, whom I’ve been with ever since. She had a genuine passion for the script and my writing so we clicked instantly.

Then in September 2014, Matthew Vaughn called about the script. He’d been watching COOL RUNNINGS with his kids  when something clicked in his memory. He said, “What ever happened to that script about Eddie the Eagle I read back at Sony ten years ago?” It turned out he’d wanted to do it all along and we’d had no idea. I said, “It’s right here and it’s a lot better now.” Six months later they were filming.



Adjusted Domestic Box Office Revenue

As Star Wars continues to break every record, we wanted to look to see if we could spot any trends when looking at adjust revenues for top grossing films. Were there periods of many of the top grossing films? Were they spread out equally throughout the years? Have blockbuster domestic revenues been declining or increasing?

The graph below is a count of Top 100 highest grossing films adjusted for ticket price inflation by rolling 5-year period (from Box Office Mojo). So what did we find?

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