[ETCETERA] Screener Season

Checked the mail a couple of weeks ago and there it was – a glorious padded envelope just the right size and thickness.

Screener Season had arrived.

If you’re lucky enough to get into an industry guild, or academy, or several other specialized collectives – and you’re eligible to vote for awards – the holidays come early.

Roxanne Roxanne Screener

Screener Season Pace Setter

Beginning late fall (and apparently sometimes sooner) the DVDs start rolling in.  Well, they don’t actually roll, of course.  That would be a seriously negligent way of distributing them.  But they come nevertheless.  Often.

Several times a week there’s another delivery of a recent / current / sometimes not-yet-released movie vying for award consideration.  Sure, the studios have modernized the process and made some films available to stream online.  But frankly, it doesn’t have the same magic as getting package after package in the mail.

As it happens, I’m in an alphabet soup of organizations – WGAw, SAG-AFTRA, MPEG – that are part of most studios’ distribution lists.  You need to have been doing covered work within a recent window of time to get screeners from some of those groups.  Others will keep coming in perpetuity, provided the member just stays current with their dues.

Since it’s hard to know what the future holds, it’s best to enjoy what you’ve got for as long as you’ve got it!

Now, there are some downsides.

For one, it won’t be too long before there’s a teetering stack of award hopefuls just waiting to be popped into that player drawer.  That’s a lot of pressure.  Not to mention a serious injury risk.

The truth is, it’s almost impossible to watch every film that comes in the mail.  But by the time the nominations are set, at least, the list of relevant titles will have been whittled down to a more digestible amount.

Then it’s just time to bring on the popcorn.  And a critical eye, natch.

Once the frenzy of award season is over, and all the hardware has been distributed to the lucky few, the job of screener destruction begins.  These things are all watermarked, and if one of them finds its way to some online torrent site, this party could end right quick.

Turns out snapping a DVD in half is not easy, and feels more than a little dangerous without a full face helmet.  Instead, I’ve taken to scratching the crap out of the back of them with a pair of scissors.

There’s no real wrong way, of course, as long as they can’t be played again.  And you live to tell the tale.  Have fun with it!

I guess the real point here is that you don’t have to become massively rich and famous to still get some industry perks.  I would prefer to be massively rich and famous, but – in the meantime – I’ll take the screeners.

Before you ask, though…  you can’t borrow any, sorry.  Frankly, you can’t be trusted.

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[THREE CENTS] The Coffee Conundrum and How to Fix it

Coffee Mugs

Keep it coming.  For now.

I enjoy coffee.  Like a lot of people (the ones I can relate to, anyway), I need coffee to remain upright, or a reasonable facsimile thereof.

I also enjoy breakfast.  Probably too much.  Highlights of my weekend are Saturday and Sunday morning meals out.  And some form of waffle is frequently at the top of my order.

But it’s not always smooth sailing.  When you find yourself with a partially empty coffee cup, do you want a new pour?  Or do you want to wait until it hits bottom?  Maybe a partial pour is required because your cup’s gone cold.  Maybe you’re gonna want some more later, but not until you get through another third of your hash browns.

How does one navigate this minefield?  Up until now, we’ve tiptoed, stumbled around, and occasionally exploded.

So, what to do?

The solution is meat.  Well, meat-related.  More specifically, Churrascaria-related.

Meat Stick Indicator

Photo courtesy of someone named Jesse D. on Yelp

If you’ve never been to one, a Churrascaria is a Brazilian steakhouse where servers constantly do rounds to the various tables with giant skewers of assorted meat.

As part of this procedure, the restaurants provide each party with a card or little wooden doodad (“Meat Stick Indicator,” according to my friend, Josh).  You use this to turn on and off the “meat spigot.”

Flip it green side up and the loaded skewers keep coming.  Flip it red side up and they skip by while your arteries catch their breath.

I think you can see where I’m going with this.

What all breakfast and brunch restaurants need is a set of their own Meat Stick Indicators.  Or rather, a Coffee Stick Indicator™.

This way, you only get coffee when you’re ready.  And it’s never just moments after you’ve concocted the perfect blend of creamer and caffeine (and possibly sweetener, if that’s your thing).

It’s small change, sure, but an important one.  Progress isn’t always easy, but it helps when it comes with a steaming cup of joe.

I think I’m about ready for a refill.

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[ETCETERA] Comic-Con is a Lot

Morty Coplay

So…  Does this make me Rick?

It’s already been a couple of months, but I still haven’t quite recovered.

Sure, the San Diego Comic-Con is a cool place.  A fascinating place.

But it’s a lot.

A lot of people, a lot of walking, and a hell of a lot of heat.

If you haven’t been there in person, you’ve almost definitely seen pictures or video.  It’s a pretty popular event.

Actually, most of the time, SDCC feels a bit too popular.  There are so many people, it’s a chore to shuffle through most aisles.  And if you ever stop to rest or eat, you’re constantly told by staff that you need to keep moving, or you’re in the fire aisle, or that’s not a bathroom, sir.

Jason Momoa in a crowd

Somewhere in there is Jason Momoa’s head.  Possibly more.  It was really hard to see.

The ubiquitous cosplay is crazy impressive, but also all-too-frequently baffling.

I don’t know how geeky you need to be to even get a passing grade in identifying the majority.

There are so many different areas people are drawing from – comics, cartoons, anime, movies, television, and video games (not to mention the hybrids and riffs) – that you need an advanced degree in pop culture to have a working knowledge of every one.

Sadly, snacks here will not be your salvation.  The on-site food game is pretty grim.  Most people seem to wisely exit to downtown San Diego for meals of substance, but if you’re trying to stay in the convention center to maximize your time (and minimize your perspiration), you better have a low bar for pizza.

Rhonda and I have never even tried to stay at a hotel, but I hear finding rooms is quite the battle.  Instead, we’ve always driven down from the L.A. area in the morning and it’s a looong haul.

Lego Jason Momoa

Finally, a clear shot of Momoa.

Finding a place to park was actually pretty easy (we booked ahead of time), but it’s a steamy walk to the convention center itself.

Despite being on-theme, I definitely don’t envy the guys making their way in full Sandtrooper armor (okay, I do kinda envy them, but not for the heat).

On the other hand….

There’s a lot of cool stuff to see.  And buy.  Possibly both.

And, or course, the legendary panels, populated by a who’s who of the genre world (which seem to run non-stop the entire time).

Also Artists’ Alley, filled with amazing creators just waiting to sign a cover or create a commission to order.  Your very own one-of-a-kind collectible.

Not to mention, almost everyone I know goes with regularity.

Yeah, it’s probably worth another try or two.  Especially if next year Rhonda and I are there behind our own table with Blowback the whole weekend.

Yeah, that’s the way to do it.

Never too early to make some hotel reservations…

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. Panel SDCC 2018

Just walking the aisles, we stumbled onto a full-blown Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. panel in the middle of the hall.

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[ETCETERA] You’re Out of Order!

Travolta Staying Alive

At the very least, he was in really great shape.

When you see movies (and in what particular order) has a lot to do with what year you were born.  Sometimes you’re too young.  Sometimes you don’t even know what you’re missing, until much later.

I saw Staying Alive before I ever saw Saturday Night Fever (full disclosure: I still haven’t seen Saturday Night Fever).

I saw Jaws 2 before 1 (edited for TV, no less).

I saw The Road Warrior before Mad Max.  Though, I’m gonna guess that most people did at the time.

In my defense, we didn’t have HBO in our house.  Or even cable, actually (we did have food and running water, though, so there’s no need to call Child Protection Services).

But even for the cable-laden, there was still no Netflix or Bit-Torrent.  If you had missed it, you couldn’t just navigate through your on-demand menu and catch up with the original movie before you went to the theater to see the sequel (or the second, or third).

Jaws 2 Poster

Just stay clear of the ocean forever, got it.

Maybe you could find a copy at the local video store, but even those were limited by shelf space and popularity.

It wasn’t ideal, sure, but it was all we knew.

As a screenwriter, you might actually end up penning a sequel one day (maybe to your own hit movie).  If you get that opportunity, how will you bring your new audience up to speed without boring or alienating your previous one?

It’s not really an unusual concept.

There’s a series of novels I read as a kid about a young detective, called Encyclopedia Brown.  At the beginning of every book there was a paragraph or two that laid out the backstory.  Virtually verbatim every time.

It was a little annoying, but I understood it was for newcomers.

Until about a decade ago, television shows had the main title sequence to get viewers up to speed on the premise, frequently in song (“Here’s the story, of a man named, Brady…”).  Less so these days, where a “long” main title runs about fifteen seconds.

Encyclopedia Brown Boy Detective Book Cover

Like Veronica Mars, but 30 years earlier

In movies, though, the paradigm doesn’t really allow for a theme song or a “Last time on…” recap.

So, is there a standard formula to initiate the late-adopters to a sequel?  If there is, I don’t know it (feel free to enlighten me in the comments if you’ve heard otherwise).

Personally, I feel like the the best strategy is to make the sequel stand on its own.  Almost as if it’s the very first movie with these characters.

Sure you should include some callbacks and references from previous films, but don’t make knowledge of those things essential to enjoying this particular chapter.

Easier said than done, naturally.  Of course, if it was easy, everybody’d be doing it.

Sorry, what?  Everybody is already doing it?  Huh.  Okay, well, back to whatever you were up to before this.

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[THREE CENTS] Responsibility to Your Audience

Muppet Movie Audience

These guys are relying on you to do the right thing.

As writers, most of us work to create scripts with compelling stories, three-dimensional characters, and authentic-sounding dialogue.  But what else should be on our checklist?

After all, screenplays – and the resulting movies, television, and web content – aren’t designed solely for the author to express themselves.  They’re made for an audience.  So what kind of responsibility do we have to them?

Do you owe them a satisfying resolution?*  Do you owe them loose ends tied up?**  Do you owe them a coherent through-line?***

Or should you be able to just follow your muse and let it take you wherever and however the hell it wants?

Obviously there’s no objectively right answer.

In most cases, professional writers are under the supervision of story editors, producers, and network executives.  For them, it’s all about serving the audience (along with sponsors, and the bottom line, of course).

But what if you had the option to do anything that popped into your head?  Maybe you’ve got a rich relative sponsoring your project.  Maybe the rich one sponsoring your project is you.  Do you have to worry about the audience then?  Or – damn the torpedoes – should you just make your art without any restrictions whatsoever?

Last American Virgin Final Shot

Wait, this isn’t the end, right?  You can’t end it like this, right?  Right?!

When I was a lot younger, my friends and I rented the movie, The Last American Virgin.  In the age of Porky’s and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, it was promoted as a sexy comedic romp.

It was not.

Sure it started out as a wacky comedy.  But in the end, the hero was dumped by the girl of his dreams (who he had helped out of a dire situation), who then hooked back up with the hero’s best friend (who was the one that had put her in the dire situation to begin with).  The last image in the movie was was the kid just driving alone, devastated.


Sure, that may be the way a Sundance indie drama ends, but not this.  Not with a complete 180 in tone.  This is an abuse of your viewers.

Speaking of madness, perhaps you’ve seen 2017’s Twin Peaks: the Return?

I don’t care how much of a craving you have for Twinkies, keep driving…

I was a big fan of the original series, though I felt that Fire Walk with Me was a big miss. Nevertheless, I was excited for the latest iteration.  At least until I started watching it.

All indications are that David Lynch was allowed to do whatever he wanted with those 18 episodes.  It showed.

While some super-fans might feel it was some brilliant expression of a mad genius, the rest of us were left dumbfounded at the relentless craziness that seemed to have no discernible rhyme or reason.

As a creator, you can get away with some quirky, crazy bits.  That might be your “voice” as a writer that makes you stand out.  But when it’s the majority of the narrative, and there’s no way for anyone else to clearly comprehend what the hell it means in the story (or even what the story is), then you’ve done something wrong.

I think it’s pretty clear that for me, writers need to care about their audience.  Certainly if they want them to ever be their audience again.

No, you don’t need to rigidly create a happy ending.  No, you don’t have to dumb things down, or mimic a classic paradigm.

Your story can make them think.  It can make them work.

But it definitely shouldn’t leave them staring at the screen and thinking: WTF?



***also yes

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[IN THE TRENCHES] The Ensemble: Divide and Conquer

Avengers: Infinity War Poster

They barely fit on the poster.  Now you’ve got to give them all something to do?

Like the rest of the industrialized world, I caught a showing of Avengers: Infinity War over the weekend.  It was pretty great, actually.  More or less lived up to the impossible expectations.

(No pressure, Solo).

In addition to a sizable portion of excellent (funny) dialogue, one of the things writers Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely did best was effectively service its large cast of characters.  So what’s the secret to juggling all that talent?

Divide and conquer.

While an ensemble story frequently starts with most of the crew together, staying that way is a problem.  You can’t really just have a crowd of people standing around for the entire duration, taking turns saying one line after another like the feature film equivalent of We Are the World.

Instead, you have to create subgroups and send them each out on their own subgroup quests that ultimately all lead back to a collective climax.

Okay, that sounded a little dirty.

Could be.

Depends on the rating, I guess.

Kuu Kuu Harajuku

Just like Avengers: Infinity War.  Identical, really.

This concept doesn’t just pertain to blockbuster movies, of course.

When Rhonda and I write stories for Kuu Kuu Harajuku – which are each half of a half hour – we have five girls and a band manager that need to be actively involved throughout.  Keeping them all together creates a metaphorical story mosh pit, and a crowded mess.  Break ’em up!

Writing an ensemble piece yourself?  Always divide and conquer.

In the most simplistic of terms: Together at the beginning.  Together at the end.  Split up in the middle.  Of course, there are variations and exceptions to the rule (there always are). But if you’re struggling to service a large group of characters, this is a great way to start.

Okay, get to the Fade In and make some multi-character magic.

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So I started writing my first novel. It won’t be part of any future school curriculum. Well, probably not, anyway.  It’s not that kind of novel.

Picture it someday, right there in the back, third shelf from the left.

It’s a fun novel.  An adventure novel. You know, for kids.

While I’m on the subject of what it won’t be, though, I’ll add that it won’t be finished soon. But it will be finished someday, and that’s a beautiful thing.

Conceptually. Theoretically. Eventually.

I think most writers – regardless of their chosen medium – dream of someday writing a novel. But that’a a lot of words. And pages. So the dream and the reality rarely find themselves in the same zip code.

In fact, I started writing a different novel many, many, moons ago. A little after college. It was supposed to be something I did in my spare time (as if there’s such a thing as spare time). My friend, Guy, and I challenged each other to complete our books within a year – two hundred and one pages, minimum.

I didn’t get past page three. I wonder if he ever finished?

My failure wasn’t really surprising. In that long-ago scenario, I had only the loosest of ideas, and was kind of winging it as I went. I guess the results speak for themselves.

This time around, it should be a lot different. After all, I have a well-developed storyline and a clear road map to safely get me from “Once upon a time” to “The End.”

Its called a screenplay.

Rhonda Smiley Asper Novel Cover

Seems simple enough (it’s not simple at all)

Yes, my debut novel will be an adaptation of myself. Not a unique (dare I say novel) idea, of course. But an excellent one nevertheless.

It’s kinda poetic, really. When you think about it, a script is essentially a blueprint for the final product of a film. Here, it’ll serve as a blueprint for the final product of a book.

A straight line from my keystrokes to a reader’s imagination.

And ideally, followed up by more. Having been writing for a few decades now, I’ve built up a small library of spec scripts.  And thanks to the new self-publishing world and print-on-demand technology, I can finally give those stories I love a chance to find an audience.

How hard could it be?

Hearing Rhonda Smiley’s war stories for her first novel, Asper, I know it’ll be smooth sailing all the way.

I’m kidding, of course. It sounds like a nightmare.

I should probably get back to work.


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[IN THE TRENCHES] A Recipe for Creativity

As writers, we’re all fueled by creativity.  We need it to fill in that foreboding blank page, to wow those executives in that pitch meeting, to finish the outline for that new idea, and so on and so on and scooby dooby doo-by.

Without it, we’re just like…  I dunno…  Regular people.

Charm, yes.  Multimedia franchises, not so much.

Unfortunately, that creativity runs dry sometimes.  Even for the best of us.

And refueling takes more than just a spin downtown to fill up the tank and grab a lottery ticket and a Chocodile.  Maybe clean the windshield, check the oil, and…

Perhaps I’ve taken this analogy too far.

The point is, if you don’t already know how to stoke the flames of your imagination, it’s time to workshop your own personal recipe and commit it to memory for the next time you have to get cooking.

And the next time after that.

The desire to tap into an elusive imagination can be borne out of various needs, which might necessitate different, unique ingredients.

In some cases, you’re stuck within a particular scene you’re writing, and need a very specific solution to a very specific problem.

What then?  Specifically?

Julia Child

Julia knows the prefect recipe for a strong second act.

If it’s an action beat, I’ll sometimes doodle the blocking on a piece of paper and literally take a look at my options.  Stick figures are fine. Arrows and diagrams a plus.

You can do the same thing with a salt and pepper shaker. Maybe arrange everything on the dining room table to help inspire your characters’ next moves.  Shift them around, swap their starting places.  Bring in dessert.

Other times I’ll walk the dog, but skip the headphones and music.  Just some fresh air and physical activity to help brainstorm through a jam.  If it’s the end of the day, it can help to start actively thinking about the problem you’re trying to solve as you close your eyes to sleep.

Let your subconscious do the heavy lifting.

A classic inspirational location is the bathroom.  So many ideas come from visits to everybody’s favorite mental sanctuary.  Here, your next sentence or piece of dialogue might materialize during the soothing storm of a hot shower, or perhaps while you’re perched on the throne.  Inspiration isn’t snobby like that.

Fresh ideas.  Metaphorically speaking.

But what about when you’re starting from zero? When you’re trying to figure out what your next new project will even be?

Here, the world is your oyster (or, if you’re a vegetarian, the world might be your Brussels sprout).

The seed for your next story might come out of an overheard conversation, a memory from childhood, or even a trip through the local museum.

Early in my post-collegiate career, a fellow writer friend and I would go into book stores for inspiration.  Just the place itself, teeming with stories and imagination would prime the pump.  But, more specifically, scanning shelves and shelves of titles and cover images would inspire entirely original ideas.

A fertile aisle was the biographies, which could spark the notion of a fictional politician/athlete/magician/war hero/etc.  Perhaps a biopic.

Inspiration and more.

Some people get their best ideas at the beach, or a park, or even a crowded coffee shop. Like writers themselves, no two recipes for creativity will be exactly the same.

Regardless of your particular formula, though, you should always be ready for inspiration to strike when you least expect it.  And consequently, you should be ready to get it down.

I still keep a pen and paper on me at all times, but you can also get those ideas onto your phone. Memo, dictate, text…  Whatever it takes to keep the magic from slipping through your fingers.

In short, make sure to give thought as to what works best for you.  Where do you stumble upon your best ideas?  What are you doing, listening to, or watching?  Remember these things. And the next time you find yourself in a creative jam, you can reach out to these firestarters to help fuel the next breakthrough.

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[THREE CENTS] Owning Star Wars

There might be a spoiler or two in here, but seriously – if you haven’t seen The Last Jedi by now, I have to think you don’t really care.  So let’s get on with it…

The O.G. ‘Wars

When I first saw Star Wars as a kid, there was only one.  It didn’t have a number or a subtitle.  It wasn’t part of a trilogy or ninelogy, or infinitelogy.

It was just a movie, its own thing, and an awesome thing at that.

For me, already a science fiction fan, this was really something special. Blasters…  Lightsabers…  Dogfights…

Scifi action.  A “space western.”

It consumed my imagination from that point on, as it consumed many a kid’s.

I dreamed I was Luke Skywalker, the young kid following his destiny to become a laser-sword swinging, womp rat bullseyeing, force-wielding fighter pilot with the skills to take down the invincible Death Star (sans targeting computer) and win the hand of a beautiful Princess.

True, that last part ultimately proved to be a considerably disturbing notion.  But at the time, it made perfect sense.

At least, that’s how I remembered them looking

All in for this slice of interstellar magic, I drew countless pictures, joined the fan club, accumulated toys, and subscribed to the comic.

Obviously, I wasn’t alone. Star Wars quickly became a phenomenon with nine movies and counting, a million hours of animated television (not to mention The Holiday Special), and endless amounts of ancillary products.

Can you imagine writing something that captures so many imaginations?  For so many generations?  It’s more than just the work itself.  The stars have to align perfectly.

Star Wars Action Figures

The retirement fund.  Along with a few interlopers

The downside, of course, is the growing expectations for each subsequent outing.  With such intensely high hopes from so many fanatics, it’s impossible to please everyone.

Occasionally anyone.

Those of us in the Star Wars fan community have very strong opinions on everything.  We know how things should be, and – more emphatically – how they shouldn’t.

Ewoks…  Midi-chlorians…  The Crossguard Lightsaber…  Even shirtless Force conference calls. There’s no end to controversy.

We would do it better.  Why aren’t they doing it better?!

The answer, of course, is that “better” is crazily subjective.  And there’s really no one unified fan opinion on anything (well, maybe Jar Jar).  But the key operative phrase there is opinion.

The sad truth is, the audience doesn’t own Star Wars.  But because we’ve grown up with it and it touches so many aspects of our lives – from our entertainment, to our fashion, even to our food – it just feels that way.

Leia Poppins?  You’re killing me, Rian

Before George cashed in Lucasfilm to the Mouse, he was the final word in the Star Wars universe.  As it should be.  He created it, it was his choice to determine where it would go and how.

Of course, the prequels proved most of us didn’t approve of those directions, but that’s beside the point.

Actually, the point itself.  

Just like George, if we ever get to produce our iconic masterpiece franchises, it’ll be up to us, not our audiences, to decide how those stories evolve.

Which is exactly the way we’d want it.

So keep posting your opinions on what the last Star Wars could have been, and exactly what the next one should be.  Who might be who else’s parents, rivals, or lovers.  Who could beat who in a lightsaber duel.  Maybe in Cards Against Humanity.  The debate belongs to all of us.

But the franchise belongs to Disney.

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[ETCETERA] Final Fantasy (FCL Update)

This is a follow-up to my previous post about the Fantasy Casting League.  You can click on the link to get up-to-speed as to what the hell I’m talking about before going any further.

Or, if you prefer to work out your understanding through contextual clues – or perhaps not understand at all – carry on reading right here.

To start with, my FCL winning streak ended at two.  I got taken down by Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, then stayed down with The Mummy (1999) and Die Hard.  Hey, even Michael Jordan had to retire eventually.  And then eventually again.

But on the positive side, the League’s kinks appear to have been worked out, though there’s always room for improvement (like the Constitution, the FCL is a living document. Somehow without being at document at all).

Spinal Tap 11

These go to three…

To begin with, the scoring range has been supplemented from the previous zero through two to zero through three.

Now, a bad pick gets no points, a decent pick one, a good pick two, and a great pick three (as well as continuing with a negative two for no pick at all).  It doesn’t seem like much of a difference, but when you’re making relative comparisons, one more increment helps a lot (I feel like there’s a double entendre happening here, but that’s probably for a different blog).

There was also a strong suggestion (though not a formal rule) that if someone has the same pick as you made for one of the roles, you should automatically score it a three (except maybe – maybe – in the rare case where you actually hate your pick but couldn’t come up with a better alternative).  It’s a grey area.  I’d suggest using your moral compass, but I’m not sure if those even exist anymore.

Additionally, the form created every week to fill out (thanks, Rob) has been changed from a portrait orientation to landscape to better display on a computer screen or in a conference room (this is also why you should never shoot vertical video with your phone (you’re welcome, Josh)).

Die Hard Recasting

On the plus side, I did get props for Tilda and Luis.

And lastly, we’ve added space below each casting suggestion to reference the projects the actors are known for.  The reason we do this now is because of the most significant change of all…


In order to prevent bias against or for anyone during the voting process (Alex…), each of the completed forms is put into a network folder with just a number as an identifier.  That way, everyone is judging the picks of a number, not a name (in other words, payback will have to come through other means).

My money’s on player number three

To maintain the veil of secrecy during the scoring, you also fill out rankings for your own picks, but total it up as zero.

A drawback to anonymity is that the picks can’t be defended or explained, but the actors’ credits solve the problem of wondering where the hell we’ve seen them before (if we have, in fact, seen them before), so that’s no longer essential.  It’s not a perfect system, but it beats the hell out of the Electoral College.

So if you’re playing along in your own division of the League, make sure you apply these changes, or there will be sanctions.  Possible legal action.  At least a stern talking to.

You’ve been warned.


Finally, since this is my last post of 2017, I’ll wish all my readers a very happy New Year.

Happy New Year, mom.

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