[THE MAKING OF] The Premiere of Premiere Magazine

Debut Issue of Premiere Magazine in July/August of 1987, featuring Dan Aykroyd and Tom Hanks in "Dragnet."
The one that started it all

Today, there are a million and one, maybe a million and two, ways to learn about the entertainment industry. From websites to blogs, to podcasts and social media, a day doesn’t go by without an announcement or spoiler, or peek behind the scenes.

But back when I went to NYU, there was none of that. Good god, only a small percentage of students even had computers.

As if living among the dinosaurs wasn’t hard enough.

Then, in the summer of ’87, the life of a film student changed. That was when the very first Premiere Magazine came out in the United States.

It was unlike anything my friends and I had ever seen before – an oversized, glossy magazine exclusively devoted to movies and moviemakers. Our paperback vision board.

In addition to the stories on upcoming films, directors, actors and producers, there were a bunch of cool recurring features to look forward to every month.

Premiere Magazine Movie Cards - Issued in 1987 and 1988.
Not a T206 Honus Wagner, but still pretty cool

One of the oddest, and therefore awesomest bits were the baseball card-esque Movie Cards.

In a page-sized, glued-in cardboard insert, were four perforated cards with movie poster images on the front and production info on the back.

Granted, this particular feature didn’t last past 1988, but while it was around, it was pretty special.

There was also the beloved Flavor of the Month. Despite the negative ephemeral connotations, it focused on an up-and-coming player in the business.

I think every film school student identified with the notion of a big break, and dreamed of finding themselves in one of those articles one day.

I suppose some of us even did.

If a Flavor of the Month had some staying power, they might land on an upcoming year’s The Power List, which ranked the industry movers and shakers. Industry trades like The Hollywood Reporter and Variety were a bit dry for most undergraduates, so this was a cool way of getting a lay of the land we were preparing to journey into.

Premiere Magazine July, 1991 "Flavor of the Month" Robert Simonds.
Onetime Flavor of the Month Robert Simonds has accumulated 71 Producing credits and founded STX Entertainment.

While The Power List itself seemed a bit out of reach while at school, I still almost kinda found my way onto other pages by proxy.

Friend and fellow student, Tim Bogart, pitched the magazine a story idea about the trials and tribulations of making a student film. The people at Premiere were interested.

I was a producer on the student film in question, so I was petty stoked about the chance for a mention or photo. It seemed like something amazing was about to happen before I even graduated.

Tragically, it was not to be.

While I can’t quite remember the specifics, melodrama ensued. I think a fellow NYU student was interning at the magazine and somehow sabotaged the story.

A disappointment to say the least.

Oddly enough, while researching this post, I actually discovered that a guy I played softball with out here for a decade was writing for Premiere just a few years after I finished school.

If I could go back in time, maybe we could get this all sorted out with my “inside man” from softball and have that student film article published after all. I’ll have to start saving up for a DeLorean.

Premiere’s dominance in the marketplace started to get challenged by the time 1990 rolled around, when a new kid in town called Entertainment Weekly showed up.

While it was pretty cool too – and four times more frequent – it also covered television, music, and books, preventing it from somehow holding the same mystique. It was also smaller.

Premiere Magazine Special Power Issue - May 1992.
Sadly, I missed my window

After I moved to Los Angeles, I actually scraped together enough cash to get myself a Premiere subscription. I didn’t have to go out and get it anymore, now it came right to me.

For a Halloween party in 1993, a group of us dressed up as the Three Musketeers. While taking pictures to capture the moment, we made sure to mimic the Premiere cover of the same. We were virtually identical. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

Come January of 1999, a friend from NYU made it onto the pages at last, as Mike Thompson and his writing partner were featured for having made some crazy ten million dollar spec screenplay deal. Which I wasn’t jealous about at all. AT ALL. Very happy for them. SO HAPPY.

Where was I? Oh, yeah, Premiere.

As you may have heard, all good things must come to an end (not really, of course, but certainly in this case). Print media had been dying for years, and Premiere was not immune.

In April 2007, the last print edition was released in the states, as Premiere moved to an online-only edition.

Final print edition of Premiere Magazine in April 0f 2007, featuring Will Ferrell from "Blades of Glory."
End of the line in 2007

By 2010, it was gone completely.

I guess my point here is that it’s important to find your own metaphorical Premiere magazine.

The hard work, the networking, the learning, is all absolutely essential to making it in this business.

But so is pursuing something magical and a bit unreal. Maybe even silly. A goal like making it into the pages of your favorite magazine.

Today, maybe it’s a podcast, maybe it’s a industry website, maybe it’s a guest spot on some influencer’s streaming show.

But find that something and add it to those motivations that keep you pushing when the days are the darkest and the dreams seem out of reach.

It’s tough out there. We can use everything we can get.

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[ETCETERA] Please Stand By

Blowback graphic novel panel
Marines, Pirates, Time Travel… What more do you want?!

Well, there comes a time when you have to temporarily put aside your responsibilities and focus on a little self-care instead.

In this case, I’m talking about writing a blog this month. Or, rather, not writing one.

I’ve taken the time I would normally spend here and instead put it toward some of the last steps in self-publishing Rhonda Smiley and my first graphic novel, Blowback.

Right now, we’re in the final formatting stage and it is not easy. For me, anyway.

For anyone who’s curious what that’s like, at some point down the line, I intend to go into exhaustive detail about this entire journey. Likely over several blog posts.

Until then, I’ll just leave you with a little taste of some of our gorgeous panels, with art by Kev Hopgood and color by Charlie Kirchoff. Enjoy.

Blowback graphic novel panels
Pictures AND words. We didn’t cut any corners.

Oh, and for goddsakes, please vote. For Biden/Harris, of course. That other guy is a cancer on humanity. Seriously, the absolute worst.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] What’s in a Name?

Glendale, California's Alex Theater marquee. Original photo via The New York Times.
A little uncreative, perhaps, but to the point

What’s in a name? A whole lot, it turns out. Maybe even too much.

From the front cover of a spec script to a marquee on a movie theater, the title has been, and always will be, a critical task for a screenwriter to tackle.

But it’s tricky.

Ideally, you want your title to do a million different things at the same time – express an idea of what the story’s about, convey a tone, be catchy, look sharp on the poster… basically be perfect.

While you’re doing all that, you also have to avoid choosing one that’s already been used. Especially if it was recent or relatively popular. Although you can’t copyright a title, using one that’s already in play is still a recipe for confusing a potential audience, or looking like a rube to a studio reader.

Title for the animated sci-fi movie Race (2007)
Need I say more? Oh crap, I probably should.

A few years back, a company I’m a partner in produced an indie movie called Race. That title had multiple meanings – the story revolved around a science fiction racing circuit, but also a battle between alien races that considered each other inferior.

Although that made it a great title on several levels, it turned out to fall short on several others.

To start with, “race” is obviously a common word. Without including other keywords in a search, a potential viewer is just as likely to find out about the latest NASCAR and Formula One news as they are to find our movie. Probably more so.

On top of that, there was also another movie called Race that came out about the same time as ours. It’s an Indian movie about horse and car racing that still seems to mistakenly attract its fans to our Facebook page. Not sure how they’re confusing a live-action movie in Hindi with our animated sci-fi film, but people are weird.

The lesson here is it’s usually better to be more distinct.

That being said, you also want to avoid erring too far in the opposite direction. I’m looking at you, Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn).

Perhaps the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle.

When it comes to titles for television series, circumstances are a little different. The series itself is primarily what draws the audience, which lets writers be a little more weird or fun with the episode names.

Friends was known for having every title start the same phrase: “The One With/Where [plus plot].” That led to episodes like, “The One With the Prom Video,” “The One Where Everybody Finds Out,” and “The One With All the Thanksgivings.”

In episode titles for series, I’ve personally always leaned towards wordplay in general. Puns, in specific. The lowest form or humor? Perhaps. The best titling machine? For sure.

Here’s a few prime examples…

Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book

“Circus Breaker”


“Outback and Back Out”

The Adventures of Chuck and Friends

“Beach Blanket Uh-Oh”

Kuu Kuu Harajuku

“Angel’s Flight”

“Snowbound for Greatness”

“Must the Show Go On?”

I think you get the idea.

On occasion, you can’t think of anything you like and have to give your script a temp title. If you’re not careful, that temp can become perm.

On the series, Gormiti: The Lords of Nature Return!, I remember Rhonda and I struggling to find a good title for an episode, and settling on a working title of “Diverted,” which was just on-the-nose and clearly devoid of panache. Eventually, we’d come up with something good to replace it. And yet…

Animated series, "Gormiti: The Lords of Nature Return" (2008-2010) title graphic.
Animated series, "Gormiti: The Lords of Nature Return" episode title, "Diverted" (2010).
Sigh. Don’t let this happen to you.

And to think, our previous episode was called “Diamonds are an Evil Lord’s Best Friend.” So far to fall…

I feel like this had to be what happened with The Karate Kid. When I first learned about that title, I thought it was the most ludicrous thing I’d ever heard. It was supposed to be a drama, but it sounded like a cartoon.

In the end, though, the movie was so great that the title sounds perfectly reasonable in retrospect. But in my opinion, the movie itself had to rise above it.

Don’t do that to your scripts. The bar is high enough as it is.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] The Day Job and DreamWorks “Wizards”

DreamWorks Wizards: Tales of Arcadia Poster
Big Finish

Like a lot of screenwriters, my freelance gigs have infrequently provided enough income to make a living.

To be able to do fun things like eat and pay health insurance, requires one to have an additional source of income…

aka – The Day Job.

Lucky for me, I took a few editing classes at NYU and got my hands on an early generation Avid at one of my first jobs.

This provided what some might call, “marketable skills.”

As a result, I’ve gone back and forth between writing and editing gigs throughout my career – often doing both simultaneously.

A few years ago, a friend at DreamWorks Animation reached out to tell me they were looking for an Assistant Editor that could work an evening shift.

Despite not having worked specifically as an AE, I had edited on enough low budget series – where you did everything from start to finish – to be pretty well qualified.

The unusual shift also seemed ideal, as it gave me time to write and take meetings in the morning, and then get to DreamWorks around lunchtime. All with a fifteen minute commute? Let’s do this thing.

The merry band of AEs I joined were working on the Dragons: Race to the Edge series, as well as a new show from Guillermo del Toro called Trollhunters. Eventually, Dragons wrapped and Trollhunters grew into the Tales of Arcadia trilogy with 3Below and the upcoming Wizards.

DreamWorks 3Below: Tales of Arcadia Crew. Guillermo Del Toro. Marc Guggenheim.
It takes a village to make an animated TV show. Or at least this many people to make 3Below

So what exactly does an Assistant Editor do? Well, that kind of depends on the project, of course, but in the feature-esque GDT series pipeline, we had a hand in almost everything that happened between script and streaming.

Moving Pictures

Once the episode script is written, it gets broken into sequences and storyboarded by one of several Storyboard Artists under the guidance of the episode Director.

Those boards are divided into three acts and then imported into the editing system (in our case, an Avid network, where multiple Editors and Assistant Editors can access the project simultaneously). These hundreds of still images are then used to build what’s called an Animatic.

An Animatic serves as a sort of workshop for the episode, utilizing storyboard drawings, dialogue, sound effects, and music, to shape and hone it before it moves to the animation stage.

Step one of the build is to time those boards to the scratch dialogue and action.

Fleeting Words

DreamWorks Animation Scratch Record. James Hereth.
My scratch performance making coordinator Rebecca laugh. Or vomit. Not entirely clear.

At the Animatic stage, the final voice cast has rarely recorded (and occasionally has yet to even be cast).

As a result, scratch is used instead. Scratch is basically temporary line reads performed by people on the crew and recorded by an Assistant Editor.

This could be anyone in the area who’s willing, available, and a more-or-less a passable actor.

We had a Compositing Supervisor who always played Jim, an Editor for Toby, Production Supervisor for AAARRRGGHH!!!, and I had the honor of being the go-to Steve Palchuk.

And Douxie. And Lanceleot. Also Galahad. Being in the office next to where most of the scratch was recorded really played to my advantage. Being a classically-trained ham sealed the deal.

Once the episode Editor was happy with the board timing and scratch selection, they would split up the acts with the AEs and we would get to work cutting in temporary sound effects.

That, in turn, would be followed with a temp score (sourced from a huge library of existing soundtracks) to really give the creatives and executives a good idea of how the finished product would play.

If you’d like to see a version of this process, you can click on over to a YouTube video called What Does an Animatic Editor Do? by R. Chett Hoffman and Stephen Leonard. While the tasks aren’t distributed quite the same as they are for the Tales of Arcadia, the general process is almost identical for this stage of the series.

Revisions. Followed by Revisions

James Hereth and Tales of Arcadia's Steve Palchuk. Art by Betsy Bauer.
Me and Steve Palchuk as drawn by the talented Betsy Bauer.

Once a version was complete, the Animatic would then run the gauntlet of Directors, Showrunners, Producers, and Executives.

Sometimes things that read well on the page didn’t play as well on the screen. Other times, watching a cut would inspire new and improved ideas (or at least different ones).

Either way, notes would follow, and then changes would follow that.

New storyboards would be drawn by a Storyboard Revisionist. New scratch would be recorded to match the new picture. Then it would all get put back together until everyone was satisfied and we had ourselves a locked Animatic.


The next step for the show in general – and the Assistant Editors in particular – was something called The Publish.

Now the publish is a long and convoluted process. It would take an entire blog post just to explain how it works. But nobody wants to read that. I’m not even sure it’s able to be expressed in a language humans can comprehend.

Suffice to say it’s a way to get the locked Animatic divvied up multiple ways and into multiple pieces, put into a bin one AE refers to as the “Publish Burrito,” and ultimately sent to the overseas animation studio.

There, they use some sort of black magic to turn two dimensional pictures into three dimensional computer images using a program called Maya or possibly Rudolph (clearly this isn’t my area of expertise).

At the same time that’s going on, Production Dialogue starts getting delivered to the Assistant Editors.

DreamWorks Animation Campus. Glendale, California.
Where the magic happens. Also, Firecracker Chicken.

Production Dialogue is the name for the final audio performed by the professional voice cast and recorded by an engineer on a recording stage.

Sometimes that’s done at DreamWorks in Glendale, sometimes it’s done offsite in places like London or Mexico City.

Regardless of the place, a voice director is giving notes on the spot and helping give context to the performers to match the animation that’s being created.

We receive all those files and “process” them in the Avid by marking each take and creating subclips of the director’s favorites, known as Circled Takes.

Some actors read the lines almost exactly as written. Other riff to the point where you don’t know whether they’re improvising, or just having a conversation with the crew in the booth. Maybe ordering lunch.

This can lead to performance magic, but it gets tricky for the AEs who have figure out where each take starts and ends as they transcribe it into the system.

Building Blocks

The first stage of shots that get delivered from the overseas studio are called Layout, and are a simplified version of the computer generated characters moving through the virtual sets.

Once Production Dialogue is incorporated and timing adjusted, those rough clips go through a second publish, which eventually return shots with full action and lipsync. These we call Animation.

Tweaks are done to perfect the blocking and movement and make sure everything plays smoothly and clearly and hooks up from shot to shot to shot.

When all the creatives sign off, Animation is considered locked. This is when we send off the cut to the Composer to time their score, while the final shots are created overseas.

Runway Ready

Autumn Aargh from Trollhunters
Autumn Aargh (2016)

The final versions of shots are called Lighting and are the completed, textured, fully-rendered images that will make up the finished show.

As each shot is delivered from the overseas studios, AEs import them into the Avid project and align them over the animated versions of those same shots (which – in turn – are lined up over the storyboard versions).

Towards the end of this process, the final stereo and 5.1 surround mixes are sent back from the audio studio and we start to bring it all home.

At long last, a color correction pass is done and the whole thing goes through several quality control passes to check for errors like missing pixels, out of range color, and audio problems like off-sync dialogue or SFX.

Before you know it, your show is streaming on Netflix.

Simple, right?

But Wait, There’s More

Waka Chak a Lantern
Waka Chak a Lantern (2017)

In addition to being able to pay bills, working for a studio like DreamWorks comes with a lot of perks.

On the job side, you get to spend time with a ton of talented and creative people.

As a writer, it’s great to get a peek into the processes of Story Editors like Kevin & Dan Hageman (Trollhunters), Ashley Bradley (3Below) and Aaron Waltke & Chad Quandt (Wizards).

True, it hasn’t led to a script assignment yet. But there’s always next week.

There’s also the occasional visit by talent, like Diego Luna taking a tour through the production offices, or Stephanie Beatriz sticking her head into the Assistant Editor bay to say hello. Did I mention Guillermo del Toro and Marc Guggenheim dropping by with frequency?

And of course, I need to mention the legendary free breakfast and lunch and an annual pumpkin carving contest at Halloween. As it happens, I’ve been an award winner for four years running. There’s a hyphenate most people don’t expect.

Happy Ha-Luug-ween from 3Below
Happy Ha-Luug-ween (2018)

That being said, it’s not all fun and games. It’s a good job, but it’s still hard work. Crews put in long hours, deal with relentless deadlines, and push hard to outdo themselves season after season.

So check out the fruits of our labor as Wizards drops on Netflix this Friday, August 7th. It’s kind of awesomesauce.

In the meantime, you still have a few days to get yourself up to speed and in the zone, starting with 52 episodes of Trollhunters, and 26 of 3Below.

Get cracking!

Don’t think. Become… a fan of Wizards: Tales of Arcadia

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[THREE CENTS] Sounds Like… A Different Band Entirely

Alex Turner and Niall Horan

Different Bands Entirely
Not the same guy

A few months ago I was listening to the radio and heard a new song I was sure was by the Arctic Monkeys, or at the very least a solo tune by the lead singer of the Arctic Monkeys.

Turns out, I had no idea what I was talking about.

It also turns out that I had no idea who the lead singer of the Arctic Monkeys is (it’s Alex Turner) or most of One Direction (we won’t list them here, but for sure you can Google it if you’ve got the time).

The song in question was Nice to Meet Ya by Niall Horan (of One Direction, apparently). It’s catchy. I like it. Nevertheless, I propose it should become part of the repertoire of the aforementioned Monkeys instead.

I mean, right?

I suspect I’m not alone here. In the broader, conceptual way at least.

It’s a pretty common experience to attribute songs to the wrong band. You hear something on the radio, or maybe in the mall, and you’ll swear it’s by artist A. Only it’s not. It’s by Artist K. Sometimes P. Who knew?

I think it’s time for radical action.

To clear up any confusion in the future, and – more importantly – have the world make a little more sense, I recommend these soundalike songs be annexed by the groups they sound like.

Please write your local representatives.

Check out the examples below. Of course, seeing the videos kind of undermines the mistaking notion, but I think the idea still stands.

Maybe close your eyes and just listen…

How can you hear Stuck in the Middle With You by Stealers Wheel and not think you’re listening to Bob Dylan?

Dylan Doppelganger

How is it possible that Sister Hazel‘s Hard to Say isn’t really by Blues Traveler?

The low rez video really ups the confusion level

And most of all, tell me that The HolliesLong Cool Woman in a Black Dress isn’t actually a Creedence Clearwater Revival Song?

(turns out this is actually kind of by design)

Creedence Clearwater Redundant

Come to think of it, former Creedence lead singer, John Fogerty, actually got sued because his solo song The Old Man Down the Road sounded too much like his CCR song, Run Through the Jungle. That lawsuit was like an Escher drawing.

Did I mention The Great Commandment by Camouflage should be by Depeche Mode? It’s true.

Just can’t get enough? Here’s more of the same, but different

Speaking of the 80s, there was a song by Regina called Baby Love that for all intents and purposes was Madonna. I don’t even think Regina would fight me on that.

A Madonna by any other name

And just the other night, I realized Love is Like Oxygen by Sweet should actually belong to ELO. At least the chorus…

I’ve got nothing pithy to say here. I just love this song.

Sometimes these are happenstance, and sometimes there’s intention.

There’s a bit of a fine line between homage and plagiarism. Some might say Blurred Lines. If you’re trying to literally sound like an existing song, you’re risking a lawsuit or worse. On the other hand, just sounding like an existing band might keep you out of trouble. It might even get you a hit single.

Some musicians manage to successfully thread the needle.

Billy Joel‘s whole An Innocent Man album was designed to pay homage to various artists. The vast majority of Lenny Kravitz‘s career is an homage to the 1970s.

Conversely, Lady Gaga‘s Born This Way might’ve cut a little too close to the way her inspiration chose to express herself.

It’s all in the ear of the beholder. And possibly their attorneys.

Any songs you were sure were by another artist and feel that second artist should just absorb it into their catalog? Let me know your thoughts in the comments.

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FAME-ISH movie poster with Jeff Nimoy and Margo Graff at an anime Con.

Pandemic or not, it’s never a bad time to highlight a new project by a friend and fellow creative in the entertainment trenches.

The network is life.

This month, the person in the spotlight is Jeff Nimoy and his freshly-released comedy feature, Fame-Ish.

Although this is his feature directorial debut, Jeff has been a voice actor, writer, and director for years.

I met Jeff almost a decade ago at a weekly Sunday softball pick-up game in Studio City. The 8 am game I played in ends at 10, which is when the next group starts their game.

Anyway, as I regularly packed up my gear before leaving, I started to notice a guy from the 10 o’clock game frequently wearing Mets gear. This always catches my eye. There are a lot of transplanted New Yorkers in Los Angeles, but not nearly enough of them are Mets fans.

Eventually, I overhead this guy mention going to NYU. Clearly, he was just a different version of me, so my hand was forced. I went over and introduced myself.

Razor Kidd from Mutant League
Razor Kidd – words by Smiley, voice by Nimoy

Turns out we had even more in common than it seemed.

When I mentioned his name to Rhonda after getting home, she revealed that they had actually worked together years before.

As Jeff describes it, Rhonda gave him one of his earliest big breaks when she was working as a Co-Producer on the animated series, Mutant League. She cast him as Razor Kidd, the protagonist’s best friend, and just like that he had one of his first regular voice acting roles.

And regular paycheck to go along with it.

Years later, I found out through Facebook that Jeff was friends and former NYU classmates with actor and producer, Anjul Nigam, who I had worked with in the late nineties on Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book.

Anjul Nigam as Namas in Mowgli: The New Adventures of the Jungle Book
Anjul Nigam in Mowgli: The New Adventure of the Jungle Book

To quote the Magic Kingdom, “It’s a small world after all. It’s a small, small world.”

This, of course, is a great illustration of the way that almost everybody is connected in this industry. Which both blows the mind and makes complete sense at the same time.

Be good to the people you work with, for, or who work for you. You’re connected in more ways than you might realize, so it’s in everyone’s best interest.

Wait a second… What was I talking about? Oh, yeah, Jeff Nimoy.

Throughout his career, Jeff has worn many hats (and not just Mets or Canarsie ones). He’s a paleo enthusiast and chef as the Cooking Caveman, created a dating site based on dietary preferences called Sameplate, and even won an Emmy for his work with NFL Films (the Emmy makes a cameo in the movie. Did I mention he made a movie?).

Writer and director of Fame-Ish, Jeff Nimoy
Mets Gear = Fellow Masochist

The thing he’s most well-known for, though, is all his work in the world of anime.

In addition to his behind-the-scenes credits, he’s made a name for himself as the voice of Tentomon in various Digimon series, as well as the iconic role of Nicholas D. Wolfwood in Trigun.

It’s the Wolfwood character and the fandom that comes along with it that dovetails into the storyline for Fame-Ish.

Playing a fictionalized version of himself in the movie, Jeff struggles through the trials and tribulations of a stalled entertainment career.

Here’s the logline:

A washed-up voice director succumbs to the pitfalls of small-time celebrity at an anime convention.

Nicholas D. Wolfwood of Trigun
Nicholas D. Wolfwood… or is it Jeff Nimoy?

Rhonda often talks about how fascinating it can be to get a glimpse inside a subculture. This one – a dramatized world of anime voice actors at a convention in the virtual-middle-of-nowhere – is no exception.

The making of the indie movie itself has an origin story, but you should hear that from the man himself in his post on Medium.

Anyway, Fame-ish is a fun watch, and slickly produced for a micro-budget indie (it’s officially Not Rated, but I’d call it maybe PG-13 equivalent for language and adult situations).

It’s available for rental or purchase on a ridiculous amount of platforms right now. Check it out for yourself and support independent filmmaking!

This picture moves and makes sounds when you click on it

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Chris Cluess – A Man for All Formats

Emmy-winning screenwriter, Chris Cluess, is not easily pigeonholed. Does he do sketches? Sitcoms? Hour-long? Features?

Screenwriter Chris Cluess
Chris Cluess, making it look easy

How about animation? Novels?

Yes. Yes, he does.

If a format exists, Chris has more than likely written for it at one point or another.

In fact, his list of credits is not only long, but filled with work on iconic series like SCTV, Cheers, Newhart, and The Simpsons.

He’s been a Creator with Madman of the People, Producer on Night Court, Beggars and Choosers, and MADtv, even a Creative Consultant on Homeboys in Outer Space.

Talk about variety…

Clearly, Chris has been doing something very right for quite a few years now.

What’s your writing “origin story?”  Do you remember the first thing you wrote that wasn’t a school assignment?

When I was in the Navy I had a semi-girlfriend, who is a very well known writer today, and I used to write her letters from the front. Now, “the front” sounds exciting but in reality it was wherever I was. I was hoping that by being witty and interesting on the page, that she would be waiting for me with open arms, ready to be swept off her feet when I got out of the service.

That didn’t happen.

I’d do two letters a week, most weeks. Long story short, her arms were tightly closed when I arrived back on the scene, but she urged me to consider being a writer. Because, she said, you already are one. So I let her go but intently listened to her. Thanks to her for all of this.

What do you consider your professional “big break,” and how did it come about?

National Lampoon Magazine. 1975. In ’74 I had formed a writing partnership with a guy named Stu Kreisman. We had similar senses of humor and, for both of us, there was
a sense of comfort in being a team. When you failed, you didn’t fail alone. We had been writing sketches together for a year or so when a late night TV show appeared on the scene. It was called “NBC’s Saturday Night” which (as you’ve guessed I’m sure) became “SNL.” We had never seen anything like it. The inmates were running the asylum.

The 1982 Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program goes to SCTV
Winning an Emmy for SCTV. Or the red bowtie. Unclear.

The Monday after the Saturday premiere, we showed up at 30 Rock looking for writing jobs. We were directed to the third floor office of a very young Lorne Michaels. Upon arrival we found his assistant, a fine young woman named Kathy Minkowski and introduced ourselves as two hot young writers and, without hesitation, asked for writing jobs on the show. She looked at us not as “hot young writers” but as two turnips off the turnip truck. Which is what we really were.

We offered a binder full of our labor, probably 50 of our finest sketches. She said that she could not accept them, they had to be submitted by our agent. Our agent. Didn’t have one of those. Quandry. She suggested we take our binder and try to get an agent with it. Then resubmit. We would hear none of that. We were cute and funny guys and we would bring a lot to the show. Fifty sketches ready to go. We urged her to take it and read it. She said no. She said if left behind, the binder and its hilarious content, would end up in the trash. We challenged her and left it behind. On her desk. She sighed. We smiled and told her we would be waiting for a call from the producer and left.

Newhart Main title Graphic
Working with a legend on a show that would become legendary

When we got in the elevator, we looked at each other and knew quite well that that binder was headed for the city dump. A few hours later, my partner was driving to his Long Island home. I was in the passenger seat, about to be dropped off at the 57th Street subway station to head back to my luxurious distant Queens apartment, when a miracle happened.

As we were stopped at the 7th Avenue red light, I noticed a door open from a building on the north side of the street. Three men came out and walked directly in front of his car and into a taxi right in front of us. The men? John Belushi, Danny Aykroyd and Garrett Morris. We knew this was Kismet. I said the line from the ’30’s movie…“Follow that cab!”…and he did. We followed it all the way to Fifth Avenue, where we all made a right turn and headed towards Rockefeller Center.

The cab pulled up by the Atlas statue in front of 30 Rock. We pulled up behind. A cop signaled my partner to drive on. As I dove out of his car he said “If you’re ever going to make an impression on anyone…do it now!” and drove off at the annoyed cop’s urging. I worked my way through the five o’clock crowd on the street and approached the cab. Morris was out, Belushi was out and Akroyd was paying the cabbie. As I approached, I said in a very loud voice…“Stop! I’m not going to hurt you!” They heard “I’m going to hurt you!” Morris ran off, Belushi covered up and Akroyd prepared to fight me.

Night Court Executive Producers Chris Cluess and Stu Kreisman in front of Warner Brothers
From staff writers to Executive Producers on Night Court

I quickly explained what had transpired that day and mentioned Ms. Minkowski’s name and he lowered his hands. I told him the whole story and how we were sure the binder was in the trash. He took my phone number, Belushi muttered “asshole” under his breath and they went inside.

When Stu came around for the third time of circling the block, I jumped in the car and reported.

That night at 12:24 am my phone rang. It was Akroyd. He said I found your binder in the trash. I read some of the stuff and I have to say, a lot of this is purely crap. Not what I wanted to hear. However, he then said “…but some of it’s not bad.” He then invited us to come up to the office the next day and hang out with him.

We were there a lot over the next few weeks. Danny picked four or five things and asked us to rewrite them. When we were done, he would present them to Lorne and pitch us for the show. We did as he asked and finally gave him what he wanted. He kept his word and presented them to Lorne, who told him there would be no new hires this season. That this would probably be the only season. So, no thanks.

Now, what does this have to do with National Lampoon from an hour and a half ago? Upon breaking the news to us that we were not getting hired, Danny called Editor In Chief, Sean Kelly, at NAT LAMP and said “I think I might have two guys for you.”

We spent the next three years there. Got us an agent and the title “Hot young writers.”

What are the pros and cons of working with a partner vs. working alone?

Think I answered that already. See above. The down side is you don’t have your own identity. You’re one of “them.” Walked away from “them” after 25 years.

MADtv 2006 Cast
MADtv, the other late-night sketch show that could

You’ve written for a lot of different formats – sketch, sitcom, feature, etc.  Do you have a favorite?

Most fun is sketch. You set it up, you hit the joke and you get paid.

I actually enjoyed the novel that I wrote last year very much.

Is there a character or actor you enjoyed writing for more than others?

John Laroquette. He never missed. Eugene Levy. Always correct. John Candy. Could make anything better. Catherine O’Hara. Key & Peele. Bob Newhart. Quite a few.

Too many bummers to mention.

Is there a television series you wish you wrote for and why?

The Sopranos. When my partnership of 25 years broke up I was still part of “them.” I had to write a spec script(!!!!) to identify myself. The Sopranos had just started. I totally fell in love on first view. I wrote a Sopranos. Gave it to my agent on a Thursday. He got it out to producers on Friday. Had two job offers by Tuesday. Sadly, not from The Sopranos. I would have killed on that show…you know like everyone else.

You won an Emmy for Outstanding Writing in a Variety or Music Program with SCTV.  How did it feel to hear Milton Berle call your name?

That was a trip. He had a good size list to read and he stumbled all through it. We had a

What aspect of working in the industry are you better at now than when you first started out?

Chris Cluess Writing Credit on The Simpsons - "Donnie Fatso" (2010)
A credit with a classic backdrop on The Simpsons

I am a much better writer than I have ever been. I never want to “produce” anything ever

Have you been doing any writing during the quarantine, or do you have another creative outlet?

I have recently written an episode of “Modern Love” for Amazon. That was fun. I’m currently employed to write a movie musical with director John Carney (“Once” “Sing Street”) for legendary producer Irwin Winkler. He makes me say legendary.

What kind of advice would you give to writers looking to follow in your footsteps?

Don’t give up your day job. But, if you have to, work hard, listen to your notes and find
yourself a mentor. I’m not available.


Baseball or Stickball?

Baseball to watch, stickball to play. Started a league in LA 11 years ago. Still going today.

Unpopular movie you actually love?

Little Cigars” It’s a movie filled with gangsters played by mi…dwa…“Little People” and a big blonde named Angel Tompkins. Also, Lawrence Of Arabia. Angel is not in that one.

Scorsese or Coppola?

Amazon Original Modern Love
Streaming into the future on Amazon Prime

One is a Catholic stained romantic who loves violence and one makes fun wine. They both make great movies.

Favorite Deli Item?

Nice lean pastrami or Matzo ball soup. Or both.

iPhone or Android?

I phone. No joke.

Favorite Yankee?

I’m a white guy of a certain age: Mickey Charles Mantle. Read his bio by Jane Leavy : “The Last Boy” magnificent. OH, and Thurman Munson.

Thanks so much to Chris for taking the time – during these uncertain times – to share some wisdom. Something he wrote is likely playing or streaming at every moment of the day, with new work being produced all the time.

Be sure to keep your eyes peeled for his upcoming episode of Modern Love on Amazon Prime. Season Two is tentatively set to premiere this Fall.

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The End Graphic from Casablanca
Hopefully not really

If there ever was a point where a question felt most appropriate, it’s today. What now?

Not where are you going to find toilet paper, or how best to hide from your children, or whether you’re more of a “summer” or “fall” mask.

No, the question is – what are you going to write next?

If you’re like me, you’ve got a million ideas for various screenplays, novels, shorts, comics, webisodes… maybe even blog posts.

In fact, I’ve got them everywhere. There’s dozens of loglines spread across several docs on my laptop, a handful of started-and-abandoned treatments, another bunch of thoughts on scrap paper, receipts, and coffee shop napkins. Not to mention the notes on my phone.

Ideas are cheap, though. They don’t really have value until you make something of them.

But if you have a dizzying number of starting points, how do you decide which one to bring to fruition next?

Hopefully, the potential end of the world has given you some impetus to think about those ideas and realize you’re probably not going to get to all of them before you shuffle off your mortal coil. Or even die.

Maybe imagine yourself on that hypothetical death bed (this is fun, right?!). What’s the idea you’re disappointed you never worked on?

I was at a recent Q & A with Steven Spielberg where he was asked how he decides which film to direct next when he has numerous projects in development.

The answer was, basically, the one that haunts him. That he can’t get out his mind. The one he dreams about when he’s sleeping and then daydreams about when he’s awake.

Does one of your ideas stand out above the rest? Consume you?

No? If they’re all neck-and-neck, I’d definitely lean towards the most commercial one.

Barring that, you could always throw a dart, I guess.

There’s no one single way to decide what now. Though obviously, if you’re a writer, it needs to be done. Hopefully, again and again.

Whatever your method, a virtual quarantine seems like a good time to give it some thought.

Thankfully, I feel fine. For now.

Remember, be safe and smart. We need to be around to make as many of these ideas happen as we can.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] Tech vs. Spec

Motorola Bravo Pager
Cutting edge… circa 1991

In the never-ending war of tech vs. spec, tech wins almost every time.

Not too long ago, a production company liked a script Rhonda Smiley and I wrote, but the scale was a little too small for them. They asked if we had anything else that might fit their mandate, so we quickly pitched an older spec.

They liked what they heard.

Which – surprisingly – is where the trouble started.

When we took a look at the script (for the first time in a while), we realized that the years had thrown us a curveball.

So much of the tech written about in the script was completely outdated. Not to mention… was Occupy Wall Street even a thing anymore?

As it was, I had previously done a pass to get rid of characters plugging into a wall for the internet, but progress had undermined us once more.

There was a mad scramble to update, and we were lucky to turn it around before the company lost interest.

This is a cautionary tale.

AT&T Public Phone.  By Brownings - Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1069794
Today, these fit in your pocket

At some point soon, you might find out a production company or studio is looking for a certain kind of project, and you think the spec you wrote a few years back nails it.

Let me stop you right there.

You need to check for damage first.

That script may have been perfect when you finished it, but you’re almost definitely gonna need to revise it anyway. Time has taken a toll.

The easiest fix is updating cultural references. Make sure nobody is using the Yellow Pages, is excited to watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones, or yearns to become a celebrity couple like Brangelina.

Simple, but necessary.

The more complex problems are likely to be technological sabotage to your intricately woven pages. Tech is always changing and now even faster than ever before. Don’t let an old script show its age.

In the movie, The Firm, a huge tension-filled plot point revolves around a fax that could doom Tom Cruise. At the time, faxes were printed on specialized paper that tended to curl up after printing. This particular one fell on the ground, rolled underneath the machine, and out of view.

The Firm (1993).  Hidden fax printout.
Not gonna happen in 2020.

As a result, it wasn’t immediately found by the bad guys, leaving Tom more time to save the day… or make a deal with the mob… or something. I’m not quite sure. It was a little confusing at the end there.

What I know for sure is you couldn’t use that plot device today. Info now comes by email, text, or social media, and it comes instantaneously. Often to multiple recipients.

In fact, delays of transmitting information or difficulties getting in touch with people are probably the most significant issues for old scripts. If that kind of beat is in your spec, you’d better figure out a way to replace it.

Some contemporary substitutions are lost phones, dead batteries, and “no bars.” If none of those can fix your issue, you might have to rethink entire sequences.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technology making a script dated.

In 2020, characters doing research rarely require scrolling through microfiche at the local library… Documents don’t need to be stolen for evidence, when a 4K picture can be taken by a smartphone… Speaking of photos, no longer do characters have to wait for film to be developed or worry about it being exposed to light and destroyed… And a broken-down ride can be resolved with a mere click or two.

Uber and Lyft stickers on car windshield.
No car? No problem.

If you’re overwhelmed by the changes required in your script, you might be tempted to salvage what you already have by making it a “period piece.”

But if there really isn’t a thematic or story motivation for it, it’s just gonna feel wrong.

Let the shortcut go and do the work required instead. The result will be worth it.

In the end, when it comes to digging into that spec library you’ve created over the years, make sure to always do your due diligence. And amend before you send.

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[IN THE TRENCHES] The End of the Road

The End of the Road
Fading out?

Writing is hard. Making a living writing, is almost impossible.

So, have you imagined a time when you’d stop? Stop writing. Stop trying to get discovered. Stop trying to get hired, produced, or published.

Have you imagined a scenario where you’d actually move on?

Some people even start their pursuit with a potential end in mind. “If I haven’t sold something by 40, I’m calling it quits!”

Is it 40 for you? 50? 60?

The entertainment industry is rough. Crazy competitive. Even if you’re an amazing writer, it still doesn’t guarantee that you’re going to find a place and thrive. It helps, of course, but it’s no guarantee.

When I first graduated from film school, I moved across the country to L.A. to try and make it in the biz as a screenwriter. A lot of fellow alumni did the same.

Surrender Dorothy
Sadly, the industry is more Wicked Witch than Glinda.

A lot of them didn’t last.

Some left after only a few years. Some took a decade or so before switching careers. One of my friends came for a couple of years, then left, then came back again, and then finally left for good.

My understanding is that he’s currently living a happy life in the Pacific Northwest, far away from the madness. Good for him.

It’s hard to keep going when you’re not getting the response you’re looking for. Even if you’ve been a working screenwriter for years, sometimes things slow to a standstill. Contacts retire, story editors have more writers than they have assignments, burnout sets in.

You can really being to wonder.

Am I done? Is this the end? Do I actually want this to be the end?

Obviously it’s a personal choice. There’s no right or wrong way to chart your course.

So, if you think that going back to school to become a therapist, or getting your real estate license, or opening a coffee shop is the way to go… Then that’s the way to go.

Never give up. Never surrender.
Never give up. Unless you want to, of course. Do you.

We only get one life (as I understand things so far). Do what works. What pays the bills. Ideally, what makes you happy.

So if that means continuing to channel your creativity into words, and stories, and scripts, despite a current lack of “success,” then age and bank accounts be damned.

Toni Morrison was 40 when she had her first novel published. Courtney Hunt‘s screenwriting debut earned her an Oscar nomination at 44. Angela’s Ashes was published when Frank McCourt was 66.

Not that these are common scenarios, of course, but it’s proof of what can be done at almost any age.

Ultimately we should all do what’s best for us.

For me, I don’t think I’ll ever be done trying to make things happen with my writing. I’m proud of what I’ve done so far, but I’m also still excited for all the things I’m going to do. As long as I’m living, I think I’ll continue striving to do more, better, bigger.

At least until I don’t.

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