26th August 2010: Cargo-Cult Screenwriting

Coauthor and arts policy maverick Ben Eltham recently mentioned John Nicoll’s interesting overview of Australia’s scriptwriting market.

For the uninitiated, there’s a small industry that aims to teach the scriptwriting ‘craft’ in a short time-frame. Big names include script doctor William Goldman; script coaches like structuralist Syd Field, archetypal mythologist and development executive Christopher Vogler,  and ‘intensive’ workshop maven Robert McKee; and the ‘industry standard’ of scriptwriting software: Final Draft.  Some A-list scriptwriters like J. Michael Straczynski have a well-connected online fanbase. Keep an eye on Daily Variety for deal flow. You’ll find many of these books in a university library or industry short course. Avoid the expensive script clinics and ‘rewrite’ consultants.

Nicoll’s critique and Eltham’s response suggests that Screen Australia and the equivalent state-based agencies have adopted McKee’s workshop approach for internal development and ‘shepherding’ new scripts through the pre-production process. Perhaps though, the pivotal issue is how government arts ministries and bureaucrats affect the go/no-go cycle of ‘greenlighting’ a script for production funding. Reviewing the past testimony of arts bureaucrats and film producers for a forthcoming academic paper in Media Arts International journal, Eltham and I found a tendency for bureaucrats to rely on ‘analogical’ reasoning and ‘anchoring’ biases: if an Australian film is like ‘X’ high concept Hollywood film then the local production will have a higher probability of box-office commercial and distribution success. Such ‘greenlit’ films were not always successful, suggesting that although the internal development process may work, the ‘stage gates’ and decision criteria could benefit from multi-stakeholder evaluation.

Hollywood is less sanguine about scriptwriters than the small industry conveys. The Coen Brothers’ Barton Fink (1991), Robert Altman’s The Player (1992), and Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard (1950) echo the dark side of endless ‘development hell’. Scripts get rewritten, with new dialogue, improvisations, and location changes. Studios often have a ‘dead pile’ of undeveloped scripts that could be redeveloped into new projects. Some scripts remain in debt-laden ‘turnaround’ for years. Scriptwriters also often have little control once producers ‘option’ a script — depending on the deal’s terms — on how A-level directors and stars interpret their characters and narrative arc amidst studio budget constraints. Sometimes it’s also best to keep a script in a drawer for several months and then come back to it.

Hollywood scriptwriters have developed several market mechanisms that their Australian counterparts could learn from. Individual scriptwriters may find Hollywood’s ‘auction’ markets via agencies to be more lucrative than dealing with a government agency. In particular, scriptwriters can gain a significant upside in deal-making if they invest time to understand how option contracts work, and if they have an agent with mastery of real options analysis for asset/intellectual property valuation and game theoretic negotiation strategies.

Drop me an email when you sign to Creative Artists Agency, International Creative Management or William Morris Agency. Drinks are on your agent.

15th August 2010: But Will It Make You Happy?

For the past year I’ve worked with academics at Melbourne’s Victoria University (VU) who have consumer behaviour, leisure, marketing and positive psychology expertise. Their succinct message: anticipation, emotional affect, leisure experiences, mindfulness, strong social relationships and simple living can strengthen your psychological feelings of happiness.

New York Times journalist Stephanie Rosenbloom has an overview of current research and the proven strategies for stopping hoarding and getting off the hedonic treadmill of “keeping up with the Joneses.”

I’ve reflected on this during several visits to markets and stores in Melbourne, Australia. A week ago I saw counterfeit DVDs of Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, and Thailand films in Footscray retailers and a community market: glimpses of a cultural realist world that coexists with the neoclassical Western world around it. For a minute, I reflected on my first ‘encounters’ with Hong Kong and Chinese cinema and content imagery, over a decade earlier. A few days later, I noticed the Borders Australia store in Carlton had undergone a significant in-store redesign: the floor plan was now rearranged, new sections were added, and shop fittings were upgraded to give consumers an immersive experience. Have they addressed the in-store stock damage?

My VU colleagues may be onto something with this positive psychology stuff. Alternatively, consumer expert Paco Underhill may cite them in a new book and use their research to refine the service offerings of his consulting firm Envirosell.

8th August 2010: APSA Jobs Guide for Political Scientists

The American Political Science Association (APSA) will have its annual general meeting and symposium in September.

Here (PDF) is a ‘Jobs Guide for Political Scientists’ from the APSA journal PS: Political Science supplement. Although I’ve not sought formal approval from APSA to upload this, it has information and insights that candidates in academic job markets will benefit from.

Trust me: there’s no fun in being on the wrong side of the table.

See also the market design work of Harvard’s Al Roth and Melbourne Business School’s Josh Gans.