It is a long held maxim at film and television programs that the only way to teach television is to teach screenwriting. This makes a good deal of sense, since the producers of a series are (for the most part) the writers of that series. So why not start with the basic skill required for success? This was the case at Northwestern University when I earned my MFA, and remains the thinking today, decades later, at almost every major university, including UCLA.
But this thinking is flawed. Or, at the very least, it is an incomplete answer for the demands of a medium that is growing in sophistication and volume with each passing week.
It is no great observation to point out that scripted television is the fastest growing segment of the media universe. Despite proclamations that we have reached ‘peak television,’ scripted shows continue to grow in number each year and ORIGINAL (i.e., series that remain exclusive) have become the lynchpins of every major streaming service. Just consider the outsized impact that a single ‘must see’ series like THE HANDMAID’S TALE has on subscriber sales. It’s huge. A single hit series like GAME OF THRONES can drive subscriptions for months around its newest season.
In short, the engines of growth have changed across the tv landscape. And they will continue to change, offering – by far – the best employment opportunities for graduates of our various programs. And yet, with these opportunities come fresh challenges for those of us who teach: to keep pace, to evolve our disciplines, to make sure we are current in our understanding of industry trends and requirements.
To my chagrin, I must report that a good many film and television programs are falling behind the curve. There are even departments – at reputable universities – who fail to offer classes in television! As if somehow we were still at the dawn of independent cinema, circa 1995, and all the talent was lined up in Park City, Utah for Sundance. Or perhaps they believe there is no important difference in storytelling that spans 90 minutes versus 90 hours? Friends, there is a world of difference between these two formats! And to fail to teach these differences is not only negligent, it is destructive.
The gift of these recent masterworks – series like THE CROWN or HANDMAID’S TALE, WESTWORLD and MADMEN (still unsurpassed in my book) is that they have raised the bar of dramatic storytelling so high as to totally eclipse contemporary cinema. The talent has moved. The center of gravitas has left the building. One of the advantages of working and teaching in Los Angeles is that these are not empty declarations. These are the known facts in our circle. Great storytelling no longer means cinema. And it hasn’t for a very long time.
And yet, with new opportunity comes new peril. And the accomplishments of these few great shows has raised the bar for everyone. We see what can be achieved, it’s just damn hard to do. And the challenges of sustained, compelling drama, unfolding in fresh new worlds with equally compelling characters – these are challenges that most screenwriting classes just are not set up to meet.
We teach how to write a great pilot, which when you think about it, is about as useful as teaching young novelists how to write a great opening chapter. Even if you do a great job; even if 15 out of 20 of your students write pilot scripts that are absolutely terrific (unlikely, but let’s imagine this). Now what? Where’s the rest of this masterpiece? Do these students have the foggiest idea how to continue? You can bet they do not.
And therein lies the problem with all but a handful of these nearly 500 new series on television. They aren’t well built! They are not built upon a sophisticated understanding of the demands of long form storytelling – the inherent themes and sustainable conflicts and character appetites likely to evolve for season after season. As instructors, we are not teaching this part of the job. We are stuck in the past, teaching how to write a good pilot. Instead of how to envision the types of series audiences have come to expect.
One of the big advantages of teaching at UCLA Extension is their preference for working professionals over tenured faculty. And their willingness to listen when their instructors might have a smart alternative, informed by industry practices. Television networks – for those who don’t know – almost never buy a pilot script. They hear pitches, they develop those pitches in concert with their creators, along with the entire series, so they know what they’re making! That’s the model. And so I count myself fortunate to have been given an opportunity last September, to design a class that mirrors this model. It’s the television class I wish has been available when I was a student. It’s the model I want to advocate from here onwards, perhaps in tandem with those single-script classes.
My ‘Television Series Development Workshop’ was not a course for screenwriters. It was a course open to all students, many of whom had never written a script of any kind. I will not lie. There were days I wished I had asked for a prerequisite – some basic floor of understanding of the principles of good drama. But this proved less important than I first imagined. The goal of our eleven weeks together was not a polished script. The goal was a complete vision for an original series. Or at least, a sophisticated understanding of what makes one.
For the most part, I believe we succeeded. Certainly, any student who applied themselves came away with a massive new understanding of the landscape before them. And how their series could emerge on the other side of it. In fact, I will go so far as to say that if any of these students had gone directly from my workshop into that ‘pilot writing’ class, they would have been ahead of their classmates by leaps and bounds.
How did we achieve this? That is a subject for the following blog post. It’s also the subject of a new textbook I’ve begun writing, based on the large number of articles I wrote to support the class. But I will end this post with two thoughts. One, that a fresh approach to teaching television is more than warranted (either as a supplement to traditional screenwriting classes, or as a more all-encompassing class in its own right). And secondly, I wish to say how grateful I am to UCLA, and especially my department head, Pascale Cohen-Olivar for supporting me in this endeavor. There is work ahead! But aah, so much promise.
For a preview of this class and its offerings, here’s a brief (2:30 min) look at what we’re doing.
Beginning in September, I will be teaching a brand new class for UCLA Extension: Television Series Development Workshop (FILM TV X-423).
We’re going to learn how to create an industry-ready tv pitch in just 10 weeks. Here’s a quick look at the course (2 min):
We will be learning to create the same caliber of professional presentation that I use (and hundreds of other WGA writers and producers use) to sell our shows to networks, every season.
This course will take you from raw idea, through world-building, the creation of complex characters, backstories, and ongoing conflicts – to the kinds of visual elements and high quality presentations that buyers want to see.
And we’ll do it all as a workshop, with help at every stage, and no soldier left behind.
I cannot think of a more valuable skill in media than learning how to package and present your vision to the people who can make it happen.
It addition to myself, we will have two major players as guest speakers to help guide us on our path: Lee Aronsohn, creator of ‘Two and Half Men’; and Bad Robot’s Senior VP of Television, Matt King.
This class will rock. This class WILL sell out. Do not pussy-foot around or this ship will sail without you. Registration is open now. Click here to join us.
See you in September!
Not only is Wonder Woman likely to be the best superhero movie of this summer, it may well take its place within the pantheon of truly great mythological sagas, reimagined for the big screen. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a love story, AND a story of female empowerment that goes beyond cliches. Add to all this, its heroine is a kick-ass beauty of rare panache and vulnerability. So this movie has a LOT going for it even before we get to the deeper levels of meaning which get me excited.
First, a little exposition. Our Wonder Woman, the Princess Diana of the Amazons, comes of age on a secluded island of female warriors, Themiscrya. Although they have been training for thousands of year, the island exists in total seclusion from the world, shrouded in a protective fog that has kept them untroubled by the modern world. Although they have been placed there by Zeus (as a kind of reserve army against the re-emergence of evil in the world) the story borrows heavily from Biblical lore – in which the father of all Gods banishes his son Ares, the god of war, over Ares’ jealousy of man (Zeus’ newest creation). If this sounds like Satan cast out of heaven, it is! Which I guess makes the Amazons either demigods or angels, depending upon your mythology. The point is: Ares is out create evil in the hearts of men and turn them against one another. And the Amazons are charged with stopping this. But apparently, they’re a little too well secluded. They’ve lived without men, they’ve lived without war or trouble of any kind. And young Diana comes of age, schooled to await a great destiny, yet having no idea what it might be. Like many a young prince or princess before her (Siddhartha, to name one) she longs to reach beyond her mother’s protection. She longs to fulfill her life. (more…)
Next month (April and again in June) I am teaching a class in Story Analysis at UCLA Extension. Teaching has given me a chance to revisit some of the most important lessons I’ve learned in 20+ years of screenwriting, and foremost on that list are the principles of CHARACTER.
Although screenwriters and many development executives tend to focus a great deal on concept and plot, every story is about SOMEONE. Even if that someone is a dog (Marley) or a pig (Babe) or a robot (Chappie) it is a story of someone’s transformation. Because transformation is what great stories are all about.
“I started here. I believed such-and-such. Something unexpected took me away from all that. It forced me to do what I had not done before. It forced me to become who I was not before. I am not the same person now, I am new.”
This basic story, what Joseph Campbell called the mono-myth, is the template that underlies every well-composed drama: The going out, the adventure, and the return as someone new, someone changed.
Whether that person’s transformation is one of character, or of circumstance, or fortune, or understanding – (more…)
The wave of remarkable new television continues – unexpectedly – with Nat Geo’s 6 part miniseries “Mars.” The series, which also runs on FX, tells the story of our first manned mission to Mars in 2033.
The fact that the series sidesteps the usual hokeyness of the future sci-fi genre is already impressive, but what really breaks new ground is the WAY these filmmakers did it. Blending fact with fiction is never an easy trick. FORREST GUMP pulled it off (mixing archival footage with live action) and there have been others less successful. But MARS blends present day NASA & Space-X documentary footage with live action sequences so seamless and convincingly – it’s almost like a new form of television.
One minute we are watching Elon Musk lay out the mission and risk factors of his Mars mission (circa 2016) and the next we are watching those risks realized with terrifying consequence, seventeen years later. And it works!
Created by documentary filmmakers Ben Young Mason & Justin Wilkes, with what looks like considerable help from Hollywood uber producers Ron Howard & Brian Grazer (Imagine Entertainment) the series achieves a level of credibility and high emotional stakes that the purely fictional worlds of “The Martian” or “Apollo 13” could never manage.
How you ask? By freely intercutting the two timelines (2016) and (2033), we get very real, very recognizable people from the NASA community building the emotional stakes for the fictional crew. I know. Doesn’t sound like it should work, but it does. There’s a real life sequence between astronaut Michael Kelly (the first man to spend a year in orbit) connecting with his teenage daughter via Skype. And the kid is amazing. The footage is 100% authentic. 100% loaded with emotion and longing and loss. It sets the stage perfectly for the fictional Hanna and Joon Seung, twin sisters of the 2033 mission – one of whom leaves almost certainly to die. Or so it seems.
Thus far, only two of the six episodes have been made available, but if they are able to sustain this mix of old and new, authentic and fictional filmmaking – it will be a real first. And a testament to the ongoing adventure, not just of man chasing stars, but of storytellers chasing a whole new road of exploration.
For the past several months, I’ve been writing a book about how certain myths recur again and again in the lives of men. And how each of us are unconsciously recreating these stories, through the characters and content of our seemingly ordinary lives.
Most times, this underlying architecture is pretty hard to see. But occasionally, it makes itself obvious. As it did last night for the whole country to see, in Game 7 of the World Series. Here’s the story:
Anthony Rizzo was chewing the shirt sleeve of veteran catcher David Ross between innings. Literally chewing the fabric. Ross is thirty-nine. Rizzo is twenty-six. He was looking for any port in the storm sweeping through his young psyche. Game Seven, World Series. Nobody in this ball club had ever felt pressure to win like this. Not in their lifetime. Not in their fathers or grandfather’s lifetimes. If they could pull this off, if Rizzo could just hold it together for six more innings, they’ve be the first Cubs champions in 108 years.
Full disclaimer, I am not a neutral observer in this drama. I am a Cubs fan. I grew up a Cubs fan, which meant that for my entire life, a Cubs’ loss was an inevitable as a sunrise. You hope it won’t happen. You pray the wins keep coming, that your team finally makes it to the dance floor before the music stops, before cold reality snatches the dream away for another year… but it always did.
When a team gets beat so often and so cruelly, entire belief systems develop around them – whole mythologies about why and who caused it. “The curse of the billy goat,” for example, many believed was placed on the club in 1945 by an angry fan who got kicked out of Wrigley Field for bringing his pet goat. The ghost of Steve Bartman, an over-enthusiastic fan who reached over the infield wall in 2003 to snatch a ball away from a Cubs outfielder and blow the playoffs. (Bartman was driven out of the city for that). Superstition around the Cubs is so deep, the fans won’t even sing their own fight song until AFTER a win, because it contains a forward-looking phrase “the Cubs are gonna win to-day.” And that would jinx things for sure.
If we never got to a playoff series, this might have been tolerable. But we did go. Hopes were dangled. Promises made. Please God, just let ‘em win. If you let ‘em finally win, I’ll do anything. We’ll do anything you ask. Erect churches. Build monuments. Love all mankind. And God smiled. Then snatched it away.
To show you how deep this wound lies, only one night ago (Game Six) I was watching with two other Chicago fans. We were up by seven runs at one point. Seven runs is a massive lead, but these men were BOTH still terrified. “Could still lose, could still lose,” Derek kept chanting. And that stress was nothing compared to Game Seven.
One of my favorite headlines for the entire season ran in the Chicago Sun Times the next morning. It read:
Game 7: Because that’s how the story is supposed to go.
Exactly. Because there IS a mandatory narrative to a transformation this big. Any victory this long delayed cannot come easily. An easy win would never fulfill our inner narrative. And make no mistake, the inner narrative of a million Cubs fans was absolutely controlling this game.
And so, it had to be a battle. An epic battle that fans would talk about for the next hundred years. It had to be played in hostile territory (Cleveland). We had to have the lead and lose it. Twice! We had to see our mightiest pitcher choke. Watch routine throws turn into bone-headed errors. And that 39 year old catcher? We would watch him fail to block a wild pitch, allowing not one, but two opponents to score! Then we watched him dust himself off, come back and smack a home run over the centerfield wall his next time at bat. His last time at bat, ever. Redemption.
And finally, if as this were all not enough, as if the gods would never cease toying with us, a rainstorm blew in off Lake Erie to drench the field and send the players running for cover. Into the clubhouse to wait. And sweat. And chew on shirt sleeves.
“Because that’s how the story’s supposed to go.”
What story, you ask? The triumph of the underdog. The triumph over adversity. The greater the adversity, the greater the triumph.
“An Excruciating Final Test” – Bob Nightengale, USA Sports
“Curse Cast Off in the Witching Hour” – Tyler Kepner, NY Times
I love sports writers. They write with such emotion. And they get nearer the truth, sometimes, than they even know. It was the Cubs’ night to win (8 to 7 in 10 innings) but it had to be monumentally difficult, almost insurmountable. It had to push them into a realm of heightened, almost surreal opposition – the witching hour – before access could finally be granted. When a curse is built up for this long, held in the hearts and minds of millions, that’s what it takes to break it – to cross that magic threshold, from losers to champions.
Ric Gibbs’ new book “Quick, Where’s My Cape?” will be published (God-willing) next month. Let me know here, if you’d like an advanced copy.
Smuggler and scoundrel, a man used to hit & run opportunism and flying under the radar – the last thing Wyatt McHenry wanted was to find himself dragged into a lopsided war, by a do-good American female hell bent on saving a nation! But that’s exactly what happens in this rip roaring and calamitous misadventure, set in a tiny Asian kingdom cut off from the world and harboring a mystery as old as the gods.
Part romance, part thumb-in-your-eye rivalry, “McHenry’s Guide to Treasure Hunting” is full-on adventure, both hilarious and deeply felt.
Genre: Adventure, with a strong dose of romance and hilarity.
Based on a true story of a young woman’s extraordinary odyssey through the underworld of sex slavery, and the young man who becomes entangled with her. Ric Gibbs’ first novel explores a hard hitting world that exists right under our noses.
Coming in 2017.
Especially to cable television, which has enjoyed its finest years ever, beginning by my count, when HBO debuted The Sopranos, and rolled out the welcome mat for writers who were sick of being second-guessed by network executives and focus groups.
In the years since that auspicious pilot, I count an ever more promising pool of talent, producing series of compelling drama and profoundly complex characters. Among my personal favorites have been BREAKING BAD, MAD MEN, THE KILLING, RAY DONOVAN, MR. ROBOT, HOMELAND, MASTERS OF SEX, TRUE DETECTIVE (season one) and PENNY DREADFUL. What these series share is an unbelievably nuanced view of humanity. And a clear conviction that producers need no longer dumb-down their characters and story lines to find an audience. Complexity is celebrated. The ambiguity of the human heart is at last getting full reign to run where it will – into some pretty dark realms it turns out – but this is what happens when creativity has been so long suppressed. It flees into the underworld, that true realm of our psyche, from which monsters emerge. Dark, glorious, surprising monsters of the id. The Walter Whites and Don Drapers; the Vanessa Ives and Mr. Robots of the world, let loose upon the landscape of television.
Truthfully, the world of motion pictures looks pale and reed-thin by comparison. Week after week, the Friday openings offers little more than a sad rehash of overdeveloped franchises. It seems only the kids’ movies dare to launch a new character. If it isn’t a Marvel or DC Comics hero, they’re not interested. Whole genres have fallen out of production, adult dramas (except for the one month pre-Oscar qualifiers); suspense, thrillers, even romantic comedies are few and far between. As if date-night were a quaint idea of the past.
As lamentable as these trends may be, they are easy to understand if you look at the economics. P&A costs for a major release now adds such a burden for a picture to perform on opening weekend, that only international blockbusters can hope to win their frame. To combat international piracy, we have moved to day-and-date releases across large parts of the global market – a challenge for all but the biggest drawing super heroes. Horror seems to be the only other genre with enough box office grip to justify its cost of production. But let’s face it, the real reason that so few movie genres have survived is job security.
Studio executives are scared to death of green lighting a flop. A $200 million flop is career ending decision. So you do everything in your power, selecting from a smaller and smaller pool of guaranteed franchises, to pick your bet. Nobody will ever get fired for green lighting another X-Men. And that’s the long and short of things. Decisions being made by executives in fear for their jobs.
Sadly, anything truly original entails risk. And any business model that demands returns on opening weekend – is no longer in a position to take on these risks. And so, the exodus continues. OUT of motion picture into television. We go where we can work. We go where we can do our BEST work.
And I have gone from looking forward to the latest round of Friday releases, to marveling when one of them actually slips through the barbed wire, and puts something great on screen. Sadly, this isn’t often. Which makes the triumph all the greater when it happens.