Must-Listen Writing Podcast with Steven James and… Yours Truly

RookPaper_8_18.indd It’s not often one gets to break bread and break stories with a national best-selling author, but that’s what I got to do this week with novelist Steven James in Asheville, North Carolina, at the prestigious 2014 Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers’ Conference. With demand growing for original content across the thousand-channel universe, more and more authors are seeing their novels adapted for film and television by other writers like me, so we were both at BRMCWC as faculty to talk to other authors about how to survive the adaptation process.

WCTH 1-sheetJames is a master story-teller and the author of more than 30 novels and had breakout sessions for conferees on how Story Trumps Structure.  I held sessions to give authors tools, tips and training for how their books can be successfully transformed into screenplays for film and TV, which is what I’ve been up to lately with my original series for the Hallmark Channel, When Calls the Heart, based on the best-selling novel by Janette Oke.

I hope you take a listen to our Firsts in Fiction Podcast hosted by Aaron Gansky.  We discussed some of the pitfalls and possibilities for aspiring writers and let us know what you think.  Also joining us for the roundtable discussion were Ben Wolf, executive editor of Splickety magazine group and Alycia Morales, editor with Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas and fantasy author Jake Pendleton.


We all have favorite films, right?  So why do we love those films?


The wrong answer is explosions, babes in bikinis and cool plot twists.

The right answer is that the filmmakers have created real, living, breathing, 3-dimensional characters that you have fallen in love with.

If you would like to learn the secrets of how to create movie characters your audience will fall in love with, join me for a FREE WEBINAR on Monday, February 11, 7 p.m. CST.  You can register here FREE for the webinar, and we can accommodate up to 1,000 attendees. The webinar is being hosted by the Best Seller Society.

I hope to see/hear you there, and looking forward to sharing my tips, tools and training from my 25 years as a produced writer-producer in Hollywood!


Here’s How You Break Into Hollywood…

Over the last several years, I’ve served as a Juror for both the Heartland Film Festival and the 168 Hour Film Project, so I’ve had a chance to screen at least a hundred original short and feature-length narrative films by new or aspiring filmmakers looking to make a big impression.

Some of those projects have been amazingly well-made films on very modest budgets, and have served as terrific calling cards for those filmmakers as they seek to get their first break in Hollywood.

But every once in a blue moon, an original short film explodes onto the scene with such creative ferocity that their young creators have their tickets immediately punched into the Hollywood big leagues.  My friend Scott Derrickson did that with his brilliant short film Love in the Ruins a dozen or so years ago as his USC Cinema School graduate project.  That film was his contemporary adaptation of C.S. Lewis’ Screwtape Letters and it immediately opened doors.  Scott has since gone on to write and direct several big studio features, including Hellraiser: Inferno, Urban Legend: Final Cut, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, a remake of The Day the Earth Stood Still, and his newest “found footage” project Sinister now in pre-production.

Four years ago, South African CG Animator Neill Blomkamp created the stunning short Alive in Joburg which you can see here.  That short so impressed Lord of the Rings director-producer Peter Jackson that he used his influence and Showbiz juice to help Blomkamp turn his idea into the successful international sci-fi hit District 9.  That film went on to earn over $200 million worldwide.

And now, two years later, Uruguayan director Fede Alvarez‘ short sci-fi film Panic Attack has found the same trajectory as Blomkamp’s work.  That film so blew away horror film maven Sam Raimi that he attached Alvarez to write and direct his $14 million remake of The Evil Dead.

I talk to so many young filmmakers who are deeply frustrated because they can’t seem to break through the vast layer of cultural noise wrought on all of us by the digital revolution and by You Tube (just because you can [afford cheap digital gear] make a movie, doesn’t mean you should if you don’t have the gift).  They can’t seem to grab that bottom rung on the ladder to legitimate Hollywood opportunity.

I challenge them (and you) to watch both Alive in Joburg and Panic Attack.  This is how you break into the business. You have to storm your way in with such formidable creative prowess and energy that they can’t turn you away.  Watch these two short films and tell me I’m wrong.

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Gametime… some shameless self-promotion

So it has been far too long since I last posted on this blog, but my analytics reports show that a faithful hundred or so of you check in daily to see if I’m still breathing.  Well, I am, but I’m finding it very difficult to maintain a robust blog while Tweeting and Facebooking and Google-Plussing. Thanks for being patient with me. It’s just tough to drive content onto all these platforms while I’m still trying to make a living creating content for film and TV.

Speaking of which… today’s post is some shameless self-promotion about my latest film endeavor, Gametime: Tackling the Past, airing Saturday, September 3, at 8 p.m. on NBC.

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The film — starring Ryan McPartin from Chuck, Beau Bridges and Catherine Hicks of Seventh Heaven fame — follows the story of pro football star Jake Walker (McPartin) who returns home to his small North Carolina boyhood town he has avoided for 15 years when his father (Bridges) has a heart attack. While there, Jake learns he is being cut by his team. The double-whammy gives Jake an opportunity to reflect on his life and to come to grips with the kind of man he is supposed to be, while healing the broken relationships he left behind.  It’s a family drama appropriate for viewers of all ages, has some nice football action, a little romance, and poses the important question about the difference between looking like a good man… and actually being one.

This project is part of the Walmart and Procter & Gamble Family Movie Night franchise that has aired original movies on both NBC and Fox for the last year or so.  It was a fascinating process to work with the Walmart and P & G folks overseeing this project.  The films are all born as loglines in an “idea lab” and are thoroughly researched in focus-groups to determine which ideas seem to push the most buttons in the research sample.  Then those ideas are given to writers like to me to turn into movies.

I hope you’ll tune in and let me know what you think.

Beverly Lewis’ The Shunning premiering April 16

To my regular readers… please forgive me. I have been AWOL from this blog for far too long. I do have three really good reasons… I’ve been writing for a living, cooking up three new projects I’m very excited about and… oh yes… finishing this movie called The Shunning which premieres Saturday, April 16, 8 Central/9 Pacific, on the Hallmark Channel.

So I’m back to blogging to first do some shameless self-promotion. I hope you’ll have a chance to tune in. Michael Landon, Jr., and I have returned to Beverly Lewis’ world of the Amish one more time. We first journeyed there for Saving Sarah Cain a few years ago. That movie continues to have a loyal audience on Lifetime. This time, we’ve adapted Beverly Lewis’ first book in her long, New York Times best-selling career.

The Shunning tells the story of Katie Lapp, a young Amish woman who discovers on he eve of her wedding that she was adopted from outside the Amish faith, and that her “Englisher” biological mother is searching for her. The discovery so “ferhoodles” her that she walks out on her wedding and goes through an identity crisis before finally coming to peace with her situation. It’s the first of three books in The Heritage of Lancaster County series. The film stars Danielle Panabaker as Katie Lapp and Sherry Stringfield as her biological mother, Laura Mayfield. We’re hoping for some solid ratings so that Hallmark will want us to adapt the next two sequel novels into films. (If you’re interested in reading the novel, a special “movie edition” is being released on April 16 — the same day as the premiere.

Anyway, please enjoy this short behind-the-scenes documentary about the film, and let me know what you think of The Shunning if you have a chance to watch it.  If you don’t, not to worry, I’ll be hitting you up to get the Sony DVD when it releases in September. Like I said… Shameless.

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Abe Lincoln: Vampire Slayer?

Hollywood’s hottest screenplays — the 2010 Blacklist

The Hollywood Blacklist of hottest, most-talked about, unproduced screenplays has been published for 2010.  Compiled by Universal Development Director Franklin Leonard, the list is a survey of more than 300 studio creative executives of the best, most provocative screenplays to cross their desks.

The executives nominate up to ten of their favorite reads from the past year’s submissions. Only scripts that receive at least five votes are included on the list.

By the time these scripts make the list, many have already been scooped by studios or production companies, some are already in production, and past listees include films like Juno, Lars and The Real Girl, and There Will Be Blood.

Some of the loglines can leave you scratching your head.  For instance, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. This screenplay by former cinematographer Seth Grahame-Smith imagines that Abraham Lincoln’s mother is murdered by a vampire and then our 16th president goes all medieval on a group of heinous bloodsuckers. Your first thought is what was Seth smoking when he cooked up this idea, and then you see that Tim Burton has set this script up at Fox, and it all starts to make sense.

Then there is College Republicans by first-time writer Wes Jones.The script, very loosely inspired by true events, follows real-life GOP power-broker Karl Rove in his early years as he is taught the art of dirty politics by real-life mentor Lee Atwater. You wonder how anybody could sustain a 120 pages on that subject matter. But then again, think about what Aaron Sorkin was able to do so masterfully with the birth of Facebook as the inspiration for The Social Network, a past member of the Blacklist by the way.

The point is these are both brilliant, high-concept ideas from relatively untested writers who have absolutely earned a seat at the adult table in Hollywood. The 2010 Blacklist includes 74 other really inventive ideas. And their writers all followed some basic rules for breaking through of the vast layer of noise represented by all of the hundreds of thousands of unproduced screenplays that get submitted every year.

First, they didn’t just try to rip off the latest $250 million thriller or fantasy. So many scripts I’m asked to read, even if well-written, feel like knock-offs. Like those $10 Rolex watches on a New York street corner. It’s a common mistake of new writers. If a certain film does gonzo box-office, the conventional wisdom seems to be to try and mimic that success. But these Blacklist writers decided not to follow the pack. They decided they wanted their stories to turn heads. To be about something nobody else was talking about. They weren’t just thinking outside the box. They were thinking outside the parallelogram. They broke rules and asked “what if” questions.

No, Honest Abe was never Buffy. But what if he had been? What kind of Vampire slayer might he have been? And when you start to form answers to that question, you start to have a movie.

Now it’s your turn.  Read the 2010 Black List.  Go and do likewise.

The Moral Premise Workshop, Nov. 6

I don’t often recommend screenwriting workshops, because I believe the best training comes from reading great screenplays, and then “going and doing likewise” as I have posted about here.

But I’m breaking my rule and recommending my friend Dr. Stan Williams’ Moral Premise Workshop, coming to Southern California on November 6.  It’s based on his important book of the same name and being held at Biola University from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Anybody who wants to “be about something” in their writing, whether it comes to novels or screenplays, needs to take advantage of this important training.

Stan has a growing number of fans of his theories on fiction in Hollywood, among them Will Smith, who has used him as a story consultant on several recent films.

If you attend, get back to me and let me know what you learned. Share the wealth.

2010 Crystal Heart Award Winner… Jamaa

From the now-it-can-be-told department:

Thursday, in Indianapolis, Indiana, The Heartland Film Festival announced its 2010 line-up of award-winning films.

My partner Michael Landon, Jr., and I are grateful to be among the 7 winners of the Crystal Heart Award in the dramatic short films category for our latest screen adventure, Jamaa, which we made together under our Believe Pictures banner on behalf of the respected relief organization, World Vision. I wrote, Michael directed and we produced together.

Shot entirely on location in the nation of Uganda in May, Jamaa is a dramatic retelling of the true story of two AIDS orphans who must journey from the slums of Kampala across Uganda to find a new home in the rural north — pushing a mysterious cargo in a box made of scraps.

We’re deeply honored by the award and will be in Indianapolis on October 14 to participate in the event.

There will be more news forthcoming in the weeks and months ahead about this very special little film which we created for World Vision as our “loaves and fishes” to assist children around the world.

And now, here for the first time, is our trailer for Jamaa.  Please let me know what you think.

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Coming to theaters Friday, September 24…

Like Dandelion Dust

Have to give some love to my friends, Bobby and Kevin Downes, from Downes Brothers’ Entertainment, and director Jon Gunn for their fine work on a fine film coming to theaters across the country this Friday, September 24.  Like Dandelion Dust, adapted from the novel by best-selling author Karen Kingsbury.

For any adoptive family or for anybody who knows somebody who has adopted a child, this is a “Solomon-like” movie not to be missed and it will leave you thinking for days.  It stars Academy-Award winner Mira Sorvino and Golden Globe nominee Barry Pepper in some of the finest performances of their career.

The film as swept audience awards at film festivals across the country, including the prestigious Heartland Film Festival’s Truly Moving Picture Award.

But as with all modestly budgeted, independent films — this first weekend at the box office will be critical to its success.  You can find a theater where it will be showing here.

This is a film with heart, faith, hope and above all… love.  Hope to see you this weekend at the movies.

Jamaa… stills from our Ugandan film-making adventure

Coming soon to a church near you… Jamaa… a film we’ve made for the Christian relief organization, World Vision.

In many ways, the experience of making Jamaa was as much of a journey of faith as it was a filmmaking venture.  It is both the smallest… and biggest… film we’ve ever made.  In coming posts, I’m going to explain why I can say that, along with retracing our Believe Pictures partnership with World Vision, dissecting the incredible journey of trying to make a narrative film with theatrical- level production value in a third world country, and sharing with you the significance of the film’s title, Jamaa.

I’ll also explain its purpose and the vision behind it, along with the paradigm-busting way World Vision is going to distribute it… with the ultimate bottom line (a.k.a. box office) resulting not in tickets sold, but in the lives of children across the world being transformed.

Behind-the-scenes production stills will also be forthcoming in future posts.

But for now, please enjoy this gallery of production stills.  I can’t wait for you to see the whole film.

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