PAGE International Screenplay Writing Contest – The Judge Speaks!

2014 PAGE International Screenplay Writing Awards
2014 PAGE International Screenplay Writing Awards

I submitted ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES as a screenplay in this year’s PAGE International Screenplay Writing Contest. The script got as far as the quarter finals, but made it no further. What was very exciting, however, was the judge’s feedback that was sent to me this morning.

Now, I am hesitant (IN A WORLD WHERE SCREENPLAY IDEAS ARE STOLEN  FROM WRITERS LEFT AND RIGHT) to post the actual script on line for you to compare. Even with the work registered with WGA, I have heard stories about writers kicked out of the development cycle only to see their work stolen or plagiarized.

If you are a legitimate agent (with credentials) interested in reading this work, contact me through my Facebook account or Twitter account.

So here’s the feedback:

The 2014 PAGE Awards Judge’s Feedback

Title: ZAK CORBIN MASTER OF MACHINES      

Script #14-5162JF 

  1. What is the writer trying to achieve in this script?

In New Futura City, fifteen-year-old ZAK CORBIN follows his infamous uncle’s forbidden robot designs and creates something that leads him into an unbelievable adventure.

In what ways is the writer successful at achieving his/her goals?

STRUCTURE

I enjoyed a lot about ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES, and above all the elements, I thought your handling of the story’s basic outline was outstanding.

You open strong, with an action-packed first five pages that set up the origin story of THE CORBIN ROBOTS, shown rebelling against the war-mongering GENERAL MAXIM at the command of their creator ELIAS CORBIN.

Fifteen years later, Elias is in jail and his nephew ZAK has inherited a talent for robotics.  You elegantly set up what’s unique about this world during the opening pages, and introduce our young heroes (Zak, JASON and ODIE – short for ODYSSEUS) efficiently as they toy with robots in their spare time.

You close out the first fifteen pages with a wild comic set piece at school, and skillfully introduce our love interest and co-lead, the resourceful and lovely LISABETH RYAN.

I especially enjoyed how effectively you plant things like Zak’s DISSEMBLER device, which will play an important role during the script’s conclusion.

I enjoyed how the remainder of the script was mapped out: At page 30, you give us the tragic back story for Uncle Elias and on page 45, the surprising twist of Lisabeth being as aware of Zak as he is of her.

Page 60 puts our robot hero POGO on the trail of Uncle Elias, and the final act is a well-escalated series of exciting robot battles.

CHARACTERS

Since this script is an origin story for its title character, you had a lot of introducing to do – and you created a very likable group here.  I liked Zak and his gang of pals, and the way you portrayed Lisabeth was refreshing.

But you don’t just focus on the younger characters, the adults are entertaining as well.

Uncle Elias was an effectively complicated figure (although I wish I could have seen a few scenes of him interacting with his beloved Caroline), and I loved SIDNEY DEXTER, Army captain turned private eye who helps the kids find some answers.

These grown-ups help appeal to a wider audience, and fill out your world nicely.

THEME

Like many classic family films, ZAK CORBIN has some strong thematic elements, mainly the sentiment that all human life is sacred.  Elias’ creations are designed to help first, and I enjoyed how you used this subtle reworking of the rules from Isaac Asimov’s I, ROBOT to fuel the main conflict of your story.

Those who would use technology to help others versus those who would use it to destroy – I think this is a strong thematic note that binds this story together in many ways.

Early on, the robotic creations bring danger because they might not work properly, but later, as the designs are perfected, the harm only comes from the humans, and their mechanical creature of war.

This adds a powerful, memorable dimension to this draft.

3. In what ways does the screenplay fall short?

STYLE/TONE

Probably the most troubled element of this draft, with some minor stylistic issues and more major tonal ones.

Stylistically, I thought the script was occasionally over-directed, with a style that was too interested in camera angles and movements, to the detriment of the story. In today’s spec market, camera directions are left to the shooting draft once the script is sold, and is the purview of the director. It’s best to delete throughout and keep the clutter off the page.

Tonally, some of the material felt more like a mainstream PG-13 movie than a milder family film.  The action was dark and possibly too intense sometimes, especially the massive scenes of destruction near the end.

COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL

Again, related to the tonal issues mentioned in the paragraph above, I think the darker tone could possibly alienate or overwhelm some younger audience members.

Also, while I liked the alternate America where the story took place, your retrovibe might be a little too weird for mainstream consumption, according to executive types who want to maximize profitability.

4.  On the contest scorecard, you gave this script a total score of: 79.   Please explain your criteria for your score.  

PREMISE/CONCEPT Score: 8

Solid idea for a possible franchise of adventures starring young Zak and his young friends (and their robot creations).

PRESENTATION Score: 8

There are occasional spacing issues and some missing scene extensions (DAY, NIGHT, etc.), but nothing major is wrong with this draft, it’s a professional-looking piece of work.

See below for a few notes by page number.

PAGE 62

LISABETH

Jason said your parents sent you go to (to go) bed early…

Zak puts down (the) tool and looks up at Pogo.

PAGE 99

You’re going to waer (wear) out your poor uncle before we even gets (get) there!

STRUCTURE Score: 9

Probably the most effective element of this draft, producing a tightly plotted story with fun action set pieces, solid character development, and a rising sense of excitement.

PLOT Score: 8

This draft is a fun origin story, containing an impressively realized universe and a fast-moving adventure for your title character.  I would like to see some scenes between Elias and his wife Caroline before her death to deepen that relationship.

PACING Score: 8

This draft moves forward at a steady clip, with a few flashes to the past along the  way, and, in reference to the PLOT notes above, I think you have room to add  some Caroline/Elias scenes.

CHARACTERS Score: 8

The kids are aces in this draft, and I like how well you fleshed out Odie and Jason in support of Zak.  The tentative romance between Zak and Lisabeth was adorably handled, and the adult characters appealing as well.

DIALOGUE Score: 8

Another effective element, and you did a good job handling many types of people and making their voices relatable and consistent.

I especially enjoyed the rapport between Zak and Lisabeth – as well as the bonding of the main trio of young inventor adventurers.

THEME Score: 8

A strong element of this draft, and I thought it displayed a positive message about using technology for good instead of evil.

STYLE/TONE Score: 7

One of the few troubled elements of this draft, with an occasionally overdone style and tone that shades too dark.

COMMERCIAL POTENTIAL Score: 7

Partially because of the tonal issues above, I didn’t see this one as a box office slam-dunk.

Screen franchises like this one usually come from other media originally, but the writing is still strong and appealing – if maybe not as family-friendly as it could be.

5.  If you received this screenplay at your agency or production company, would you give it a:

        RECOMMEND             CONSIDER             PASS  

Why?  What is your agency or production company currently looking for?

Our company is looking for high-concept film and TV projects, with characters that are complex and appealing to top talent.  We look for commercial projects that can be set up at major studios with writers that have unique, clear voices.

I really liked the initial adventure of ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES, and  think it was an effective HARRY POTTER-esque style franchise in waiting.  However, projects like these are always tougher to sell unless they are based on previously existing/underlying material.

Still, I was impressed enough by the fast-paced, well-structured work here to CONSIDER this screenplay.

6.  How could this writer improve his/her chances of success with this script?  What else would you like to tell this writer?  

I liked this script, but was not as sold on the title – which doesn’t really convey the sense of fun the story contains.

I would come up with some other options that convey the story more effectively.

Good luck with the next draft,

                                                                                         Judge: JP

Wow! So incredibly close to having a blockbuster. It’s interesting to finally get a professional opinion about a work. In the hands of another judge, the results could be pretty different.

I am curious about the TONAL elements mentioned. Is Zak too dark for kids? The giant version of POGO breaks Zak’s uncle out of prison and brings him back to the city. The Army (represented by COLONEL FLAGG, and yes the name was inspired by the character of the same name from the M*A*S*H* TV series!) goes overboard trying to stop the “rampaging giant robot”. There’s a lot of damage caused by a falling tower steeple, but unlike say MAN OF STEEL, the giant POGO and thousands of other Guardian robots leap to the rescue. Well, it is a point brought up the judge.

I can point at HOW TO TRAIN YOUR DRAGON as my inspiration when I was writing this screenplay. The ending of that picture dealt with Hiccup and Astrid finding the dragon nest (which is scary) and the attack by the giant Green Death dragon (which puts everyone in danger). By the end, Hiccup has suffered a major physical injury (for an animated picture, no less). And that movie was PG.

And then there’s the “not based on a known property” issue.  It really is a Catch-22 situation. If a book sells a zillion copies (HARRY POTTER, HUNGER GAMES), you get the blockbuster movie deal. If your book is unknown, no one wants to take a risk. Which is totally understandable in the gazillion-dollar, sure-bet movie industry.  But let’s look at some popular YA books that have gotten movie deals:

THE VAMPIRE DIARIES (flopped and panned)
THE MORTAL INSTRUMENTS: CITY OF BONES (low returns, second movie stuck in development hell)
THE HOST (a guaranteed Stephanie Myer/Twilight franchise launcher) Dead on arrival
THE GIVER (mixed reviews, low box office)
THE MAZE RUNNER (not generating a  whole lot of excitement)

So much for the “known property” theory. But wait, ZAK CORBIN is known. I have over 780,000 readers on Wattpad who loved it. Perhaps the “known property” issue needs to include social media sites?

Last of all, the title is not the judge’s favorite. A good title is very hard to come by. My book that will be released by Divertir Publishing, the first of my  alt-history World War II titles, has had its share of naming problems. So if someone can come up with a new title, I’m open to it.

Well that’s it. Not bad for a second screenplay entered in a giant contest. And yes, it’s well worth revisiting. Screenplays are never final. Instead of trying to turn ZAK CORBIN into a movie, maybe a TV show?

 

 

Did You Enjoy Comic-Con?

Now that I’m hip deep in new writing, I’m going to start posting some stats and a little info:

Current  Word Count: 23,392
Current Chapter: 11

Summary: This is a historical fantasy set during the Russian Revolution. The royal family has been marked for death. A mysterious savior appears in the night and whisks the main character, the youngest daughter Anastasia, to safety. It’s a race to see if she can be brought safely back to England. But the girl’s savior has been hurt and it’s up to Ana to protect him…


 

Hawker Hurricane at Military Aviation Museum
Hawker Hurricane at Military Aviation Museum

Some random musings, since I haven’t updated the blog in a while. The Internet is crackling with Comic-Con announcements. Avengers, Guardians of the Galaxy, TV shows, Mad Max, Game of Thrones, everybody’s excited. Were there any actual comic book announcements (besides the Eisner awards)? Let me know if there’s anything good that I should pick up.

I’ve moved into my new digs in Chesapeake, Virginia. 20 minutes from the beach. Loving it. It’s been muggy and hot (and there was a hurricane), but everything’s fine. I spend a lot of my time hitting the computer and the other time running, biking and something like Livada de Loca.  But tamer. Much tamer.

I’m contemplating a new series to write exclusively for Wattpad. Wired featured a story about a young girl who posted her One Direction/50 Shades interpretation and got a zillion reads and a contract with Simon and Schuster. I’m a huge fan of “Cast A Deadly Spell”, a made for HBO movie made in the 1980s about a private eye named Lovecraft who lives in a magic-based Los Angeles–except  he hates and wont use magic. Very pulpy. Very noir.

Oh and the script version of ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES made the quarterfinals of a very important screenplay writing competition here. The list is alphabetical by title, so you have to scroll to the bottom. I’ll keep you tuned if the script gets any farther in the contest.

There’s been little word on the Divertir front. I know senior editor Jen Corkill Hunt is extremely busy cheering on her current edit-in-progress. Mine could be next. The story has a title change, which I will be announcing as the edit and the publication date grows closer. BTW: did you know that September 15, 2015 is the 75th anniversary of The Battle of Britain? And today is the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. See, and you kids are freaking out about a tree named Groot and a talking raccoon. Later.

 

 

 

 

 

 

ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES clears 700K on Wattpad

I was so pleased and thrilled to see the following for ZAK CORBIN: MASTER OF MACHINES on Wattpad‘s site this morning:

700K reads on Wattpad!
700K reads on Wattpad!

Sometime over the past few days, the seven hundred thousandth reader stopped by to check out Zak, Lisabeth, Jason, Odie and of course Pogo. I am extremely pleased to see so many people enjoying ZAK CORBIN on Wattpad.

And now the bad news. My contract with Divertir Publishing also includes the ZAK CORBIN books, so they will be coming down off Wattpad very soon. If you have not had the chance to read these adventures, go there and read it before it’s too late.

This will not be the end of Zak and my relationship with Wattpad. Very soon, you will start to see announcements for the first book in my YA historical adventure series. It’s title will be …. aha! Caught you! The first book’s title will not be revealed officially for the moment (at least not by me). What you will be able to see and read will be short stories related to this new series on Wattpad and in other places. Stay tuned.

A Thousand Words: Pictures Help Bring Life to Stories

All stories come from the nugget of an idea. The idea itself can come in many forms: lying in your bed, watching television, reading a news story, talking with friends, a visit to some place that sets off an internal memory. As writers, we drive ourselves nuts trying to figure out what we’re going to write about.

I thought I would touch on where I find inspiration for my stories. Many of my stories are inspired by art and architecture. I attribute this to my father, who was a draftsman by trade and an artist at heart.  As a kid, I snuck into my father’s office in our basement to look at his work and books. He collected wonderful art books and I often thought he used these to gain inspiration for his own work, as I would do later on.

Case in point, ZAK CORBIN. The setting is a retro-futuristic 1950s and Zak lives in a place called New Futura City which gets its inspiration from the 1939 New York World’s Fair. A place you can’t really visit anymore, but the relics of that fair and its cousin, the 1964, can be looked at in pictures and in art:

Poster from 1939 New York World's Fair
Poster from 1939 New York World’s Fair

When I started looking for new ideas for writing inspiration, I turned to art websites. One in particular stands out: www.deviantart.com. This is a fabulous site devoted to all kinds of artwork: from digital to hand-drawn, videos and even stories. This is also the place where I found Daryl Toh’s work, whom I hired to do the cover art for ZAK CORBIN. Look at the cover for ZAK CORBIN and you’ll see the retro look and feel of the old 1939 fair in his work.

I found these images on Deviant art which inspired me to write VANQUISH (which the first book will soon be sporting a new title, check this space for the announcement!) (The artwork shown here doesn’t belong to me and is the sole property of the artists.)

When I found an image, I captioned it to capture the feeling of the story the picture was trying to tell.

Briley's first patrol
Briley’s first patrol

I was impressed with the action of this first picture and I was drawn to the biplane (very ornately detailed) blasting away at an enemy fighter against a 1930s skyline. This aircraft (which had no landing gear) became the Kestrel.

Sky City
Sky City

More 1930s sky action is shown here, featuring monoplanes of the era.

Briley in Cathedral
Briley in Cathedral

This is the first image which captured my main character and I decided to start calling her Briley Bannatyne. Although her outfit is very steampunkish, the mechanical nature of the setting and her attire suggested she was walking in a place that was very special. (and very important to the second book, :) )

Warships and Aerial Scout
Warships and Aerial Scout

The Alt History/World War II nature of the story is represented here. There are no scenes with battleships like this one in the story, but the heavy dreadnaught and the intriguing aircraft caught my eye.

Sky City docks
Sky City docks

I pictured this location as a rainy, hard-scrabble place where airships and crews worked.

First Technical Church
First Technical Church

In the story, I imagined my main character Briley and her family as a member of a unique church dedicated to things logical and physical, merging these ideas with the spiritual and the social. The First Technical Church of Charles Babbage is a strange place, similar to places built by the Freemasons.

The Vanquish
The Vanquish

No action adventure would be complete without a cool airplane and this one caught my attention right away. The wings are much too sharply-angled and this aircraft doesn’t look so much as a fighter as racer, but the design conveys speed and aggression.

None of these pictures make up the story — that’s the harder part that comes later. But using pictures can help paint imagery in your mind that leads to stories.

 

“How To Train Your Dragon 2″, Missed It By That Much

Warning: this article contains some spoilery references to Dreamworks How To Train Your Dragon 2, as well the original, How To Train Your Dragon. Read at your own peril.

How To Train Your Dragon 2
How To Train Your Dragon 2 — copyright 2014, 20th Century Fox and Dreamworks Animation.

I don’t do extensive reviews. Most of the time, if a movie intrigues me or misses the mark, I make a one sentence blurb about it in Facebook to my friends. But after seeing How To Train Your Dragon 2 in the theater this past weekend, I found myself flummoxed and bothered enough to try to pen some reactions in long form.

In the first How To Train Your Dragon (based on the books by Cressida Cowell), Hiccup (voiced by Jay Baruchel) is a 15-year-old Viking lad who lives on a island called Berk that’s under constant attack by dragons. Hiccup is different than his burly, dragon-killing father Stoic and the other villagers. He rescues an injured black Night Fury dragon, called Toothless because he has retractable teeth, and then teaches himself to ride him. Along the way they learn more about themselves. While the whole village is concerned with killing the beasts, Hiccup becomes an animal lover/trainer and ends up teaching valuable lessons to his entire tribe about living with nature instead of destroying it (until they face  the monstrous Green Death dragon at the end of the film).  Both dragon and rider develop a deep bond, symbolized by (spoilers ahead) Toothless’ destroyed tail fin and Hiccup losing part of his own leg.

The first movie was a box office smash. It had a straightforward plot, a realistic relationship between an awkward teenager and his stubborn father, and an even more awkward first love between Hiccup and a fiercely independent teenage warrioress named Astrid. The movie was well animated, had beautiful scenery, wonderful flying scenes and the voice actors made the movie entertaining for both kids and adults.

It’s taken Dreamworks and the film’s director over four years to script, animate and produce the next installment, How To Train Your Dragon 2. Critical reception and hopes for a box office smash were high. The movie received some excellent reviews. It  had all the pieces to make it a blockbuster: the original voice cast, more dragons, better 3D animation, a surprise newcomer (who didn’t turn out to be that much of a surprise, thanks to the trailers) and more of everything that made the original great.

However, the film is currently not doing as well at the box office. It premiered up against another sequel, 22 Jump Street, an R-rated comedy. It’s not like that film’s audience is taking theatergoers away, but the movie’s lack of box office pizzazz (and the hopes of making another smash like Frozen) seems to relegate it to just another quickly forgotten summer release

The critics loved this movie, but the audience where I saw it were tiny in number and low in reaction. Sitting there for almost two hours, I found the movie (and this is my opinion, remember) mildly interesting and actually boring in sections. Since How To Train Your Dragon was the reason why I tried my hand at writing middle grade and young adult fiction, I pondered what went wrong.

In How To Train Your Dragon 2, Hiccup is older. His father wants him to take his place as chief of the tribe on Berk. Hiccup avoids these responsibilities, exploring and surveying the area while flying Toothless. He runs into another dragon master who turns out to be the “not-so-big” surprise character (if you’ve seen the trailers, the dragon’s out of the bag, so-to-speak). [All right, it's his mother Valka.] She tries to free and nuture dragons. But there’s another guy, Drago Bloodfist, who has personal reasons to hates dragons but for some reason uses them to destroy other dragons (yep, I was confused too) and threatens those who love dragons (mainly Berk). Oh and there’s another really really big dragon (like the Green Death) who has control over other dragons. This leads to tragedy, as the monster dragon takes control of Toothless and makes him do something horrible to Hiccup. After the tragedy, there’s a confrontation at Berk. Hiccup and Toothless persevere over Drago and the really realy big dragon to win the day.  (As I said, I’m trying to do this without ruining possible moviegoers.)

So why was I bored? I think I could count the reasons as the following:

1) The movie ignored the film’s target audience: young kids and tweens. This is a big one. You can’t write a story and not involve your audience.  The audience identified with Hiccup in the first film because he was awkward and just trying things out. He acted like a teenager and he took the audience with him on his adventures. The Hiccup in HTTYD2 is forced to make adult decisions–become chief, be a leader and protect his tribe.  He’s reunited with one parent and (well, what happens after that is a spoiler so I won’t mention it). But that’s it.

2) Hiccup has little to no interaction with the other young characters. Hiccup’s interaction with the other teens made the first film fun. At first, Hiccup didn’t fit it in and caused trouble. He suddenly started to become a dragon master (because he was learning dragon lore through Toothless) and became their idol. Later, he becomes their hero by using his knowledge and sharing it with them. In the new film, the younger characters–especially Astrid– are separated from Hiccup for most of the story. Astrid clearly loves and admires Hiccup, but there’s none of the first film’s awkwardness and fumbling. Their relationship in the film boils down to two scenes with dialogue  and a few things they yell at one another, like “Watch out!”and “Go get Toothless!” 

3) There are too many new characters … doing nothing. In addition to Hiccup’s long-lost mother Valka, there’s a dragon napper (voiced by the actor who plays Jon Snow in GoT) and the villain Drago Bloodfist who is not seen until almost three quarters of the way into the story. HTTYD2 is mostly a story without a visible primary antagonist. Valka’s disappearance for twenty years is explained away with almost with the same irrelevance as Homer Simpson’s hippy protester mother in The Simpsons. The dragon napper is introduced as a rogue (like Flynn Rider in Tangled) but he eventually helps Astrid and the other younger characters.  Then his character has nothing more to do. There’s lots more stuff in this movie. New dragons with new traits. New villains. New weapons. New super huge dragon. Very little of it comes together.

4) The storyline tries to be dark. In How To Train Your Dragon 2, there are sinister forces at work. Bad men are doing bad things with dragons. A major character suffers a tragic turn. Again, this is a thump against the movie for forgetting its target audience. The writer and director of both films admitted his fondness for The Empire Strikes Back with its surpriser plot twist and dark turn for the heroes. Going dark has become a really annoying trend in movies (think The Dark Knight and Harry Potter) that really doesn’t belong in a film intended for younger kids. Going dark satisfied the film’s critics, but left the young people watching it cold.

5) The film confounds its own principals. The whole “dragons and humans living peacefully with one another” motif that was the heart at the end of the first movie is abandoned by both sides in this one. Hiccup tries to talk reason and sense into the dragon nappers and then Drago, but ends up using Toothless as a weapon anyway. His initial peace-making persona is dropped when he must assume the role his father wanted him to take anyway.  Even Drago–who hates dragons–uses a monster-sized dragon under his control to destroy other folks’ dragons (and their village). Confusing? Yes.

So there. I’ve wagged my tongue. Have you seen the movie? What did you think of it?