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The Film School Textbook That Should Be Required Reading

by Cody Brotter | Boston University

F Posted in: College, Voices P Posted on: July 2, 2012
Cody Brotter NEW 6/15 Cody Brotter

Dear Professor:

What’s the last screenwriting book you saw with its own commercial?

Were your secrets of screenwriting just revealed?

Could students and parents save over $40,000 a year by swapping a minimum of four years in film school for a maximum of four seconds on Amazon?

Did you know that a portion of your students’ purchases would go to a non-profit organization for active duty troops and families?

These are some of the questions a reader raises upon finishing Writing Movies For Fun and Profit by Robert Ben Garant and Thomas Lennon. They’re screenwriters, and they’re billionaires. And if you want to be either, they might be all you need.

In their introduction to Writing Movies For Fun and Profit, the authors (who are featured on the cover in a yacht full of martinis and bikinis) taunt the reader:

And in case you don’t believe us, with our screenwriting we’ve made:

$1,467,015,501

and counting at the box office.

Yes, three commas mean billion, people … (Hell, yes, we put “selling” before “writing.” Any crusty old film professor can tell you how to write a script — but if they knew how to sell one, they wouldn’t be working at some crappy film school!)

Don’t be surprised by any bold terms, caps lock, underlines, strike-outs and other random and often grammatically incorrect uses of typeface. In fact, for screenwriting grads who were hoping to bypass that fateful journey from a college campus to Los Angeles (or as the first paragraph of the first chapter puts it, thinking we can “move into a fabulous brownstone next to Ethan Hawke in New York’s independent-movie-loving West Village”) expect a gigantically centered:

THAT’S BuL7$*!t

The writers not-so-professorially lecture us on how the literal title of Chapter 1, “Getting Started in Hollywood,” is itself a necessary condition for your student’s success. By the way, Professor, a City of Angels? Seriously? Have you walked down Rodeo Drive?

Here’s the most helpful, up-to-date and brutally practical screenwriting book I’ve ever shoved in my two giant bookshelves full of screenwriting books. I privately passed this one along to some aspiring screenwriters majoring in film and television like it was the black market.

That’s because it’s an uncensored guide to movie-making in the free market. And even though Barack Obama tells Katie Couric he’s “a movie guy,” one book suggests American filmmaking might be more of a trickle-down art. That is, if it’s art at all.

On the first page, Garant and Lennon warn the reader, “If you want to write ‘art-house’ films, please put this book down and go gaze longingly out the window.”

And their tip for the students you’ve made memorize the history of their protagonists? “Forget that film school crap about ‘Create a cradle-to-grave biography of each of your characters.’” Their proof? The Casablanca “writers who created Rick had NO IDEA what his entire history was.”

The title of Chapter 7, you ask, awfully specifically? “Coverage! or How a Kid Getting College Credit Can Make or Break Your Movie!”

And this textbook talks the way we college kids talk, as seen by the title of Chapter 10, “Why Does Almost Every Studio Movie Suck Donkey Balls?”

In last summer’s Variety, this was Karen Idelson’s opening paragraph of “How effective are film schools?”

In the current job market, it’s tougher than ever for graduates to start their careers. But the hurdles are especially difficult for anyone hoping to enter the entertainment business, where competition is fierce and a few success stories of teenage millionaires sets up unrealistic expectations for grads.

In last summer’s Collider, here’s what Garant said about college screenwriting:

If somebody in film school had explained that your first spec is not probably going to ever get made, but it’s really your writing sample, it would’ve been really helpful. Our first script that we wrote was You Are Going To Prison, and the art draft was unmakeable. Like it was NC-17 filthy. No studio would’ve ever spent a dime on it ’cause it was a money-losing proposition.

If books had hearts, this quote — coupled with the intriguing implications of a like term “art draft” — would get at the heart of it: student screenwriters in the Great Recession might want to yank their heads out of the clouds by replacing the notion of art with that of cash.

Because, in 2006, Universal Studios released their non-art draft as a $4 million-budgeted Will Arnett movie called Let’s Go To Prison. Director Bob Odernkirk left unhappy with the way the studio reportedly removed a Meg White drums-only soundtrack, added a happy ending and even “made a significant change to the overall tone” of the film. Rotten Tomatoes ranked it “rotten.” Metacritic marked it with a 27 out of 100.

For film schools, that’s failing. For film students, that’s more success than they could ever hope to have.

But for those aspiring young filmmakers and their parental units, it could come down to Cornel West’s division of success versus greatness. For that Harvard-turned-Princeton professor, the difference boils down to the former being “characterized as pecuniary gain and financial prosperity, economic status” and the latter being characterized by “truth,” “personal integrity” and “magnanimity.” While making the distinction, Professor West even added, “I know we’re here in Hollywood, maybe I should shout that out!”

Sounds like the conflicts of Barton Fink, Adaptation., The Big Picture and The TV Set to me. Maybe some students want to put writing before selling, to write films, which might have all-drum scores, and not movies, which might have happy endings. Maybe they’d deny a studio option deal if it meant letting Hollywood turn their greatness into something successful.

So who are these Hollywood book jacket gangstas, anyway? The Garant-Lennon duo is the McCartney-Lennon duo of $creenwriting (thanks, Ke$ha). And they’ve written over nine profitable and good ones together. They’re genuinely geniuses (see: The State, Archer) and seriously two of the funniest writers/directors/actors/producers on the planet (see: Reno 911!, this book). But they’re the funny geniuses behind Herbie: Fully Loaded, The Pacifier and Night at the Museum: Battle of the Smithsonian.

That’s why on the front flap of the hardcover copy, Paul Rudd postulates:

These guys are proof that with no training and little education, anyone can make it as a screenwriter.

Surely an intentionally humorous book review, but it’s not far off from those ideas expressed throughout the pages. And yet, if a literate person’s eyes continue to roam onto the back flap, s/he would learn that Thomas Lennon co-founded what became MTV’s popular (and great!) The State while they were all together in college. More specifically, at N-Y-U. Even more specifically, at Tisch School of the Arts

And since we’re supposed to skip any film college lectures, seminars or masterclasses on writing screenplays, maybe we should avoid one of Ben Garant’s own lectures, seminars or masterclasses on writing screenplays. At Loyola University. To film students.

So, was Tisch really a waste of time? Is Loyola’s tuition worth the investment? And what about those other questions I opened with? Perhaps the questions are best answered by another question (and that question’s answer): How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?

Cody Brotter Cody is a NGJ Voices Contributor, a Huffington Post writer, and the Telly Award-winning Executive Producer of buTV10's "Welcome Back, Brotter. Management: info@suntaurent.com. @TweetCody

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