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Prove It All Night

I mentioned a few days ago that I sometimes lurk around misc.writing.screenplays (actually, now I stick with the moderated group), just to see what’s going on. I don’t have much interest in posting, and it’s easy to check in once a month and read all the worthwhile posts in maybe half an hour. They really don’t talk much about writing except to newbies, which is fine, except when they get distracted by politics, which they do. A lot. It makes it a chore to read unless you just skip those threads. I’m all for political discourse, but I’ve been lurking and (very rarely) posting there since around 2001, and it all comes down to: same shit, different day. It’s reached a point where I can’t figure out why posters allow their buttons to be pushed, or derive pleasure in pushing the buttons of the others, because it’s always the same argument.

The trolls are the same way, and in the thread I’m about to discuss, that was even mentioned, although ironically I feel like the poster is one of the rare non-trolls. He’s just very misguided, confused, and ill-informed. Whether they’re trolls or not, the usual pattern with newbies goes like this:

  1. Newbies leap onto the group, excited to learn about the wonderful world of screenwriting.
  2. Veteran posters respond with encouragement, recommending resource books and websites where produced scripts can be download.
  3. Newbie trades excitement for bravado, something along the lines of, “With these tools, I will write the greatest screenplay in history and everyone in Hollywood will want a piece of me. I’ll be the next [Shane Black/Charlie Kaufman/(shudder) Diablo Cody]!”
  4. Regulars scale back their encouragement, deciding the newbie is now ready to learn the harsh realities of the screenwriting trade.
  5. Newbie gets defensive, insists that they’re all a bunch of cynical losers (most often citing lack of screen credits or lack of screen credits on good movies) and they shouldn’t try dragging him down with them.
  6. Regulars come to mild defense of themselves or each other and/or shrug things off, saying something like, “I don’t have to defend my credits to you. The fact that you think the finished product resembles my original idea shows how little you know about the business.”
  7. Here is the most irregular part; most often, the newbies simply give up posting. (In my check-in six weeks ago, one of them actually had the gall to suggest that the reason they can’t get new blood on the group is because Usenet is dying. Usenet as a discussion medium is dying—but that ain’t the reason newbies don’t stick around.) Sometimes, though, the newbies get more aggressive, resorting to personal attacks, which are easy to do considering the whole group operates like LiveJournal comments, with little rhyme or reason to the discussion. It’s all personal whims, inside jokes, anecdotes, and other odds and ends that can formulate an incomplete but still attackable personality profile. Even rarer—but far more entertainingly—the newbie trolls with wild abandon, going insane and bringing in sock puppets. Amazingly, the regulars usually go for this, arguing and fighting (even as others try to point out these guys are shams). In accordance with cliché, it’s only when they ignore the troll that he goes away.

Two of my favorite troll stories: My all-time favorite was some craziness involving a guy calling himself Eric James Niemi, apparently a real guy who sold a script in 2001. The poster was clearly not the guy, but the dude went insane and just flamed everyone for several months, increasing in complexity and absurdity, almost the point where it seemed like a satire of Usenet trolling. I checked out of the group before it was resolved, so I’m not sure how it ended, but intrepid readers can check out Google Groups if they want to see some of the hilarity in action.

Another good one was more recent, with a guy (likely a bottom-rung intern, reader, or assistant) who got ahold of the screenplay for The Bucket List a few days before the sale was announced. He posted it on the group, claiming he wrote it and looking for feedback. This was actually a great example of trolling, because the guy only wrote the initial post, then stepped back and watched the chaos. While it’s true that many accused him of being a fraud, and he did begin trolling them, about 80% of the Bucket List fiasco revolved around regulars who loved the script versus regulars who hated it; the former justified their love by pointing out its high-profile sale and the attention it received from top-notch Hollywoodites, while the latter argued that all that’s meaningless because more goes into a decision than whether or not the script is brilliant.

So here comes the newest “troll,” a fellow posting under the innocuous pseudonym “studio.” He says he has a screenplay idea involving all of the following:

  • A high-profile true story that will (for reasons he won’t discuss) require what sounds like Babe-esque “realistic” animation for talking animals.
  • The story has already been made into an obscure movie (currently available only on VHS), but because it’s both true and because the movie concentrated on…well, I’m not sure what “studio” meant by this, but what I got out of it is that he wants to write about a character involved in this bigger, high-profile story—in my mind, something like Oliver Stone covering the Kennedy assassination by telling the (massively embellished) story of New Orleans D.A. Jim Garrison.
  • The true story apparently has some memorabilia/props affiliated with it that were purchased by a foreign studio, which “studio” considers interest in the project.
  • He also insisted that two studios had the same story in development recently, and that the story had been written as a magazine article, but there are somehow no rights issues involved. (He also said that, while he can go ahead and write his story because he won’t have to worry about rights, if anybody else attempts the story, he will sue the crap out of them. I laughed.)
  • His version of the story builds to what he referred to as an “anti-climax.” When posters asked what he meant by this, he said Bambi’s mother getting shot would be an apt comparison; when it was pointed out that Bambi’s mother’s death wasn’t the climax of Bambi, and that typically an “anti-climax” refers to an expectation that isn’t fulfilled, ultimately leading to disappointment, “studio” conceded that disappointment is the desired emotional response.

“studio” firmly believes that this story is so great, so powerful, and will be so well-told that he doesn’t have to worry about complicated things like finding an agent, getting it read at a studio, whatever. He’ll just submit it to a contest, it’ll win, a gigantic studio will buy it and pony up for the huge special effects budget he keeps talking about—everybody wins!

When regulars suggested that he choose a different medium, like writing a novel, he said no. Without elaborating, he said the “true” story would be too short to fill a book, which means he’d have to fictionalize it, which means he’d lose the integrity of the story. It has to be a screenplay. (This is when the magazine article bit came up—when it was suggested he write the true story as an article, he said, “It’s been done.”)

When regulars suggested audiences don’t like to leave the theatre disappointed, and therefore studios don’t like screenplays with disappointing endings, which means even if he does, by some miracle, get his script read, nobody will ever buy it. He didn’t really have an answer to this. Just agreed to disagree. In fact, he insisted repeatedly that he didn’t care if anybody read it or if it ever got made as a movie, but he also kept letting it slip that he really believed he could easily get it sold because any studio would want his story.

Finally, somebody made a disparaging remark about “studio”‘s personal character (a rare switch-up from the usual pattern of embittered newbies attacking regulars) after he admitted to being 48 and unemployed in New Jersey. This started “studio” on a path toward dissent. It’s actually the real irony of this guy—he’s a newbie, but he’s not a troll, and he’s actually in an age bracket where he’d probably get along with a few of the regulars. But after that personal attack, he started taking the less personal attacks (the ones telling him he’s ignorant and unrealistic about his goals) more seriously and, within a few days, disappeared. He started one other thread, asking about the street cred of the regulars, but he seemed unimpressed with the responses.

It’s pretty sad, too, because some of his questions—ignorant as they might have been—weren’t bad. It was only when people started asking for details, because of the weirder questions (like the one about whether or not a studio would be interested in memorabilia, like—I’m only guessing here—a lampshade made of human skin), that they scared him off. And then they barely even acknowledged his real screenwriting questions, which were all about directing on the page. They elected to answer by giving him the usual book recommendations and telling him to download pro scripts…

…which led to the logical question, “Why are all these screenplays filled with camera angles and what looks to me like directing on the page?” I’ve already gone into why I think it’s a bad idea for newbies to read produced scripts as a learning tool, but instead of politely explaining this*, they mostly belittled him.

I admit that this thread entertained me greatly; the weirder “studio”‘s script got, the more he hooked me. Still, I felt bad about the uselessness of the responses and the dismissal of “studio” as a troll when he was merely a confused guy and a dreamer looking for some help and insight.

*In fairness, I think one poster did answer the question, but it was still in the condescending “don’t you get it?!” tone most other posters had adopted by this point. [Back]

Edit, 4/14/08—Going over this message again, it comes across to me like I’m disgusted/irritated/fed up with the clichés and regulars of MSWm. I don’t read it regularly and haven’t contributed to any discussion since probably 2003, but I have a lot of respect for the regulars (except for Skip Press, who’s kind of a douchebag no matter what the thread) as both people and professionals. They all seem like a cool group, and I’d probably hang there more except, like I said, I have no interest in discussing politics on the Internet, and…that’s about 80-90% of that board.

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