Monthly Archives: July 2014


I cried this morning watching a movie trailer. Real tears.

Of absolute joy.

I have a friend. His name is Howard Scott Warshaw. We met when I was teaching a screenwriting seminar in San Jose California at least ten years ago. It was at a time when I shouldn’t have been teaching screenwriting as I really knew nothing. But I had just optioned the first script I ever wrote to Tina Sinatra & Norman Lear and a studio (Polygram) and it was on its way to… ok… not getting made. (But that’s another story.)

I thought I was hot shit. So I wanted to teach what I thought I knew to strangers and take money for the privilege.

Had a bunch of people sign up, too. More than a dozen, including Howard.

I do regret my hubris at thinking I was in any position to teach something I’m still learning now, even with the last three years of success and what’s on the drawing board for the future. But the one thing that makes me grateful about that whole experience is that I found what has become a close genuine life-long friendship with Howard, a man who is beyond cool. A man who, since his days as an Atari Wunderkid (where I didn’t know him, but is why I cried), was trying to find himself and what his next steps would be in life. I caught him when he was in his filmmaking stage. He’d already made one documentary about his Atari experience, Once Upon Atari, and had found some success. It’s a wonderful documentary and still available on Amazon. (I’m pimping for him without his knowledge right now). And he produced some wonderful videos for the State of California on a pre-school education project and made another Documentary called, “Vice & Consent” a kind of a clinical look at the S&M subculture that’s now being used as a teaching tool in some college courses around the country.

He also wrote books about how to get into college that sold pretty well. Ok… so… he’s kind of a Renaissance Man. But he was still searching for himself and for a place he could land and feel his real worth.

That has come in two steps… one is Sherri. His amazing wife. They met on a dating website. They fell in love. She got very very sick and they thought they were going to have a very short time together, but married anyway. And damn, if true love doesn’t conquer all. She beat a sure death sentence. Beat it with him at her side, unwavering. And they remain one of the happiest, in love, couples I have ever known. You look up “Happily Married” in the dictionary and their picture is next to it.

The second was his life changing decision to, at NOT a young age, go back to college and become a Psychotherapist. And like everything else he’s tackled in his life, this last year he accomplished that too, opening his practice in Los Altos, Ca.

He is my great and glorious friend and I love him like a brother. He’s also been my cheerleader as I tried to break into the film business as a writer, living the ups and mostly downs with me. And has celebrated my recent successes as much as anyone. Something I will always be grateful for.

And he’s been to more BSides Concerts than anyone except my other great friend Andre, who has been to them all.

Ok. Backstory complete.

Time to talk about why someone like Zak Penn would make a film about my friend Howard.

Howard has a lot going for him, true. But he has an infamous claim to fame that makes him an icon. Those of you old enough to remember the Atari 2600, know Howard’s work. As a game designer he designed one of the most innovative games of all time. “Yar’s Revenge”. It owns a place at the MOMA in New York it’s so iconic. But alas… the film is not about that. No.

Howard designed the game credited with taking down an entire industry at the time. E.T. Yes, he is the man who singlehandedly designed what is considered the worst video game in gaming history. Most anticipated at the time and a colossal failure. So much of a failure that is birthed an Urban Legend of Epic Proportions. Legend had it that Atari had so many copies of ET sitting on its shelves, millions of copies, that it put them in dump trucks and buried them in a dump site in Alamogordo, New Mexico. For years and years this urban legend grew. Everywhere Howard went he was asked if he thought they were there. His answer was always, even when I asked, “No.”

Enter Zak Penn. Zak has made a documentary about just that. About Howard. About Atari. About the ET game. And he dug up the dump site in Alamogordo looking for the cartridges.

Howard called me from Comic Con this morning. He was on a panel with Zac Penn and Nolan Bushnell (the founder of Atari) yesterday and they showed the documentary last night to a packed crowd. He laughed. He cried. And I was happy to just share a piece of it over the phone. Howard’s story and the story of the ET game and its impact on an industry and the debunking or affirming of one of the all time urban legends is truly worth a film.

Zac Penn and Micrsoft thought so, too. So I say… thank you Zak. I don’t know you though we work in the same industry, but that’s ok, I don’t know a whole of lot of people. But you couldn’t have picked a more worthy and more wonderful person to spotlight.

Here’s the trailer that made me cry:

It’s been more than a couple of weeks since I’ve last blogged. Not that there weren’t things to write about, but it’s been deadline-mania around here lately. The last one went in Monday and I find myself truly unemployed for the first time since January. During that time it’s been a cornucopia of rewrite work for Production Companies, Producers, Development Execs, and Directors. Work on five different films, four of which are my original spec scripts (one written with the wonderful Jeff Willis). Two of them for cable networks and two that are theatrical.

The other was a hired page one rewrite job on someone else’s script for a production company which I may or may not get screen credit for. (However, the checks cleared). And it looks like maybe three of them are heading for production this year, one starting July 30, for sure. The other two of the five put off until 2015. Or not made at all. That’s what’s so hard about this business.

And as I look forward to a little time off, I also worry about where the next job will come from and when it will come. That’s the lot of anyone who works as an independent contractor, like most film writers do. I may not work again this year. I hope so, but there’s nothing on the horizon right now. So I’ll be writing more specs, reworking my pilot, and rewriting older specs in the meantime. Use it or lose it.

As I have said before, all of my produced/credited films have been for Cable Networks, mostly for the Hallmark Channel, which has been interesting because my natural proclivity is toward darker material. All of my optioned feature specs… hell… my entire two foot tall stack of specs are all kind of dark and/or twisted, including the comedies. So having to NOT write like that for Production Companies and Networks with a narrow brand has been good for me, expanding my abilities to keep my own voice yet walk those lines drawn that you cannot color over.

Where is this going? To talk about what happens to YOUR original when you option it to a Production Company or Network who wants it to fit their brand. Which is all of them.

Jeff Willis, who is a VP at a very well known and large Production Entity, is also my sometimes writing partner. We met on an Internet Board years ago and a real life friendship came out of it. And out of that, and I can’t remember which of us said it, came, “Hey. Let’s write a script together.”

We proceeded to write three over a couple of years. A dark funny anti-romantic comedy, “The Right Girl” where the two people don’t get together at the end. A Monster Movie, “The Ogre”, with a great original premise, that’s sly, violent, very funny, and gruesome. And a big grand Action/Adventure Spy Movie, “Family Bonds”, with a killer premise. Two of them are still available, by the way. The anti-romantic comedy is going into production July 30. Only… it’s no longer an anti-romantic comedy. The two people do get together and love wins. How did that happen? Not by accident.

A production company optioned The Right Girl about a year and a half ago. In that time Jeff and I have done six (6) paid full rewrites of the script for them, taking it from the snarky anti-romantic comedy it was to the still kind of snarky in places fun true romantic comedy it has become. More than a few different people from the company and the network have given us notes over the last 18 months at different times. Our main Protagonist, a woman who travels from narcissist to empowered woman (with or without a man) has basically stayed put. (She was the reason they bought it to begin with and I’m glad they kept her journey reasonably the same). She’s a lot less profane and all of the overly sharp edges have been ground down, but her personal journey to redemption still isn’t powered by her growing love for a man. The real love happens between them because she’s changed on her own.

But beyond that… if you read our original optioned draft and the production draft I sent in yesterday, you’d barely recognize it as the same script. Our major original premise point is gone, replaced by a different one they wanted instead. Our antagonist doesn’t even exist anymore. Characters and their arcs we loved are gone. Gone. Replaced by other new and different characters that fit the new paradigm. Characters retained have different agendas and needs. Some have changed sex. Some have changed age.

Don’t get me wrong. Jeff and I were given fairly free reign to make these new characters and their story arcs our own, as long as we stayed inside the lines. We skirted the edge and got away a lot of it, but we always stuck to the spirit of their notes, which is what you do when you want to keep doing this.

And we did a good enough job that they didn’t bring in any other writers to rewrite us. We wrote every version from the original to the production script. The Production Exec told us that’s never happened with them before. They always bring on other writers. So we’re feeling pretty damn good about that.

But if we had been so married to our original that we couldn’t or wouldn’t have made the huge wholesale changes that have been made to it to get it where they’re actually spending millions to makes it, we would have been replaced faster than you can imagine. And the new writer or writers may have gotten writing credit for the film with us.

Your original script, no matter how much you love it, cherish it, and do not want to see it changed, is only a suggested starting point if you want to see it get made. Unless YOU put the money up yourself, it is going to get changed and probably changed as much as ours was. As a screenwriter you have to learn to live with that or have a very very short career.

Do we like the new version? The one THAT’S GOING TO GET MADE and play on Cable for years and years to come? Yes. We do. It’s not the film we originally wrote, but it’s a damn good script. The notes we got work for what the Network and Production Company need. Did we get notes we thought were wonky at times? You bet. But we fought for what we wanted, still understanding our limitations, and most of the time prevailed. It’s going to be a cute funny film and better than a whole lot in the same category, I think. The Production Company thinks so, too. They’ve told us as much.

They are building the sets on soundstages right now. Offers are out to stars. Casting is in full swing. A director I like a lot and have worked with before has been hired. And we’re been invited to set anytime we want to go. We’ll be taking them up on it.