Wednesday, November 27, 2013


It's been a busy year. Everyone I know is EXHAUSTED.

When I was a kid, I used to laugh at that whole 'time is money' concept. Growing up in Australian suburbia, all I had was time. 'How could this be worth money?', I thought.

Now, I get it.

And everyone gets a bit more frazzled as we get to this part of the year. Time is running short before the Xmas holidays. Tempers fray. You remember the list of things you wanted to get done this year. You frown as you realise that you only got through a portion of said list.

So, given we are all a bit world-weary, I thought I would share a good-news story. Something to remind you why you keep working at it, whatever 'it' is in your case.

I know, it often seems like you are making no progress. That no matter how much you swim, the shore seems to get farther and farther away.

Nothing could be more removed from the truth.

Assuming you are always pushing yourself to do your best work, always attempting to make something remarkable, you are making progress. You may not see that progress bear immediate fruit, of course, but that doesn't mean it isn't happening.

So, with that in mind, the other day an email popped up in my inbox from a friend. He is a photographer and documentary maker who has been pushing his limits and making better and better work over the years I have known him. A few times this has lead to some mainstream media exposure, but it hasn't converted completely into full-blown success. Yet.

He was slightly confused about an email he had received. He was concerned it may be a scam. The email read something to the effect of:


I have just seen your amazing (SHORT FILM/PHOTOGRAPH/ETC) online and wanted to get in touch.

I was really impacted by (SHORT FILM/PHOTOGRAPH/ETC). I and my team are really interested in you and your work. We thought it would be great to hear more. Are you interested in having a meeting or a phone hook-up to chat about your work and future projects?

At this point, I guess I can understand his caution.

But then, it finished with:

All the best,



The hilarious part of this whole story is that my friend had NO IDEA who they were.

I had to explain it to him. That is how focused on the quality of his work, rather than networking, he is.

The good news, for you and for him, is that his work has spoken for itself. It is garnering attention for him. As your work will for you.
So, enjoy the rest of the year. Do as much of your best work as you can in the last two months.

And remember, just because it feels like you are treading water, doesn't mean that the current isn't taking you somewhere great.

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Saturday, November 16, 2013


Once upon a time, there was a 79 year-old woman who received third-degree burns from a spilled cup of McDonald's coffee.

It was 1994, and I was 12 years old.

Funnily, I remember the story being on the news when it happened. Not just because the old lady, Stella Liebeck, was burned by coffee, of course. The story was a sensation because Stella had just received a court judgement of $2.9 million in damages.

It was a lightning rod.

The case prompted a worldwide media frenzy about whether a company should be held liable for a person spilling hot coffee on themselves. The huge compensation amount kicked the hornet's nest even more.

Endless news reports followed. Like a game of whispers, the facts of the case changed ever so slightly with each telling.

By the time the news cycle was finished, the old lady had been driving her car, holding the coffee between her legs, taken the lid off, and then spilled some of the boiling coffee onto herself.

Outrage! Horror! Rabble!

How could a person, even an old lady, not be held responsible for such personal negligence?

But instead, a United States civil jury rewarded her with the $2.9 million dollar judgement.

And, despite some media and public backlash, the old lady took her vast new fortune and lived happily ever after on the duplicitously-gotten proceeds.

Thus the story remained. A victory in the civil courts but a loss in the court of public opinion. For many years, in fact.

But then, the internet arrived.

And some solid facts of the story, or so they seemed, started to wobble.

Until finally, years later, another version of the story emerged via documentaries online.

The old lady was the passenger in the car, which didn't have cupholders. The car was stationary, parked in the McDonald's parking lot. She had indeed removed the lid, and was holding the cup between her knees. While pulling the far side of the lid off the cup, she spilled the whole thing onto her lap and groin. The burns, ultimately were to 16% of her body. She spent a week in hospital, incurring a $10,000 medical bill. Her ongoing medical expenses, for skin grafts and rehabilitation, pushed the total medical expenses up to $20,000. Her family wrote to McDonald's and tried several times to receive only a recompense for the medical costs. McDonald's offered $800 to close the matter. McDonald's were aware that they served their coffee extra hot, requiring 'franchisees to serve coffee at 180–190 °F (82.2–87.8 °C). At that temperature, the coffee would cause a third-degree burn in two to seven seconds', and a McDonald's representative 'conceded that McDonald's coffee would burn the mouth and throat if consumed when served.'

Oh, and that $2.9 million the old lady received?

Reduced to around $500,000 by the trial judge.

Quite a radically different story now, isn't it?

Once upon a time we were in the era of propaganda. Whatever stories were made and told became the single voice on the subject. The 'voice of God', almost.

Leni Riefenstahl made a career out of it, directing propaganda films for the Nazi's like 'Triumph of Will':

The power of the filmmaker was excessive in Riefenstahl's case, allowing her to shape a false, positive image of the barbarous Nazi regime.

It's a lot easier when you are the only voice in the room.

Then came an era of diverse artistic voices. More filmmakers arrived, each with different perspectives. The lone authority, the 'voice of God' was no more.

And then, 'filmmaking democratisation' happened. Suddenly, cameras were cheap. They didn't even use film anymore. Editing could be done on cheap computers now too. DVD's could be created by anyone, not just Hollywood studios. Youtube videos, as well.

A rapidly evolving media landscape. From one voice, to a few voices, to too many voices. All clamouring to be heard.

In this new environment, the crowded room, you can start to doubt yourself. A filmmaker can start to wonder, why does it matter if I have a story to tell at all?

And the answer is Stella Liebeck.

An old lady who endured 3rd degree burns and a wave of unwarranted public outrage as her story was warped and twisted against her by a small number of powerful voices: the media.

The same old lady who, through the amazing new capability we have to make films more cheaply, and to make them available online so easily, can finally have her story told correctly.

It just had to wait until we were ready.

So much content is not discovered by audiences instantly anymore. Only the biggest players are in the instant attention and hype business. But hype doesn't last.

If told well, your film simmers. Passing organically from audience member to audience member. Growing in awareness and reaching more and more people over time.

That it is not an instant sensation does not diminish the quality of your story.

So, yes, your story matters. If it is good. If it is told well. It may just have to wait until we are ready for it.

Have a cup of coffee...err...water...cold water, while you wait.

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Thursday, November 07, 2013


Why do writers get all huffy about their "respect"?

Writing scripts is easy.

You just need a cup of coffee, an idea and something to type it with.

Hell, with today's screenplay formatting software, you don't even need to tinker with the different formatting between dialogue, description, and character names. The writing software does it all for you.

So, even a monkey could write a script, if given a laptop and enough bananas as incentive.



No, actually.

And sadly, I come across this attitude towards writing quite frequently.

I'm not talking about ambition. The idea of someone saying they can do something difficult is very different to declaring that same challenge is easy.

Ambition still implies respect.

Declaring the pursuit of writing as 'easy', on the other hand, is akin to the broadest disrespect for the craft. And it is a craft. You have to sculpt characters, create narrative, bound them together in structure, and, if that wasn't difficult enough, make the reader/audience care enough about the whole endeavour to actually FEEL something at the conclusion of the story.

Noah had an easier job.

And yet, still, the writers are taken for granted.

Take this scenario: do you think, from a sample of 16 million people in the general public, you would be able to source a script good enough to be made into a film?

If your answer is no, what if that same group didn't have to come up with the original idea, just to write the script based on a story idea they are given? Would that change your mind?

Surely, given writing is so easy, someone would have submitted a script of notable quality. A secret enclave of talent was finally discovered?


And I can say that with authority because it has been tried. Recently, in fact.

Paul Verhoeven, the noted director of 'Robocop' and 'Basic Instinct' completed this experiment in his native country of Holland.

The results were, to put it delicately, awful. But I will let Verhoeven speak for himself on the quality of the submissions:

“You know,” he says, “there may well be some talent out there waiting to be found. But frankly – I doubt it...We actually found the whole process a headache. Because no, the public can’t write – not professionally, anyway..."


But that's for a feature film. Perhaps if it were for something more free-flowing, and a little crass, like a 'Simpson's' cartoon? Surely, someone from a large sample of the public could produce a 'Simpson's' script worth making? How much skill does it take to make Homer Simpson look like an ignorant and oafish middle-aged man?

'Without doubt, the most mathematically sophisticated television show in the history of primetime broadcasting is The Simpsons...Al Jean, who worked on the first series and is now executive producer, went to Harvard University to study mathematics at the age of just 16. Others have similarly impressive degrees in maths, a few can even boast PhDs, and Jeff Westbrook resigned from a senior research post at Yale University to write scripts for Homer, Marge and the other residents of Springfield.'


Apparently, the Simpsons is written by mathematical prodigies and geniuses, who have made a career of inserting complex mathematical equations and theorems amongst the numerous witticisms on Evergreen Terrace.

'The first proper episode of the series in 1989 contained numerous mathematical references (including a joke about calculus), while the infamous "Treehouse of Horror VI" episode presents the most intense five minutes of mathematics ever broadcast to a mass audience. Moreover, The Simpsons has even offered viewers an obscure joke about Fermat's last theorem, the most notorious equation in the history of mathematics.'

Maybe this writing business is not as easy as is often suggested?

Perhaps, to be good enough to capture the attention and mindshare of millions of people around the world, writers have to develop a skill level that goes beyond strong coffee and formatting software?

Now, that shouldn't be a deterrent to anyone who wants to write for a living. It just means that, if you are serious about it, you must realise that great writers make it look easy. But it's not.

You have to make mistakes. Develop your skills. Learn the craft.

But learning always starts with acknowledging the skill that we don't yet have and admitting that these gaps need to be bridged. That takes humility.

And it starts with respect.

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