Saturday, February 17, 2018

Guest Post: Perspective and balance by Jerry Amernic

The call came on a Wednesday morning. They were a group whose guest speaker had suddenly taken ill and was in the hospital, and could I come and take his place. And when might that be?

The very next day.

Well, they say it’s best to be flexible in life and so, I did it. My topic was A Crusader for Preserving History and while it was short notice – this was as short as it gets – I did manage to bring some books and give them an hour of my schtick which sort of goes like this.

First, put them at ease and offer to speak to their book clubs; this particular group had four of them! Then explain that I’m a writer who talks about heroes, history and ‘perspective.’ What does that mean?

Remember the movie ‘Back to the Future?’ It takes place in 1985 and Marty McFly returns to the 1950s where he tells the crazy scientist played by Christopher Lloyd about the future.

“Who’s the President in 1985?” Lloyd asks.

“Ronald Reagan,” McFly says.

“The actor?” replies the surprised Lloyd. “Who’s the Vice President? Jerry Lewis?”

Funny as that exchange was then, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched now. In 2018. Because it’s all about perspective. We’ve been there, we’ve seen the future and anything is possible.

That accomplished, the presentation continues with a discussion about my books – fiction and non-fiction – and the hero in each of them. And not losing sight of this thing called perspective.

Perspective means you can be a college student who just saw the film ‘Dunkirk’ and loved it, but you don’t know who Winston Churchill was.

Perspective means you can be a refugee from a war-torn country who comes to the West only to wonder what everyone is complaining about over here.

Perspective means you can be a woman who’s fed up with a lifetime of men taking advantage and so, you take part in a march and carry a sign that says ‘Men ruin everything’ and really believe it.

It’s all about perspective. But alas, each of us has different experiences and tends to reach conclusions based on what we know, what we’ve done or what we were told.

This could be why so many people hate so many other people. And yet, perspective is a two-edged sword. On one hand, it can open up the world and on the other, it can be a killer.

In a court proceeding, they start with a Statement of Facts which is a good starting point as long as we realize that an apple is an apple and a banana is a banana. However, nowadays that is fast becoming a blur with so many charlatans out there who put their own fanciful spin on history with alternative facts, fake news, what have you.

Which makes the Statement of Facts more important than ever.

Jerry Amernic is a Canadian writer of fiction and non-fiction books. He is the author of the  Holocaust-related novel 'The Last Witness' and the biblical-historical thriller 'QUMRAN'


Jerry Amernic
Ph: 416-284-0838
Mobile: 416-707-8456

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

In Conversation with Dennis Palumbo about HEAD WOUNDS

Mike Barson: HEAD WOUNDS is the fifth novel in your series about psychologist Daniel Rinaldi, who consults with the Pittsburgh police. Unlike some authors, you do not write a new book every year… Is that because you spend a lot of time doing research for each new entry?

Dennis Palumbo: Research is always an important aspect of each novel, but the primary reason for the gap between books is that I have a full-time private therapy practice (35-40 patients a week). So my writing time is pretty much limited to lunch hours and the weekends. I’d love to put out a new book every year, but given my current clinical schedule, it’s not possible.

MB: Even though you have lived in Los Angeles for decades, you continue to set the Rinaldi series in your hometown of Pittsburgh. What are a couple of the things you particularly love about Pittsburgh?

DP: There are too many to list, but I’d definitely start with the people—friendly, colorful, opinionated, and with familial roots going back generations. Certainly true of my Italian family, tracing back to immigrants who arrived at Ellis Island. Then, as a locale in which to set a mystery series, the city itself is an intriguing amalgam of old and new, transitioning from a blue collar, industrial town into a white collar, state-of-the-art tech hub. As you might imagine, this has resulted in an uneasy clash of cultures that I get to explore in my Rinaldi series.

MB: As a licensed psychotherapist, you have knowledge that is not available to us civilians… Have you ever drawn on that expertise to help shape the villains in this series?

DP: Yes, primarily from my earliest clinical work as a staff member at a psychiatric facility. Plus all the research I’ve done on psychopathology and various personality disorders. In terms of how Daniel Rinaldi helps victims of violent crime, I was privileged to work with one of the nation’s leading trauma experts, Dr. Robert Stolorow. My fictional psychologist incorporates much of the wisdom I gleaned from those years when treating these patients.

MB: Growing up, were there mystery authors whom you admired particularly? Did any of them influence your approach to the Rinaldi novels once you commenced writing them?

DP: Wow, so many to mention! I loved Holmes as a kid, and devoured Rex Stout and Dickson Carr. As an adult, I discovered Chandler and Hammett, as well as Patrica Highsmith, Ruth Rendell and Ross MacDonald. For influences on my Rinaldi novels I’d have to say, first, Michael Connelly’s Bosch books. I also love Dennis Lehane, Richard Price, the late Sue Grafton, and Jeffrey Deaver.

MB: Have you ever received a comment or suggestion from a fan that you subsequently incorporated into one of the Rinaldi books?

DP: Yes, many times over the years. In particular, I’m always amused by fans who live in or know the Pittsburgh area. They rarely comment on the characters or plot, but point out that I have a street name wrong, or I that I mentioned a building that’s been torn down. My favorite comment was from a Pittsburgh city planner, who said she loved my books but felt that the route I describe for Rinaldi’s trip home from work doesn’t make sense given the rush hour traffic. So she laid out a better route, which I adapted and used in the fourth book, Phantom Limb. I even gave her an acknowledgement at the front of the book.

MB: When you are reading for pleasure, whose work among your fellow contemporary crime writers do you particularly enjoy?

DP: Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane, Sue Grafton, Thomas Perry, and Tim Hallinan. I also like Gillian Flynn, Robert Crais, Richard Price, Jeffrey Siger and April Smith. Again, I’m sure I’m forgetting dozens of wonderful authors whose names won’t occur to me until later!

HEAD WOUNDS is published by Poisoned Pen Press

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Monday, February 12, 2018

9 Powerful Secrets That Will Supercharge Your Fiction

Secrets are the engine that keep a story moving forward.

by Ruth Harris



Everyone has them.

Every book must have at least one because secrets are the jet-powered engine that propels fiction forward. Ever notice how many blurbs in the daily BookBub email include the word secret?

Secrets provide motivation, plot, character, even a setting (a haunted house, anyone?) From Madame Bovary to Carrie, from Rebecca to Big Little Lies, from thrillers to romance, from mystery to women’s fiction to sci-fi, every story revolves around a secret.

Secrets ripple outward and can produce unexpected consequences a writer can take advantage of. Secrets need to be protected, denied, defended, and excused. This means they will have predictable (and unforeseen) consequences. These consequences will affect the people who guard them, excuse them, or wilfully blind themselves to their existence.

People with secrets are good at keeping them—until they’re not—or else until some external event spills the beans.

For example: a nuclear leak from a secret underground testing site that becomes a global headline. The slip up—the “tell”—will then become a major turning point in a novel.

In fiction, secrets must be revealed, and the tension secrets create must be resolved. As you plot, plan or pants your book, you will find that a well-chosen secret will provide you with a focus.

That focus will energize your writing—and your book.

1. Secrets With A Silver Lining
Silver lining secrets can work well in romance or cozy mysteries.

What if someone finds out that the Famous TV Chef thinks the local greasy spoon makes better french fries? Yes, better than than the ones FTC makes in her fancy, custom-designed, multimillion-dollar kitchen.

While that might be embarrassing, it won’t kill anyone unless someone adds poison. (That could work in a thriller or a mystery). Of course, that might not even necessarily end the FTC’s career. With shrewd PR, the Greasy Spoon Affair could make that chef even more famous. As long as the FTC doesn’t serve Greasy Spoon fries for $35 a pop in her pricey restaurant and pass them off as his/her own. Then someone might call fraud and costly lawsuits might ensue.

And a cute, sexy lawyer might appear to make all the bad stuff disappear and provide a HEA for our beleaguered heroine.

2. State Secrets

State Secrets are the meat and bones of thrillers from Eric Ambler and John Buchan to Charles McCarry, Ian Fleming and John Le Carré. The plots of spy novels revolve around characters adept at uncovering secrets, keeping secrets, stealing secrets and, in The Manchurian Candidate by Richard Condon, secretly transformed by brainwashing into a deadly weapon—a sleeper assassin, programmed to kill without question or mercy.

The cast of characters holding state secrets also include—

    The spy who can’t be trusted: the treacherous double agent.
    The scientist—mad or otherwise—who has created—by accident or on purpose—the formula for a new, population-decimating chemical weapon.
    A powerful world leader—a paragon of enlightened leadership or a Stalin-esque dictator—suffering from a fatal disease or destructive neurological condition that must be concealed—or else!
    An secret international conspiracy—ever hear of a well-publicized conspiracy?—whose goal is world domination.
    A top-secret assassination plot the hero must uncover and stop.
    A fatherly-looking but secretly demented, power-crazed lunatic who threatens the stability of international financial markets and, thus, world peace itself.

3. Secret Baby

A classic trope, the secret baby often—but not always—occurs as a romance subgenre. To mention only a few, there are SEAL’s Secret Babies, Vampire Secret Babies, and Billionaire’s Secret Babies. You will find lists of secret baby romance novels at FictionDB, at GoodReads and at SmartBitchesTrashyBooks.

In my novel, Love And Money,  (Get it free with the link below…Anne) , the mistress and the wife of a wealthy man deliver babies at almost the same time. The half-sisters, who do not know of each other’s existence, grow up in different worlds, one a beautiful, indulged heiress, the other a wrong-side-of-the-tracks neglected child, a dramatic disparity that allowed me to write about class, envy, privilege, resentment and ambition.

4. Family Secrets

Family secrets take a starring role in sagas and women’s fiction—and in memoirs.

    An upstanding citizen who is in reality a deadbeat dad who might—or might not—reconcile with his children.
    A PTA shining star but secretly neglectful mom who might—or might not—see the error of her ways.
    The sibling who stealthily cheats his brother/sister out of his/her inheritance
    The rich/powerful/vindictive/creepy relative no one wants to cross.
    A family fortune created through hard work and persistence—or was it?
    The alcoholic/mentally ill relative whose erratic, unpredictable behavior affects several generations.
    An accidental death that wasn’t so “accidental”
    The blurb for Alan Cumming’s #1 New York Times bestselling memoir, Not My Father’s Son, refers to “deeply buried family secrets that shaped his life and career.”

5. Dark Secrets

These are the secrets that form the spine of mysteries.

    How’d they do it?
    How can the MC track down the bad guy or gal?

When someone shoots aging bad-girl rocker Morgan Le Fay and threatens to finish the job in Anne’s The Lady of the Lakewood Diner, people assume the perp’s a fan of Morgan’s legendary dead rock-god husband. However, the real reason for the attack may be a secret buried in Morgan’s hometown where her childhood best friend may be the only person who knows the dark secret that can save Morgan’s life.

Anne uses that one secret to propel the plot forward throughout the book.

6. Open Secrets

Open secrets are the emperor-has-no-clothes, Harvey Weinstein, Jerry Sandusky, women’s gymnastics’ category of secrets. These are the secrets that can be used to ensnare numerous connected characters who might or might not be related.

Open secrets create a Potemkin Village faux reality in which characters who need to protect themselves from exposure—and consequences—pretend not to know what they actually do know. Lost in a web of confusion, deceit, evasion and denial, these characters are forced by circumstances over which they have no control to become liars, hypocrites, and classic unreliable narrators.

“Everyone knows” but no one says anything—until someone does—at which point your plot attains jet speed velocity.
Open secrets can be played for drama—or even for humor.

    The Big Boss is a predatory sexual abuser so people who must work with or for him keep their distance, whisper warnings to others, know better than to share an elevator or after-work drink with him, go to great lengths to make sure they are never trapped alone in his office/hotel room with him.
    No one admits that Uncle Jim is an incompetent screw-up who can’t keep a job. However, when he wears a suit and tie, he looks like he belongs in a boardroom—until he insults a powerful CEO. At which point, the company’s stock takes off and everyone gets rich by mistake and Uncle Jim is forced to straighten up and fly right.
    Aunt Susie has a shoplifting problem but the family pays off stores to keep her out of jail and her “problem” is never mentioned—until she lifts a hundred-thousand dollar diamond ring and, this time, the family can’t afford to pay and all hell breaks loose.
    Cousin Bill, captain of the football team, has tried suicide several times, but the family refuses to admit/confront his mental health issues—until he is photographed pointing a gun to his head on the sidelines at the Big Game.
    Niece Eileen is about to marry her long-time girlfriend but none of the family will help her pick out her dress or plan her wedding because “everyone knows no one in our family is gay.” Drama, tears, laughter, and hugs ensue.

7. Secrets We Keep from Ourselves

These are the character-driven secrets. In We Need To Talk About Kevin, Lionel Shriver unveils a bleak reality as the MC reveals feelings about motherhood, marriage, and family kept secret until her young son murders classmates and she is forced to confront her own possible responsibility.

Other examples:

Your MC is an addiction expert who doesn’t realize his/her own kid is an addict. S/he misses the signs: the switch to long sleeve shirts or blouses, the constant need for money, the requests for “loans” that don’t get repaid, the frequent questions about “when will you be home?” so your MC never sees his/her kid high.

The wife who doesn’t see tip-offs to her husband’s affair although the clues are in plain sight.

In my NYT bestseller, Decades, Evelyn Bain sees signs of her husband’s affair all around her. The unexplained late nights at the office. The way he disappears for weekends for “business.” His provocative banter with his friends about their extra-marital sexual exploits. But she denies their meaning to herself. Until the secret is dramatically revealed and Evelyn’s life is turned upside down.

8. Secret Dreams

Secret dreams provide the skeleton of Cinderella stories. They often lie at the heart of romance in which the couple need to unlock each others’ secrets in order to achieve their HEA.

    The girl (or guy) jilted/left at the altar who has vowed never to fall in love again—until s/he meets Ms. or Mr. Right. But they must resolve the injury of the past.
    The couple who break up but meet again and must work through the secret anger/misunderstanding that has kept them apart.
    The gorgeous guy who has women falling all over him, but who secretly yearns to find The One.
    The beautiful, successful entrepreneur who doesn’t have time for romance—but secretly longs to be swept off her feet.

9. Secret Super Power?

Fabulous, fantastic, incredible, killer first drafts.

Read more at Anne R. Allen's Blog... with Ruth Harris

This a wonderfully informative and entertaining blog.  I recommend checking it out.

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Female Filmmakers Dominated the Sundance Awards, But That Doesn’t Guarantee a Career Boost

 Maggie Gyllenhaal and Parker Sevak appear in The Kindergarten Teacher by Sara Colangelo, an official selection of the U.S. Dramatic Competition at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Courtesy of Sundance Institute.  All photos are copyrighted and may be used by press only for the purpose of news or editorial coverage of Sundance Institute programs. Photos must be accompanied by a credit to the photographer and/or 'Courtesy of Sundance Institute.' Unauthorized use, alteration, reproduction or sale of logos and/or photos is strictly prohibited.

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the annual event broke some of its own barriers, doling out each of its four directing awards to female filmmakers. For the first time in the festival’s 34-year history, directing prizes went only to women, spanning all four major categories — narrative and documentary, U.S. and world cinema: Sara Colangelo (“The Kindergarten Teacher”), Alexandria Bombach (“On Her Shoulders”), Sandi Tan (“Shirkers”), and Isold Uggadottir (“And Breathe Normally”). The festival’s juries also awarded Desiree Akhavan’s “The Miseducation of Cameron Post” the Grand Jury Prize, the festival’s highest honor; Sundance’s sole dedicated screenplay honor, the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award, went to Christina Choe for “Nancy.”

In short, it was a big festival for women. But what does winning an award at Sundance actually mean for female filmmakers? How does it impact future projects? Does it guarantee further success in the industry? None of those questions have an easy answer.

The festival only started giving out dedicated directing awards in 1998 – before that, any prize that singled out a filmmaker fell under the banner of “special jury prize” – and even then, they were simply divided up into “dramatic” and “documentary” sections, with no differentiation between the world cinema and U.S. slates. Ten years later, the festival began giving out four directing prizes total, one for each competition section.

Prior to 2018, the best showing for women directors was way back in 2008, when they won three of the four prizes. While the U.S. dramatic directing award went to Lance Hammer for “Ballast,” Anna Melikyan and Nino Kirtadze dominated the world cinema front, and documentarian Nanette Burstein won for her U.S. documentary “American Teen.”

Mostly, though, directing prizes for female filmmakers have been limited to about one a year, with a slight uptick taking hold in 2012, when the prizes began to be more evenly split along gender lines. There were some lean years, though, including 2001, 2005, and 2006, when no women won a directing award.
Debra Granik on the set of "Leave No Trace"

In 2010, Debra Granik won both the Grand Jury Prize and the Waldo Salt for her lauded “Winter’s Bone,” even though the dramatic directing award ultimately went to Eric Mendelsohn for “3 Backyards.” Similarly, in 2016, female filmmakers picked up three of the four Grand Jury Prizes, though none of them earned a directing prize to match. Talk about mixed signals.

The female filmmakers who have been honored by Sundance’s jury run the gamut from household names like Ava DuVernay and Jill Soloway to anomalies like Barbara Sonneborn and Tinatin Gurchiani, who have yet to follow up their wins with new projects. There’s no guarantee that winning a Sundance award will catapult a career to new heights, and even for the most recognizable of filmmakers, it wasn’t their Sundance wins that pushed them over the top.

DuVernay and Soloway won directing awards in the U.S. dramatic section in 2012 and 2013, respectively. Both have gone on to huge successes: DuVernay is the first woman of color to direct a $100M+ live-action film, while Soloway’s beloved Amazon series “Transparent” has earned them two Emmys so far. However, it wasn’t their Sundance wins that immediately catapulted them into such huge projects.

DuVernay first made “Selma” before getting the chance to make “A Wrinkle in Time,” while Soloway has said that “Transparent” was partially spawned by audience backlash to “Afternoon Delight.” They didn’t benefit from what Akhavan herself has termed the “Colin Trevorrow moment,” i.e. being a white male director who gets a huge opportunity after screening a well-regarded film at the festival. (While Trevorrow’s Sundance breakout, “Safety Not Guaranteed,” did win a Sundance award, it was for screenwriting and went only to writer Derek Connolly; Trevorrow was later hired to direct “Jurassic World.”)

Another big name that scored her first batch of good buzz at Sundance? Catherine Hardwicke, who won the dramatic directing award for her debut “thirteen” in 2003. Even with that accolade under her belt, Hardwicke didn’t get her first arguably big film until “Twilight,” five years later (she directed a pair of other films before her YA vampire offering, but both had budgets under $30 million).

Karyn Kusama similarly won a directing award for her own debut, “Girlfight,” in 2000, though she didn’t direct another film for five years. Like DuVernay, her career is on a major upswing, but it wasn’t a result of some immediate response to her Sundance win. The same goes for Debra Granik, who won a directing award for her first film, “Down to the Bone,” at Sundance in 2004 and didn’t make another film for six years. That feature, “Winter’s Bone,” served as Jennifer Lawrence’s big breakout and earned a pair of nods for Granik. She returned to the festival this year with her latest, “Leave No Trace.”

Other Sundance winners have struggled to translate their very important wins into new work. The first winner of the documentary directing award, Julia Loktev, eventually turned to narrative films, but has only made two since her “Moment of Impact” won in 1998. Still other winners have yet to make another film, including 1999 doc winner Barbara Sonnenborn, 2013 doc winner Tinatin Gurchiani, and 2017 doc winner Pascale Lamche. And there’s also “Beach Rats” director Eliza Hittman, who won just last year and continues to top lists of female filmmakers to watch, but has not yet locked down an official next project. When she won her prize at Sundance, she said in her acceptance speech: “There is nothing more taboo in this country than a woman with ambition. Hollywood, I’m coming for you.”

It’s in the documentary section that many filmmakers have been able to move beyond their big Sundance wins. Heavy hitters like Lauren Greenfield (who just returned to the festival with her “Generation Wealth”) and Kim Longinotto (the 2015 winner for “Dreamcatcher”) are not only still working, but didn’t necessarily require the attention of the festival to break out. Longinotto, in fact, had made nearly 20 films before Sundance gave her an award.

Rebecca Cammisa – who co-directed the doc winner “Sister Helen” alongside Rob Fruchtman – has worked steadily since her 2002 win, including offerings in both film and television. Similarly, “American Teen” filmmaker Nanette Burstein continues to create in both film and television, narrative and documentary. Andrea Nix, who won for her 2007 doc “War Dance,” is still working in documentary realm. Nino Kirtadze has made three additional documentaries after her 2008 win for “Durakovo: Village of Fools.”

In 2009, both the U.S. and world cinema documentary awards went to women, and “Afghan Star” director Havana Marking has since made two films. Natalia Almada made one more documentary and moved to narrative filmmaking with “8” and “Everything Else.”

There are recent signs of life for narrative directors, too. “52 Tuesdays” director Sophie Hyde is prepping her first narrative after her 2014 win, a big screen take on Emma Jane Unsworth’s novel “Animals.” Another winner in 2014, “20,000 Days on Earth” co-director Sophie Hyde recently moved into narrative television with “Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories.” Alanté Kavaïté, who wrote and directed 2015 winner “The Summer of Sangaile,” recently wrote the twisty sci-fi noir “Evolution.”

For now, however, there is much work to be done. Sundance may have lauded some of our finest filmmakers – gender notwithstanding – but even walking away from the country’s most important film festival with a shiny award doesn’t guarantee a huge career boost, greater name recognition, or even the ammo for the next project. For so many female filmmakers, that’s a story they already know.

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Tuesday, February 6, 2018

10 Questions to Ask Yourself if You Want to Write a Book

1. Publisher or self-publish: The publishing world has changed dramatically in recent years and the Internet has made self-publishing considerably easier. If you self-publish you have full control of your book, but also bear all costs. A publisher is harder to secure and will have control over some decisions, but also absorbs many costs (e.g., printing, distribution, cover art) and also gains access to critical distribution channels, including identifying outlets to review your book.

2. Agent or no agent: With an agent you give a portion of your royalties to them. Literary agents work on a commission basis and are incented to find you the best deal so that their payout increases when you sell books. Though you give up some of your royalties, an agent is often your best chance to get your book proposal reviewed by a major publishing house.

3. Publicist or no publicist: Publicists bring access that is hard for many people to get on their own. They identify media outlets such as television shows, newspapers, and podcasts to bring valuable exposure to you and your book. The best publicists can cost tens of thousands of dollars and you will have to consider if their services are worth it to you.

4. What is the book's "hook": Every book needs a quick and compelling hook that captures attention. This is always needed to draw in potential readers/buyers, but also literary agents, publishers, and publicists if you go that route.

5. Who is the target audience: Don't try to pretend your book is for everyone - all books have a more targeted market. If you decide to use a publisher they will want to know exactly whom you are targeting and how big the audience is. They will also want to know how your book is different from similar books that have been written and if it has relevance to sell outside your home country. The target audience will also help you decide who to ask to "blurb" or endorse your book.

6. Write or ghost write: You would be surprised how many books are written by someone other than the stated author. Ghost writers are sought after and can make anyone come across as a gifted writer. Authors may not have time to write a book or find that a professional writer is better able to capture the voice they want to convey.   

7. What is my platform: This one must be alive well before you publish your book. You must consider the best way to bring visibility to your book and contemplate platform options such as your standing as a well-known expert, your social media presence, professional speeches, access to different constituencies, etc.

8. What are my goals: Consider the reason you are writing a book to help hone your focus, especially because the outcomes are not always connected. You might want to make a lot of money but not care about getting great reviews. You way just want to build your brand by getting your name out there. You may want to achieve critical acclaim for your book even if it doesn't make a lot of money (think Indie films). Not everyone can be a NYT best selling author, but you can be pleased with the outcome if you know your goals in advance.

9. What format will the book be: You have many options. It can be hard cover, paperback, eBook, audio, small, large, etc. If you self-publish consider the costs of developing multiple formats, particularly hard cover and paperback.

10. How much time will you commit: The reality is that a book once published is there forever. In addition to the time it takes to write (or work with a ghost writer) you will also need to spend time promoting the book. You must consider you ability and willingness to travel, speak, go to book signings, and otherwise invest your time to market and sell your book.

No series of decisions is right for everyone and you must consider your particular situation and goals. One last tip: don't get too fixated on the title of your book - it often changes as the writing process progresses, especially when you have a publisher and and editor.

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Sunday, February 4, 2018

Documentarian Alma Har’el is Making Super Bowl Ads and Breaking the Cycle That Kept Women Out

Alma Har'el on the set of P&G's "Thank You, Mom" Winter Olympics ad

The Super Bowl is the biggest advertising event of the year, as brands spend over $5 million for 30 seconds of air time, and even more to produce the year’s biggest commercials. It’s a world that, until recently, was closed to director Alma Har’el, whose new Coke ad will premiere during the Super Bowl this Sunday and whose “Thank You, Mom” campaign for Proctor & Gamble — which will air throughout the upcoming Winter Olympics — made her only the third woman to be a solo nominee for a DGA award.

There are few film artists who better represent the freedom and possibilities of the digital era than Har’el, the self-taught, one-person filmmaking crew behind unorthodox, cinematic nonfiction films like “Bombay Beach” and “LoveTrue.” Over the last few years Har’el discovered, like most independent filmmakers do, that critical acclaim and festival accolades didn’t pay the bills and, unlike her male counterparts, she didn’t see offers to direct bigger movies and television.

“I started to look at a lot of the filmmakers, the ones making independent films that I appreciate over a decade or more, and I saw they either were from rich families, or supporting themselves by directing commercials,” said Har’el. “That ability to sustain yourself while making something you really love, or doing rewrites on a script until it finds its way, or developing a TV show, those things take time. It doesn’t happen overnight and you need to pay rent. The financial element more than anything is why women filmmakers have to make compromises in their career paths as a directors.”

Har’el, who was born and raised in Israel, was working by age of 11 and never had family financial resources to lean on. She quickly discovered the commercial world — where women directed less than 7 percent of commercials and made up less than 3 percent of the creative directors at ad agencies — was in many ways even more closed than Hollywood. In looking at the advertising world, Har’el saw the same cultural problems that in exist in film and TV, politics, and the corporate world. The key difference being the way those problems manifested themselves in the ad world were far easier to both pinpoint and target.

On every commercial made, from the smaller ones to the multi-million dollar Super Bowl ads, all are legally required to go through a “triple bid” process of hiring their production teams. The ad agency hired by the brands to come up with the campaign goes out to three directors who interpret the outline of the campaign and pitch their approaches, while their production companies put together a budget. The agency recommends one bid to the brand (which is legally required to look at all three) and pick who will make the ad.

“Because of years of bias, and the fact that when women do get offered jobs in advertising it’s usually for hygiene, beauty, or laundry products — women never get to direct car commercials or things that have action in it — so the male directors’ reels were always much more impressive, more rich, and they had more experience,” said Har’el. “As a result, they end up with three men bidding against each other, and of course that 90 percent of the time they were three white men — so the advertising world was stuck in a loop that kept reinforcing itself with the proof of these reels.”

Har’el started Free the Bid with the idea that if she could get agencies and brands to pledge that one of every three bids come from a women director, there was a chance of eventually breaking the cycle. “They aren’t pledging to hire anybody; all they are doing is pledging that one of three bids come from a women, which I think is a really good offer because we are half of the population,” said Har’el. “It’s always a lot easier to reach out to the three directors you’ve worked with and trust and love their production company, and that’s understandable. But I always believed if producers of these commercials became acquainted with women directors — which we built an expensive and searchable database of over 400 directing reels to help them find — they would see their passion and vision and want to work with us.”

What Har’el wasn’t expecting was how many women in positions of power at agencies and brands were anxious to break free of the disturbing and embarrassing numbers in regards to diversity, especially when publications like the Harvard Business Review estimate that women make 85 percent of the product purchase decisions for a household. In just a year, 12 major brands — including Visa, HP, Levi’s and Coca-Cola — and over 50 major ad agencies signed the pledge. Of the close to 70 companies that signed the pledge, there was a 400 percent increase in the number of women directors they hired.

While Har’el first went into commercials for financial stability, then as an advocate for women directors, what she soon learned is how vital commercial work can be to a filmmaker’s growth. “You can’t take away the huge value of what you learn on a commercial set,” said Har’el. “Being trusted with millions of dollars to produce a one-minute spot and have the time constraints that you have, the confidence you gain, the equipment you get to play with, and the filmmakers you get to work with – even though what you are making is not art, still you are using so many of the same tools and you are developing so much. In many cases, working with brands is the equivalent of negotiating your ideas with a studio.”

Har’el is used to being enraged when male directors more easily transition to commercial films, but what she didn’t understand until this past year was how vital the technical training gained on a commercial set would be to her being able to take the next step in her own career. Har’el — whose breakout was winning the 2011 Tribeca Film Festival with “Bombay Beach,” which she shot on a $800 camera from Best Buy — got to shot “Thank You, Mom” on 35mm, the first time she ever shot on film.

“It’s unmeasurable, you can’t even start to quantify that amount of experience that men get on commercial sets,” said Har’el. “Good luck knowing how to shoot a chase scene on a freeway when you never even been on a moving truck with a Russian arm. But if you’ve done it even once on a commercial, and you saw the footage you created and you heard the technical limitations you are going to face and dealt with them creatively, you are going to be a better filmmaker for life.”

As for her own film and TV projects, Har’el is deep in rehearsals on a yet to be announced scripted narrative feature that will start shooting in a couple months. She also sold a pilot script she’s developing with a production company, which she hopes to start pitching to studios this year.

Reflecting on how radically her career had changed as a result of Free the Bid and her commercial work, Har’el said, “I’m telling you, man, the dirty little secret male directors keep is how they build filmmaking skills and financially sustain themselves making commercials. That’s what women filmmakers need to know more than anything.”

Chalamet said the famous peach scene "serves as a metamorphosis of some of the strongest ideas in the movie."

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Friday, February 2, 2018

Write Your Novel to Be a Film by Kenneth Atchity

Novelists seeking representation complain that none of their books have been made into films. At any given moment, we have literally stacks of novels from New York publishers on our desks in Los Angeles. Going through them to find the ones that might make motion pictures or television movies, we — and other producers, managers, and agents — are constantly running into the same problems:

    “There’s no third act... It just trickles out.”

    “There are way too many characters and it’s not clear till page 200 who the protagonist is.”

    “I can’t relate to anyone in the book.”

    “At the end, the antagonist lays out the entire plot to the protagonist.”

    “There’s not enough action.”

    “There’s nothing new here. This concept has been used to death.”

    “We don’t know who to root for.”

    “The whole thing is overly contrived.”

    “There’s no dialogue, so we don’t know what the character sounds like.”

    “There’s no high concept here. How do we pitch this?”

    “There’s no real pacing.”

    “The protagonist is reactive instead of proactive.”

    “At the end of the day, I have no idea what this story is about.”

    “The main character is 80, and speaks only Latvian.”

    “It’s set in the 1960s, and is filled with long passages in Uto-Aztecan.”

    “There are no set pieces.”

Of course anyone with the mind of a researcher can list a film or two that got made despite one of these objections. But for novelists who are frustrated at not getting their books made into films, that should be small consolation and is, practically speaking, a useless observation. Yes, you might get lucky and find a famous Bulgarian director, who’s fascinated with the angst of octogenarians, studied pacing with John Sales or Jim Jarmusch, and loves ambiguous endings.

But if you regard your career as a business instead of a quixotic crusade, you should be planning your novel from the outset to make it appealing to filmmakers.

Give us a strong (preferably male) lead who, good or bad, is eminently relatable — and who’s in the “star age range” of 35-50 (where at any given moment 20 male stars reside; a star being a name that can set up the film by his attachment to it).

Make sure a dramatist looking at your book will clearly see three well-defined acts: act one (the setup), act two (rhythmic development, rising and falling action), and act three (climax leading to conclusive ending).

Express your character’s personality in dialogue that distinguishes him, and makes him a role a star would die to play.

Have someone in the film industry read your synopsis before you commit to writing the novel.

Though I’ve observed the phenomena for several decades now, it still surprises me that even bestselling novelists, even the ones who complain that no one has made a film from their books yet, don’t write novels dramatic enough to lend themselves easily to mainstream film. It’s a well-known phenomenon in publishing that, with very few exceptions, the more books a novelist sells the less critical his publisher’s editors are of his work. So time and again we read novels that start out well, roar along to the halfway point, then peter off into the bogs of formless character development or action resolution.

A publisher invests between $25,000 and $100,000 or more in publishing your novel. A low-budget feature film from a major Hollywood studio today costs at least $40 million. There is, from a business point of view, no comparison. Risking $40 million means the critical factor is raised as high as can be imagined when your book hits the “story department” — much higher than the critical factor of even the finest publishers. Hollywood studies what audiences want by logging, in box office dollars, cents, and surveys, what they respond best to.

If you want to add film to your profit centers as a novelist, it would behoove you to study what makes films work. Disdaining Hollywood may be a fashionable defense for writers who haven’t gotten either rich or famous from it, but it’s not productive in furthering your cinematic career.