This is a transcript of SYS Podcast Episode 039: An Interview With New York Film Academy Screenwriting Chair Melanie Oram.
Welcome to Episode 39 of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast. I’m Ashley Scott Meyer, screen writer and blogger over at SellingYourScreenplay.com.
In this episode’s main segment, I’m interviewing Melanie Oram. She’s the Chair of the Screenwriting Department at the New York Film Academy. We have a great discussion about shorts and how they can be used to help your career going so stay tuned for that.
If you find this episode valuable, please help me out by giving me a review in iTunes or leaving a comment on YouTube, or re-twitting the podcast on Twitter or liking it on Facebook. These social media shares really do help spread the word about the podcast so they are very much appreciated.
A couple of quick notes, any websites or links that I mentioned in the podcast can be found on my blog in the show notes. I also publish a transcript with every episode in case you’d rather read the show or look at something later on. You can find all the podcast show notes at www.SellingYourScreenplay.com/podcast and then just look for Episode 39.
Also, if you want my free guide on how to sell your screenplay in five weeks you can pick that up by going to SellingYourScreenplay.com/guide. It’s completely free, you just put in your email address and I’ll send you a new lesson once per week for 5 weeks along with a bunch of bonus lessons. I teach the whole process of how to sell your screenplay in that guide. How to write a professional logline and query letter. How to find agents, managers and producers who are looking for material. It really is everything you need to know to sell your screenplay. Just go to SellingYourScreenplay.com/guide.
A quick few words about what I’m working on. I’m still plotting through the re-write of my action-thriller script for a producer who auctioned it a few weeks ago. He wants huge changes made to the script but he doesn’t want to give me the time to actually implement them so we are gonna be coming to blows on that one once I turn this current draft in early next week so we’ll see how that turns out.
I don’t think it’s going to turn out all that well. I’m really disheartened in some ways with this project. The producer is a real hustler so I have some confidence that he actually has a chance of getting this script made. But the chances he’s going to produce a good movie is not so good, at least in my opinion.
What’s so sad is I’ve been down this road so many times over the course of my career when I write a script, where I write a script and then people basically like it and then the producers decide to re-write it beyond all recognition and then the movie becomes out and it’s just an awful mess. So, well I think this producer has a chance of getting this script made. I don’t give him much chance of actually making a good movie. So I’m trying to kind of re-evaluate my own approach. I’m not entirely sure what that means at this point but I suspect it means trying to actually be more of a producer.
One thing this producer said to me, which I totally agree with, is that he’s got to have a script that he likes or he won’t be passionate enough about it to raise the money. And this is so true. Raising the money and getting a film into production, especially a low-budget independent film like this one, is so so hard. The producer has to believe in the script. So, while I don’t like his notes, I basically agree with his sentiments. So I’m trying to work with him as best I can but the notes he’s given me are just too complicated to implement in the 2 weeks that he wants me to re-write so just got to see how it’s got to all shake out. Anyways, that’s what I’m working on.
So now, let’s get into the main segment. Today I’m talking with Melanie Oram from the New York Film Academy. Here is the interview:
Ashley: Welcome Melanie to the Selling Your Screenplay Podcast. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Melanie: Well, thanks a lot for having me. I’m looking forward to speaking with you.
Ashley: So, to start out, I wonder if you can give us a quick overview of your career.
Melanie: Sure! My career started really in television. I worked for a public television in Chicago and that led to a job at the Oprah Winfrey show, where I was an audience coordinator. So basically what I would do is if Oprah get a throw of me in the audience when she said “Next of the audience, we’re going to have a woman that can make whole thing [inaudible] dinner for $50 or less” and I would be the person that would find that story or find that person. Or if we were having, you know, mother-daughter reunion, people who haven’t seen each other in 10 years, probably due to abuse or to alcohol or drugs. I would find audience story that we could plant in the audience and then in the event as the main stage guest. So, through my audience, people would become like the main stage guest, the lead of the show.
I always knew that that I wanted to get in to film making and so after spending a couple of years at the Oprah Winfrey show and being in Chicago, I decided to come back home because New York is my home. And after that, I got into working at HBO Sports. I started on a documentary called Sonny Liston show and I did that. And as in the case for most people, I think if they’re honest, working in the entertainment field, I was at the right place at the right time, perfectly. My boss was getting promoted and so my boss on the Sonny Liston show was getting promoted to be the Coordinate Producer on a show but it only aired one episode and that show was called The Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel show. And he liked the work that I did on Sonny Liston and he asked me to stay on with him and I did. And then I worked on The Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel show for the next 2 and a half.. 3 years.
I got an opportunity to do another documentary that HBO Sports was producing called Dare to Compete: The Struggle of Women in Sports,which chronicled not everything that women did on sports but really the particular stories that furthered the cause of women in sports. So we would take people like Althea Gibson and Babe Didrikson and that type of thing. We were really fortunate in that our timing, again, was perfect. And at that time Hilary Clinton was running to be Senator for the first time from New York and we asked her to do the foreword or the opening on camera 4 to the piece and she agreed. And she liked the film so much that she invited us and the… you know, executive from HBO to premier the film at the Whitehouse. And so we did.
Ashley: Wow! That’s great!
Melanie: That’s awesome! Yeah! And the film went on to do really well. We won a Peabody award for that film. I went back to Real Sports with Bryant Gumbel and won an Emmy while I was on that show. And then after that I realized I was getting further into television and getting farther away from film making and so I went back to school as my Masters Film… Masters in Fine Arts, I’m sorry in the Film Department at Columbia University and I did that. While I was there, I produced a short film called A-Alike with the director by the name of Randy Dottin. That film won the Student Academy Awards in 2004. And from there I went on to shoot and write and direct my own short film called Shook which got picked up by Showtime and now even periodically would come on from time to time. So that is my history. That’s what I did before I got to NYFA and then coming out of Columbia
I collaborated with Randy Dottin again and another writer from Columbia whose name is Mikki del Monico and we joined together and we created a writer director and myself as the producer team. And we won a hundred thousand dollar grant as seed money for an independent picture that was… we funded for the film that we’re still trying to produced called the Indelible; which is the story of this woman who is an African American scientist; who struggled to get a cure for the disease that killed her husband and threatens to take the life of her teenage son. A $100,000 grant was the seed money we picked up a little more than over another $100,000 in grant. We’ve raised over a little bit more than about $180,000 in investment and we’ve shot about 80% of it. We’re looking to get the last money in place, so that we can finish the shoot and finish our post production.
So that’s my director life and now I am the Chair of the Screenwriting Department at the New York Film Academy in New York.
Ashley: Perfect! Perfect! So one of the things that the New York Film scene has always sort of been known for its being independent vs. the Los Angeles scene which is driven by the studios. Let’s start out by just by talking about the differences between a studio film and an independent film. What do you see kind of as the differences?
Melanie: I think that the independent films or the films that come out of New York that are more independent based, there are more characters in the stories, they’re smaller stories that can be shot for smaller budgets. So when you’re writing an independent film, soon your imagination go wild, but if you’re looking to produce it independently, you want to be mindful of that as you’re writing. So how can I reduce the number of locations without cheapening the story? How can I keep the number of characters in the film at a minimum that doesn’t involve huge crowd scenes or weird stunts that are gonna escalate my budget? I think that that’s what really distinct, that we have in New York Film Academy in New York; we have in New York Film Academy in LA; and I think that the difference really in between the two, I mean both have excellent programs.
But I feel that here in New York, the majority, or all of us really are New York based film makers who are interested in more of the independent flavored; the smaller stories; character driven stories. And they could actually be dramas, they can be comedies. But they’re stories that you can make on a shoestring budget and still be effective in telling the story that you wanna tell. And I think that a lot of our teaching endeared towards best. How do you create those characters that are compelling; those actors who may be or even bigger actors or more name actors might be attracted to your material therefore making it easier for you to get your film made.
Ashley: Uhm-hmm… I’d be curious to just get your thoughts. I was trying to explain this to my mother couple of months ago. One of the things is when people say independent film, a lot of times they were referring precisely to what you are talking about; sort of this Art House Sundance Film. And there’s also a whole another segment of independent film which is the sort of the Roger Corman type of film; the genre film. You know, you go to someplace like the American Film Market and there’s a gazillion action films. How do you see those as sort of fitting in and sometimes there’s sort of some crossover between the two? How do you see those types of genre films fitting in to sort of your definition of independent film?
Melanie: Well you know I think from a straight sense of independent film is something that is funded outside of the studio system, right? So, if your producer is an independent producer and is raising the money and is bringing all the elements together: the director, the producer, the cast, the crew to create a film. That film can be whatever you want it to be. You can do Roger Corman, ask horror type you know film or you can do, you know sort of on the budget, on a smaller budget action film. But I think we’re talking about; and I think that’s my only distinction and that’s why it has a broad definition, right? That’s what it is. It’s not getting funded, you know, by a big studio. You may, as an independent film maker, and carefully you will, be able to connect through major film fest like Sundance, like Tribeca, like Tromanto, you know. So while a lot of business gets done, you would hopefully be able to catch the eye or the attention of a major or even a minor major studio that would then do the [inaudible] and take your film off your hand and distribute it. But I think what we’re talking about, when I say we, the Screenwriting Faculty at New York Film Academy, I think we are looking more at sort of the art house genre. It’s a smaller niche but I think it’s a chance to explore stories that are not mainstream. Stories that are interesting; that are like what we said “character driven”. And I think that’s what we’re talking about.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah… I mentioned it because I think it’s somewhat ironic that studio films obviously get the most press and then these art house independent films. But I actually think from a screenwriting perspective, your chances of selling one of these sort of low-budget genre films is actually the greatest. But they seem to get the least amount of attention. And mostly I think it’s because so many, or am I just so that awful, that many people… [Melanie interrupts]
Melanie: Right! You said that! I think that it’s harder to make these genre films with low-budget and so a lot of times the quality of the film… it suffers. I think it is a hard sell; it’s not an easy sell for a first time writer to get someone interested in a quiet; either comedy or drama that’s character driven with no fancy explosion or no blood spurting from someone’s neck; with no fancy tricks. But I think it’s worth the while. I think the arts that we’re seeing.. We’re committed to making the art film we wanna see. You know what I mean? And most of us are sort of in a place where we wanna be able to create art that we wanna see as opposed to art that we think will appeal to the masses. I believe, and I think a lot of us film-makers that I work with in the film academy believe, that we’re in a situation where if the quality is good it will get the attention. Kind of like you build this and they will come kind of thing. I mean taking from a major film. But I think if the quality of the film is good enough even though you’re working outside of the system, you’re working against tremendous odds, you can get the attention if you’re able to create a film of quality. And this is no secret to the people who are writing independent film: if the quality of the film is good enough, sure, the dream is that you would get an A-lister to say Yes.
But I think that there’s other avenues that you can take to get your film made as well. TV is not what it used to be, it’s not like this getto for actors anymore. But I still think it doesn’t have… nothing have the cache of a huge studio picture and the Oscars, right? That sort of like.. the top! So I think it’s definitely possible though for you to get TV actors say, who are well-known, who haven’t really made the cross over from television to film and are looking for that small vehicle that might give them shine, that might allow their real acting chops to come through. And I think that’s where your window is because obviously, trying to get one person, even just one actor, who is film-known attached to your project can be the key to getting it made.
Ashley: Okay… so let’s talk about independent film. If a screenwriter, they have a concept for an idea, are there some sort of things that you can give us for them to decide “okay this is my idea, how do I decide if it’s gonna be a studio film or if it’s gonna be an independent film”… some sort of things to look at. I mean, studio films, they seem to follow a stricter template, the structure has to be more dead-on, action scripts have to have action every 10 pages… Are there some things that people need to look at as far as the independent film and what they have and how they can construct that?
Melanie: Right! I think that your studio films are more high concept. You have a husband and wife who are hitman and hitwoman in secret and it turns out they get a contract to kill each other. Well that’s Mr. and Mrs. Smith, right? That’s a high concept film like I get it in one sentence. One sentence I know what that film is about. It doesn’t really matter what the script is.. well.. it does matter but I mean, in selling it I don’t have to know every word or every scene, that enough is a hook, right? But a smaller film, let’s say… I’ll go way back, let’s say Clerks. Something that takes a look at ordinary working people in an ordinary working place. I mean, you can’t really describe Clerks in one sentence. It’s really about the characters and the journey that those characters take in that small window of time.
I also think that smaller films or independent films work best, and I mean this is in some sort of acting or writing: was the time horizon is shortened. You see now? You’re not gonna usually get an independent film that the epic and major in terms of standing decades. Looking at somebody from when they’re small to when they’re grandparent. Usually, the urgency or the drama or the comedic value of the independent film is something that is realized in the short period of time: in the weekend, in 72 hours, in a week… you know? And when you’re thinking about: is it something that I can do in an independent film? Are there characters that are interesting that people would wanna follow?
I think in terms of your story telling, sure the film could follow a traditional three-act structure because 90% of the films that we see, even independent or studio film do follow that. But there’s also a lot of narrative… I’m sorry not narrative… untraditional narrative forms that films have made in the independent arena which are wonderful. One of my favorite films is Memento. A complete… it’s very well written… but it’s written in a completely unconventional style. Now as in New York Film Academy, we spend, since most of the film they’ve made in a traditional three-act structure, we spend majority of the first year talking about the three-act structure but we do a class in the 4th quarter that is called Alternative Narrative where we look at films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, where we look at films like Memento. And we sort of de-construct what the structures are like and why they’re working… why they don’t work… how are you gonna apply those structures to your own work.
Ashley: Uhm-hm. Let’s step back in a few. You started to touch on some sort of practical considerations. I wonder if you can just talk briefly about some of the considerations that a screenwriter must keep in mind as they’re writing a low-budget independent film.
Melanie: Okay. I think, time horizon is important. Usually, the time horizon is short. Characters, your number of characters is probably gonna be limited. You wanna avoid big crowd scenes or wide big-cast. You can tell a multi-character story in an independent film but the number of locations that you’re writing to should be limited. It should be something that you could shoot easily with few locations, with as few actors as possible, avoid things that are gonna cost you money like crowd scenes and stunts and the pretty optics. You want your story as an independent film maker to be focused on the characters and their journey and where the characters… or the protagonist and the journey that that protagonist take and how do we make sure that that’s compelling. How do we make sure that the stakes are raised without all of those extra bells and whistles. I think those are the things that we would wanna consider.
Ashley: For sure, for sure. Good tips! Let’s go ahead and move on. When we were setting up this interview, we talked briefly about I think in the 3rd quarter, the writers; they write-direct and produce their own short films. Let’s just talk briefly about that. Why should a writer do a short film? That’s kind of maybe the first question.
Melanie: I think that writing and directing your own short film, it gets you on the race to the festivals. And I’m sure to the festivals hopefully rewards for your film to the festivals can get you meaning. And the meaning there where you pitch your screenplay ideas. And I think that’s really the only reason. Other than your love of making films, which I’m hoping that your audiences or screenwriters love to watch movies or love to make movies, other than your love of making films, that’s the practical reason because the short film is still your best entry into meetings. People are looking for you, if your short film does well, if it’s in certain festival and gets accolades, then they’re looking for you and what you have to say as opposed to you looking for them.
Ashley: Uhm-hm. Perfect! So, I wonder if you can give us some tips on writing a short script. What makes some short films successful and what makes some, maybe, not so successful?
Melanie: I think that a successful short film is focused. And when I say that I mean that, some beginning writers make the mistake of trying to take a feature idea and condense it into a short film. And it doesn’t work. Because the idea of a short film is it has to be 15 minutes or less. If it’s 20 minutes, it has to be the most solid 20 minutes in the world.
And I say that because someone who’s written and directed their own short film, I think that programmers, I mean if you wanna get into festivals you wanna get pass the programmers, and so programmers are thinking: I want to fill seats. They can fill seats with short programs, the more short that they have the more seats they can sell. So, if your film is 20 minutes or 30 minutes, unless it’s the most incredible 30 minutes in the world, it’s really hard to program. If your film is 8 minutes, 10 minutes, it’s 12, it’s 15, 17, then they can still put you in a program of 2 hours and they’re gonna be able to include more film.
So, not to say that you’re not the most awesome writer in the world but I would say that when you’re creating a short film, you wanna create it with that in mind because your job as a short film maker is to get into the festivals. So, keep it brief. Make the story focused. It can’t be like a three character, multi-character journey, in most cases. Tell a story about one protagonist, a single protagonist that has a real goal, that has urgency and stakes. It doesn’t have to be resolved by the end but the protagonist does need to make a decision, we need to make a move on one way or another. We have to feel at the end of the short film that there’s growth and transformation.
Ashley: Uhm-hm. I’d be curious to hear your opinion… especially since you’re more from the independent scene and maybe not as tied and stuck-on on structure, but what do you think of the three-act structure as it relates to a short film? Should screenwriters be looking at those Blake Snyder beats and trying to get those in to their 10-minute short?
Melanie: Well, Blake Snyder’s Save The Cat, obviously those are press people or screenwriters should believe and follow. I think there’s still value in the three-act structure for a short film. I think it’s possible to tell a short film using an alternative structure but I think you have to be really good. Because if you don’t have that much time, and you may be that writer, or you may be that writer who is able to create that alternative structure in that 10-minute or 12-minute and have it all make sense. But often what I see when writers try to use the alternative structure in that 10, 12, 15-minute short film is that the audience is left wondering where they are… what they saw… and what happened. So I feel like, for the short narrative, I feel like there is value. I feel like there’s value for the three-act structure no matter what you’re writing, but I feel like for a short film, it has even high value.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah. I just wanna touch on one thing. Number one, I wanna clarify and number two, I’m actually not that sure of this myself. But you talked about this short films getting programmed in film festivals, and some of the festivals I’ve been to, they will run one short before a feature, other festivals I’ve been to they do more like what you’re talking like they’ll take 10 shorts and pack them in one 2-hour segment. And I haven’t been into a tremendous number of film fest so I’m talking about a half dozen so, I’m curious. What is more the norm? Is it more one short before a feature or is it they’ll run a program of shorts.
Melanie: I think they deal both ways. And I think it depends on the short film festival, you know? I’ve been to festivals where they run a short film program which lasted 2 hours and then that same festival they’ll run a short film that’ll run for the feature. Even if your short film is running in front of the feature, they’re less likely to program you if you’re half an hour. Because again… [Ashley interrupts]
Ashley: Yeah… and that’s kinda my point is. In fact, I don’t would ever program a 30-minute short before a 2-hour feature and that’s kind of thing. You really have to keep that in mind.
Melanie: You got to keep that in mind and I think that I will say that when you’re at the point when you’re trying to get your film at the festival whether it’s short film or feature film, sure there is a handful of festival that everybody wants to get into. Everybody wants to get into Sundance, everybody wants to get into Tribeca, wants to get in Tromanto… but I think that for the other, a tremendous amount of other… festivals that we know… and I think that you got to figure out what they’ve done in the past. That doesn’t mean that if you break their tradition they’ll never program your film… I think if you have a festival that you wanna apply to, you should. But I think festival acquisitions are expensive and as an independent writer, producer, film maker, maybe your funds are not unlimited.
And so I think that you want to figure out… target the film where some festivals that you know you have a good chance of getting into. If your film is a drama, well then you’re probably not going to Aspen because most they do comedy… things like that. If your film has to do with women or shot by a woman or direct by a woman, there’s a number of film festivals that are focused on trying to get more exposure for female directors, for female writers, for female producers. I’m not saying to hit all of them, but just think about what the niche audience is for your film and why that program or given what they’ve done in the past, would also think yours would sort of fit in that group of film.
Ashley: Yeah… yeah. So, I know this next topic, we can probably talk for days on it, so let’s just… I’m kinda hopeful you can kinda hit the highlights, but I know there’s gonna be a lot of writers listening to this and they’re just purely writers so, they’re sitting there thinking: yeah I would love to produce a short but I really don’t know what to do. Maybe you can kinda give us just a quick overview from a producer standpoint of how you would go about taking your 5 or 10-minute short screenplay and actually turning it in to a finished film.
Melanie: Okay. Now, are you looking from the standpoint that this independent writer wants to collaborate with someone else as a producer or am I giving it by… hey I’m a 10-minute writer for short and I wanna produce myself?
Ashley: Yeah, let’s start there. Let’s start just with someone who wants to produce it themselves. Because I suspect that there’s probably a lot of writers that they may not know anybody to collaborate with so they’re ultimate way is gonna fall on their shoulders to get the thing done.
Melanie: Okay. Well I think that once you got your 10-minute script together, I think you got to figure out what your budget is. That’s really the first thing. Like what are your resources, what can you shoot the film for. Now, there’s two ways you can budget. You can… say… go through the film and say this is what I can make of through the film or you can say I have this lump sum of money and this is all that I have and I’m gonna make the film for this budget. And then I think that what you’re looking for all independent film, sure you need to pay people.
But I think some of it can be worked it through barter. One of the first films that I worked on when I was in film school was for a director whose uncle has a catering house. So, we had to feed the crew and we had to feed the talent… her uncle was like I’m not gonna give you any money but I’ll feed all of you on your meals… your lunches and dinners. Well, that’s something. Maybe you don’t have an uncle who owns a catering house, but maybe you have a mom or grandmom or an aunt who cooks and you can say to them: look, I’m trying to make this film and I don’t have a lot of money… would you agree to doing a meal a day for me for three days or for four days or whatever it’s gonna take you to shoot.
Then I think the locations that you choose are gonna really reflect the kind of movie you’re gonna see because images, right? It’s not just about the words on the pages, it’s about what they see. So you obviously want your locations to be of the highest quality. What can you do? Locations cost money. But again, think about how you can barter. Like if you’re putting together a crew that’s gonna shoot for you, that’s gonna light for you, that’s gonna do sounds for you, you have actress who wanna act… maybe there’s a restaurant that is only open Tuesday to Sunday… Monday they’re closed, maybe they would let you shoot on a Monday when they’re not open anyway because they’ll make some money and you can barter for a lower amount. Or maybe you’re shooting overnight. Maybe you’re starting at 10 because they close at 11 and you come in and set up and then they let you shoot overnight. You just pay the cost for not actually keeping it open but for not keeping a full staff open but just for what is would cost to have one person stay and make sure you don’t rob the place.
In the absence of that, maybe it’s another barter situation where maybe this location would like a short for their mini documentary done about their place so they can put on the internet to talk about how cool and how fun it is. Maybe you could shoot a 5-minute thing with them in exchange for letting them shoot for location.
How can you barter for the things that you need? Like in talent. This is not the time for you to get your cousin who’s always wanted to be an actress into the film unless you’re sure that your cousin can really pull off the role. You’re much better off either trying to contact local film schools, acting schools or maybe actors who are looking for parts that they can put on their reel… looking for quality scripts they can sort of appear in. Or posting ads, actually getting real talents to come in audition for you.
Film me out where you can barter in top corners, what your budget is and choosing great locations, again on the barter system, or being creative about how and when you can shoot certain places and using real talent, I think is like, the key to getting your film off the ground.
Ashley: Yeah, yeah… that’s a good tip! ‘Cause as you say, so many people say “ah just use any old person as the actor” and people just don’t realize there’s a lot of… uh… short films can look ridiculously bad if you don’t have decent actors.
I wonder if you can just quickly run through just some of the sort of the technical things to me, maybe recommend like a low-budget camera that people can buy, computers, software for editing… some rough prices in terms of what people are looking at spending to get some of these equipments.
Melanie: I have to say that pricing is not necessarily my strong point. But I would think in terms of software… editing software, I mean, Final Cut Pro can be bought relative and cheaply. It’s easy enough to learn and it will give your film the quality that you need to shoot what you need to shoot with… to give you the quality that you want to showcase for your shot. I think in terms of cameras, hmm… I mean, what’s awesome about cameras now is there are so many… that can be bought for very little money and that still have a high quality look to them. I will void the idea that you would shoot your film on your iMac or your phone unless you’re going for sort of like Titanius that maybe would be fitting of that. There’s a number of different cameras, I mean, that you can buy that might be able to give what you want.
And again, if you’re a screenwriter, I’m not sure that buying a camera is the way to go. I think that if you’re a screenwriter that wants a film made, you’re better off trying to find an aspiring cinematographer. Maybe a cinematography student who might have access to more bells and whistles than you could ever imagine, who’s looking for quality material that they can shoot. And then you can… I’m not gonna be done by, again, putting ads out… looking at what they already shot… checking over reels… and certainly trying to connect with local film schools.
Like to me in film academy, we have an amazing Cinematography Department and they’re always looking for quality work that they can shoot in an interesting way that would, you know, boost their reel. It’s a win-win. You get a film that looks like it was shot by a professional and they get a film that was written by somebody who’s, like them, an aspiring professional that is worthy of what they’re going to shoot. Because pretty pitching about the story is boring… and a role with a script that was shot poorly is horrendous as well. I don’t know…
I mean I think the editing is something that you can do at home on your Mac and you could learn and I think there’s, just like what I would always suggest to writers, that final draft is the way to go. I would say that there’s value in purchasing Final Cut software, but in terms of cameras… I don’t know but technology changes so much… And as a screenwriter, unless you’re looking to be a cinematographer, I don’t think that a camera is the best use of your money. You know what I’m saying?
Ashley: Yeah… yeah. No, I totally agree. I think that’s a good tip. You’re much better off finding someone who is an expert at that ‘cause it’s a lot… it’s pretty complicated than therefore become a cinematographer.
Melanie: Right. And I mean it’s not just so much about the camera because you can have a red camera, a top of the line camera, and if it’s not lit right it’s gonna be crap. So, you’re buying the camera… so now are you also then purchasing lighting equipments that you need or red lighting equipment… as a writer, do you know what lighting… you know what I mean?
I think the awesome thing about making a movie is that no one person holds all the cards. So even as a writer, you’re driving the engine and you have a script that you want to produce, I guarantee you that you can find a group of people that are… will become as passionate about your work as you are and want the opportunity to shoot… want the opportunity to light your film… want the opportunity to do sound. Quality material draw quality people, you know what I mean? And I think that’s the way to look at it.
Ashley: Yeah… yeah. For sure. So one of the things, I think, a lot of people as they’re getting into short and making a short, sometimes they have unrealistic expectations and they feel like if it doesn’t go viral or if it doesn’t win some major awards, it means it’s not a success. And I always try to emphasize that, you know, that’s not necessarily the case. There can be a lot of benefits and I wonder if you can just speak to that… ‘cause I’m sure all your students, I’m sure all their shorts don’t go viral… don’t get into the major festivals but that doesn’t mean they didn’t get some value out of the experience.
Melanie: No. I mean, I agree. I think that screenwriting and this is all we talk about all the time at the New York Film Academy… it’s a craft! So, the more you do it, the better you become. It’s like any muscle, like going to the gym. If you don’t work out, your muscle will not get stronger. So, there’s always value in writing a short film or writing a feature or… shooting your short film after you’ve written it. Because there’s things that you’re gonna learn on the set even for a writer. What works and what doesn’t work. Sitting at home in front of your laptop, or sitting at some Starbucks in front of your laptop, is never gonna teach you. So even if your film doesn’t go viral or doesn’t get into the big festival or doesn’t win like a thousand awards, there’s still value because every project that you do is a chance for you to learn more and to become better at your craft. And that really should be the goal. Sure, everybody wants to be a film maker but you can only do that once your craft has reached a certain level.
Ashley: Yeah… yeah. For sure. So, let’s talk about the New York Film Academy for a minute. Can you kindly give us a brief overview of what exactly you guys offer there to up and coming writers.
Melanie: Right. At the New York Film Academy, we do a-year-long program… that’s for a year in New York I’m gonna talk about… we do a-year-long specific program that allows students to come out with a very strong body of work. You get the chance to write and revise a screenplay… you get a full-length feature screenplay. You get a chance to write a first draft of a second screenplay or a full-length feature screenplay. You get the opportunity to write a specs script for a television show which is your… uhm… you know… we have people come from television shows… from films and we do that all the time at New York Film Academy.
And one of the things that all the television writers that have to speak to students have in common is that they were like: okay, yeah… we wanted to make films but now that I’m on a successful television show and I’m writing for television, people are coming to me and asking me what ideas I have for features as opposed to me trying to get to them. So I think: oh I don’t really wanna write for television, I just want to make features… sometimes writing for televisions can be an entry into that, and in order to do that you need to have effective script.
We also teach students the process of the beginnings of a television bible for creating their own or developing their own original television idea.
Ashley: Okay. And if someone is kinda thinking about attending the New York Film Academy, what is your ideal student? Who are the people that you think you can benefit the most?
Melanie: Okay. Well I think that we are different than a lot of places that are out there in that we do more produce whatever level that you are at. So if you have always wanted… if you are in a council and you wanted to write for a screenplay, you can come and pick the one your program and we’ll take you right from the beginning… with no knowledge on how to write and get you to be able to produce the things that we talked about. And… or… let’s say that you are interested somewhere… you are a lawyer and you have 2 months off and you just wanna be able to take a break, you can come and take our 8-week screenwriting program. And still we give you a program with full length feature screenplay. Or let’s say that you are a teacher and you can’t quit your job but you always wanted to be write a screenplay, you can come to our 12-week evening class that meets 3 times a week, not quit your day job, and still leave the 12-week evening class with a full-length feature length draft.
So, if you’re somebody that has never written, that’s okay. If you’re somebody who has a little bit of experience… maybe you’ve taken a few writing classes but you’ve never been able to really finish a screenplay or maybe you started something, you have some ideas that you weren’t sure about how to develop them, then you can do that as well. I think we will take you wherever you are and we only try to… we don’t try… we develop your skills from whatever level you’re at. There’s no shame in not knowing anything. There’s plenty of people that come to Film Academy not knowing anything except for the fact that they love movies… they’ve always wanted to write a movie… and we take them all the way ‘til their process is fine.
Ashley: Perfect! So, what’s the best way for people to keep up with you and potentially contact you if they wanna learn more?
Melanie: Sure! You can reach me at my NYFA email address [email protected]. So M like Melanie, R like Renee, W like Williams… Oram which is my last name… O R A M as Mary… @NYFA.edu.
Ashley: Perfect. And I’ll double check that and I’ll put that in the show notes so people can find it and get directly to it. Are you on Twitter or maybe you wanna just mention the NYFA website if they wanna check that out… it’s just NYFA dot..
Melanie: Sure! Sure! Dot edu. That’s where you can find out more information about NYFA absolutely.
Ashley: Perfect. Perfect. Well, Melanie, you’ve been very generous with your time. This has been a great discussion. I know I’ve learned a lot so hopefully other people will too. I really appreciate you coming on the show.
Melanie: Great! Well, thanks a lot for having me. I really appreciate it. I’d a lot of fun!
[end of interview]
Just a quick plug for my email and fax blast query service. Just in the last year, I’ve auctioned 4 scripts, sold 1 script and got 1 paid writing assignment. All of this came from using my own email and fax blast query service. Here’s how it works: first, you join SYS Select. Then you post your logline and query letter in SYS Select forum. I’ll review your logline and query letter and help you make them as good as it possibly can be. Then you purchase the blast and I’ll send it out for you. The emails are sent as if they’re coming from your email address so all replies go directly back to you. You can exclude companies, if there’s specific companies you don’t wanna send to. Check out www.SellingYourScreenplaySelect.com to learn more.
The next of the Selling Your Screenplay podcast, I’m gonna be interviewing Marcus Blunder. Marcus is a writer and director. His debut feature film Autumn Blood was just released. We talked about how that script came about and how ultimately got film made so keep an eye out for that episode next week.
To wrap things up, I just wanna touch on few things that Melanie talked about. I think she actually did an episode on short film which I would highly recommend, a link to it in the show notes. It’s episode 4. If you don’t have any screenwriting credits, I really do believe this is the best way to jumpstart your career. Actually, working with the other film makers and seeing your material turn into film is a huge education. There’s no money in short so it certainly not the end game but it’s pretty easy to get short produced as a great way to get out there and get in the film making scene in your local community and start to build a real screenwriting resume. If you work with a good producer, he’ll make sure that the short gets posted on IMDb. These credits will actually add up and there’ll be stuff you can use in your query letter. It’ll be… you’ll look like a real screenwriter with actual credits on IMDb. And in addition, you’ll be learning a ton just about the film making process, how things get transformed, how actors see your stuff, how your stuff gets read, how your stuff gets changed… it’s just a huge education! So, I just highly highly recommend that people really consider this especially if you’re just starting out.
My other podcast episode goes into some additional nuts and bolts about how exactly to go about writing and then finding a producer for your short film script so, check that out if you wanna learn more.
Anyway, that’s the show. Thanks for watching.