IT DEPENDS: Changing Course, Different Perspectives

Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller.

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After more than four years of writing bi-weekly columns here on Script magazine, it was time for me to take a moment or two to assess what’s been done and what needs to happen next. In this time of reflection, I’ve attempted to look at what this column wants to evolve into and what elements of its structure are hampering that change. This taking things in from a new perspective has led to a few changes in how we’ll be moving forward. This article will set up those changes and should prepare your expectations, dear reader, for the new approach.

Change isn’t really change when it’s already happened

Entertainment Attorney Chris Schiller takes his legal insights column into a new direction, exploring his screenwriting side and filmmaker perspective.Some of you may have already noticed a slight difference in the column just from the banner title that accompanies this article. The column is now headed with the shortened “It Depends,” dropping the Legally Speaking mouthful. The original idea was to center each article on some legal or business aspect in the industry and provide explanations for the curious and set expectations for those who were entering into those situations for the first time. By letting people know what to expect and what questions to ask as their careers blossom the hope was that they would be more prepared and have a better chance of navigating a potentially confusing, circuitous path to success.

After four plus years of articles, the straight forward application of that focus started becoming complex. The obvious articles and subjects we’d already covered. Some of the later article topics caused a bit of a stretch to find the legal hook to set in amongst the intriguing situation I wanted to help you fathom. We were already on a path of loosening the ties to always being moored to the business or legal aspect of the hot topic of discussion.

So since we’d already been pulling away from the dock, I’ve decided to set free the boat and allow it to sail wherever the tide and winds take us. But the core approach of examining multiple perspectives of a subject will remain. Sometimes we’ll be close to familiar shores and I will point out the legal and business sights as we pass them. At other times we’ll be far asea and find ourselves examining worlds we could have never reached before but just as fascinating to study.

Insight is always informative

As with our earlier columns we’ll strive to provide insight, to cut through the fog of unfamiliarity in the topics we cover. With a good map of the area ahead you’ll be able to delve into the depths of new frontiers with confidence that you’ll be less likely to run aground. With the new focus we’ll attempt to give you a view from the other side (or as many other sides as may warrant) so that you’ll understand where they’re coming from and what’s important to them. One of the first rules of good negotiation is understanding what the other side wants. It may be vastly different from what you want and still might not be diametrically opposed to where you want to take the conversation. Such an insight would be invaluable in presenting your case in the best light possible to get what you want without seeming intractable or difficult to deal with.

A little of this, a little of that

The observant of you will realize that most of the old articles tried to do a lot of this already. It’s not a complete turnabout but more of a course correction. We’ll still have the flavor of some of the old mixed in with some of the new opportunities that having to remain in sight of familiar shores mandated. And there will likely be a surprise here and there too. We’ll still occasionally break even the new form and venture into interviews or reviews of a sort, but, always with the nod to making the stories interesting to the regular and new readers this column serves. Let me know if we go too far astray or get lost in the mists. Your hands are always on the tiller.


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Let’s look at a short example

To give a taste of how I think this new heading might go, here’s a look through this lens at a short subject we’ve covered a few times before, short subjects.

Perspective of a short filmmaker

As you may recall our cast, crew and I recently produced a short film and sent it off on the festival circuit. Though its festival journey is continuing for a few more months we have had its well received premiere showing at the FilmColumbia Festival in October. As a filmmaker this film’s journey has been strategically planned with the goal of building the widest possible audience to experience the film in the best possible light. The film was created to be a single example of stellar acting in a dramatic form and to stand on its own as a work that takes full advantage of the short film medium of expression. At least for this filmmaker, that’s the direction we purposely took. That doesn’t mean that all filmmakers will or should take that same approach.

You can view the short film form from a filmmaker perspective and still see very different things. I personally prefer the style of a short film that has no reliance on or reflection of other media of expression. Similar to how poems can be distinctly different and recognizable as such from prose, a short film can take on themes and expressions that would be too brief or only compose an element of a larger work. With this approach, you need to find a poet’s scalpel of reaching the heart of what’s being said succinctly. The dropping away of all artifices that don’t directly speak to that tale is acceptable in this interpretation.

But a filmmaker can view short films as an abbreviated expression of a fuller idea. Often filmmakers who have a whole feature in mind will take this view, finding a way of expressing a hint at what the fuller telling would reveal. With this approach the end result is one of promise, tantalizing the audience with the expectations of where a fuller, longer experience would lead them. Often this tack is employed successfully by a writer/director to “show their chops,” as it were and give their feature investors and backers an inkling that supporting the bigger project won’t be such a leap of faith in an unknown quantity. These shorts have an inner appeal alone, but, stand fullest as a promise as something more later, a taste of the main event, as it were.

There are many other ways a filmmaker may approach a short film, among them, skill building experiment, confidence building in yourself and crew, working out ideas early, and on and on. Knowing what approaches are available and being true to the choices you make is key to success as a filmmaker.

But even all of these perspectives differ greatly from how the others involved approach the same project.

Perspective of a short film screenwriter

Take the perspective of a short film screenwriter. Especially if the writer is not a writer/director of the short, gaining the director’s perspective advantages, a screenwriter will have a completely different experience and expectation set. For example, writing a short film typically does not lead to the impression that the writer can handle writing a full feature. All the things you ignore or throw away to make a good short are essential to making a feature script that works. It’s like comparing apples and an orange grove. Whereas a director’s job of running a crew on a short is very similar to running a crew on a feature, writing a feature that works on all aspects is a completely different task. Often the writer will have the skills to pull it off, but, having done a short doesn’t show that you can do that. Only writing an actual feature can give those assurances to the people who would employ you to do that.


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But writing a short does have its advantages. For one, learning how your dialog truly translates to the screen is an essential aspect of being able to write well. Being able to write believable character interaction is a key skill and a short film allows you to quickly see the end results run through the complete process. It’s an invaluable learning tool in that sense. Also, writing a short gets the writer out of their own head for a little while. Being able to participate in the short’s development journey and being there as the sausage is made, so to speak, will do you good stead in being ready for the big leagues when that spec finally starts getting traction. And the associations you make while creating the short may serve as great networking as each of your respective careers progress. Quite a number of screenwriter’s had their careers start with a couple of friends making shorts and the group followed each other into the industry to become big names in each of their categories.

We could go on (and probably will later,) but, you get a sense of how the new column style will flow and open up new discussion points along the way.

Let’s see what we will see

In this new excursion format I may not be writing the columns as frequently or at as regular intervals as you’ve become accustomed to. And they may not be as familiar and predictable in type and kind. But I will strive to make them as interesting as I can and give you the tools, questions and perspectives you need to have the best chances at success. But, of course, success is not guaranteed. As always, it depends.

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Legally Speaking, It Depends by Christopher Schiller, Screenwriting How-To Articles
Christopher Schiller

About Christopher Schiller

Christopher Schiller is a NY transactional entertainment attorney who counts many independent filmmakers and writers among his diverse client base. He has an extensive personal history in production and screenwriting experience which benefits him in translating between “legalese” and the language of the creatives. The material he provides here is extremely general in application and therefore should never be taken as legal advice for a specific need. Always consult a knowledgeable attorney for your own legal issues. Because, legally speaking, it depends... always on the particular specifics in each case. Follow Chris on Twitter @chrisschiller, his website, and Google+.

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