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We HUNG with Colette Burson & Dmitry Lipkin

POWER Couples


HUNG creators Colette Burson and Dmitry Lipkin graciously shared their insider insights on screenwriting, series development, and SUCCESSFUL network pitching at a POWER UP workshop. They were profoundly inspiring in their passion for their craft and the joy (and challenge) of bringing their work to an audience.

To be honest, it was startling when they first walked into the room. I thought Kate Winslet and Sam Mendes were making a surprise visit. Seriously, Burson & Lipkin really resemble Winslet & Mendes! Throughout the evening, I kept having the sense that we were seeing the American version of that very creative and powerful British POWER COUPLE.

Burson and Lipkin were originally scheduled to appear at the POWER UP 2Day TV Writer/Producer Intensive workshop in September but were unable to attend. Being the committed, supportive artists that they are, they rescheduled and presented the evening of 22 October at the Production Office of Angela Robinson (D.E.B.S.) and Alex Kondracke (the L word). Their production office was very dramatic — lots of brick, high ceilings, amazing wood accents — trés urban chic. Robinson and Kondracke are previous POWER UP grantees. Being in their space provided additional subtext to an already exciting event. There was a feeling of “great-POWER-UP-connections-equals-great-success” wafting through the autumn air.

burson_coletteBurson and Lipkin spoke about their bumpy road to success. Appropriately, Burson commented that success in the film and TV business is NOT like the male orgasm. “It’s not that you write the perfect script, meet the right person and suddenly your career shoots straight ahead,” said Burson miming something we might see on HUNG. She squinted her eyes slightly and began feeling the area all around her. Then, she grinned and said, “You try this, you write that, you talk to these people, you rewrite again and take another meeting. A career in this business is a lot more like the female orgasm!” Everyone in the room laughed in agreement and understanding.

lipkin_dmitryRussian-born Lipkin was a successful New York playwright who decided to move to LA to launch a career writing for television and film. To get started, he took a class through the UCLA extension to motivate himself to complete a spec script. He shared how he used that script to get an agent at CAA and how that agent got him meetings with producers. After a couple of frustrating YEARS, they asked him to write something original. He did. Happily. Not too long after that, he came up with the idea for THE RICHES. Then, a serendipitous meeting with a new executive at Maverick Studios and a cigarette break with Eddie Izzard led the creation of his first series … which was derailed by the writer’s strike after the first season. See, there it is, the female orgasm. Never a straight shot. (Variety has a nice summary of the path to HUNG for Tennessee Wolf Pack Productions — the Burson/Lipkin brand.) In their downtime during the strike, Burson and Lipkin came up with the idea for HUNG, a half-hour comedy that Lipkin said he was looking particularly excited about because longer shows can become a bit “Balkanized.” So Eastern European, so erudite.

During their presentation, husband and wife shared about the ways they balance their family life (two children) and their work life. Burson also talked about her love of writing about a specific milieu. She gave an example of the changing milieu around the “politics of water.” bursonLipkin Burson observed that over the years, the wealthy have begun to acquire all of the land around water … around oceans, lakes, rivers and streams … making it difficult for the average family to have access to water. They used this in the development of HUNG. Burson and Lipkin decided that main character, Ray, would have waterfront property because it had been handed down by his family, but he would be surrounded by McMansions and condescending, surly neighbors. This increased the dramatic tension for Ray and allowed Burson/Lipkin to explore this shifting “water milieu.”

Similarly, Lipkin explored the milieu of the American Gypsy in THE RICHES, a story about a character born into a family of thieves and con artist who wants to go straight. It was fascinating listening the them discuss story creation and character development.

Burson & Lipkin’s Writing Recommendations:
  • Life is long and your writing will evolve. You want your writing psyche to be fierce as possible to work in this business.
  • Young writers often think they have a writing “style.” This is often just a writing rut. Strengthen your writing by working on new things.
  • Always be thinking: What does the character want that they cannot have and what is he/she doing to move toward it?
  • Know the Dramatic Question for the series, the Major Character Arcs and the Thematic Question for the individual show. Episodes that connect to all three will be more satisfying for the audience.
  • Currency is this town is ideas, we sell ideas, not scripts or shows.
Burson & Lipkin’s Pitching Recommendations:
  • Pitching is a tool for you. It helps you find what is dramatic, exciting and engaging as you speak it to others.
  • You pitch a series thematically. You pitch the story engine and the structure of the typical episode.
  • Practice your pitch. Role play it.
  • Be yourself in the pitch room. They want to know you’re sharp, have a wide range of interests, are well-versed in numerous topics AND you are going to be easy to work with.
  • One way to begin a pitch is to mention well-known incident related to your story to engage the listener (remember a few years ago when a woman was slapping her child in a parking lot and it was discovered she was a “Traveller” … an American Gypsy?) If they recall, continue with facts to deepen your connection to the story, then reveal your characters and milieu.
Burson & Lipkin’s Networking Recommendations:
  • Network, network, network. Luck comes from unexpected avenues from surprising people.
  • As relative newcomers, they spoke to the difficulty in breaking into the industry and, while they want to give people an opportunity, it can be difficult because of the inherent risk of an unknown quantity. They praised HBO, (“God Bless HBO,” they intoned over and over again) for their support for HUNG.
  • People remember. They told an amusing story about a writer they tracked for over TWELVE YEARS because they liked his work.
  • While doing a short film for POWER UP (after she’d already done a feature), Burson joked that there were days she thought it should be called Power Down but went on to say she learned a lot and was grateful for the break.

This completion to the already inspiring POWER UP Workshop was fabulous! I’m looking forward to seeing the couple at the Power Premiere on November 1 … it should be an excellent opportunity to hear more about what they’re up to! Besides, I’m anxious to hear more about their son, Wolfe, a young man with a passion for self-direction already! Couldn’t happen to a nicer couple!

Other posts of interest:
Don’t Read the POWER Up Summaries
Workshop Day Two
Workshop Day One
POWER Up Changed Alec’s Life (and mine, too)

How POWER UP & FACEBOOK changed my life …

… and to be totally honest, changed my son’s life, too.

puLogoBy definition, POWER UP is the Professional Organization of Women in Entertainment Reaching Up, the only 501(c)(3) Non-Profit Film Production Company & Educational Organization for Women and the GLBTQ Community. Before Alec was born, I had been planning on moving to SoCal to work in the film and television industry. His birth put that plan on hold for a few years. I continued to write screenplays, produce films and teach filmmaking to keep my inner fire alive. I taught 3D animation and learned to composite animated and live action elements to find new ways of telling my stories.

Alec grew up to love film as much as I did and decided he wanted to work in the industry, too. He worked in a post production house in Manhattan for three years to hone his skills. A confluence of events and it looked like we were both going to be wanting to head west to find our fortunes in LaLa Land. Our network in LA was quite small, so I started working on an idea for how to widen our circle of friends and increase our chances of success. How to do that? I felt like Winnie the Pooh … think, think, think.

Then, I recalled my friend had told me about this organization in LA that helped women be successful in the film industry. I had checked their website out years earlier and decided to revisit it. There I discovered the lists for the annual POWER PREMIERE. The Power Premiere is an annual event honoring the ten most amazing gay women (and, now, men) in the film and television industry. I read the biographies of all those women, starting searching the internet and trades for anything I could find. These were the people I wanted to be working with, the people I wanted to be meeting.

I started reading about the POWER UP events and knew I’d be able to meet some of these extraordinary people at these events but there were two problems. The events were every other month or so and I wanted a more enduring, continuing connection. So, I looked up all of the “power people” on Facebook. I could find most of them. So, I figured, what the heck, and sent a friend request.

When I started this process, most of my friends on FB were family, friends, students, fellow faculty, other indie filmmakers AND the folks I’d been meeting at the Sundance Film Festival since 1996. So, I had a good group of creative, artistic, productive friends … just very few that were inside the established industry.

priest_mI was pleased that many of them accepted my friend request. Suddenly the day-to-day professional LA conversation started to be in my daily world. There were several friends and family members (like my son) who were dubious about my plan of action. Then, one day, VFX Exec Producer Jenny Fulle accepted my friend request. (I later looked her up in IMDb and was amazed at her body of film work!) I noticed that people often teased her about her SCRABBLE prowess, accused her of memorizing the dictionary and things like that. So, one Sunday morning, Jenny sent out Facebook general distress call. She wanted to know if anyone was willing to play Scrabble with her. I accepted the challenge and was stomped into the ground. We kept playing. I asked her how she won so often and how her scores were so high. To her regret, she told me, and now I stomp her as often as she stomps me. We do have a blissful Scrabble relationship.

During our games, we conversed about our impending move, Alec’s career goals and my film aspirations. We arranged a brunch to meet face-to-face. Jenny has a son, so I felt completely comfortable bringing Alec along to the meeting. We all hit it off great and a great friendship was formed. A couple weeks later, Jenny called Alec to tell him she knew of a potential PA job on a good film. His resume was tweaked, his dress suit was dry cleaned and an interview was set. Less than two days after moving to LA, Alec had a job working on PRIEST, a multi-million dollar VFX film. It was amazingly lucky.

jennySombreroHe loves his job. The hours are long and the work is hard. He doesn’t care, he loves his job. He loves the people he works with. He loves what he is doing. Night before last, the PA’s on the film got to dress up and be extras on one of the city scenes. You never know which pieces of film they’re going to use in the final edit so Alec may not appear in the film. He said it was cold shooting all night and the shoes were uncomfortable but, I could tell, he was happy with his tiny little moment on film.

Without POWER UP, I never would have known Jenny existed. Without Facebook (and Scrabble), I never would have had the chance to develop a friendship with Jenny and she never would have met Alec. I thank heaven every day for Jenny Fulle and POWER UP. They changed both of our lives forever. Tomorrow, how POWER UP changed my life.

Why We Need Organizations to Support Women in TV/Film

Women working in FILM
In 2008, women comprised 16% of all directors, executive producers, producers, writers, cinematographers, and editors working on the top 250 domestic grossing films. This represents a decline of 3 percentage points from 2001 and an increase of 1 percentage point from 2007. Women accounted for 9% of directors in 2008, an increase 3 percentage points from 2007. This figure represents no change from the percentage of women directing in 1998.

Women working in TV
Women comprised 26% of all creators, executive producers, producers, directors, writers, editors, and directors of photography working on situation comedies, dramas, and reality programs. This percentage represents no change from last season. Women writers and directors of photography experienced significant declines this year. The percentage of women writers dropped from 35% in the 2006-07 season to 23% in 2007-08. The percentage of women directors of photography declined from a meager 3% in 2007-08 to a microscopic 1% in 2007-08.

© Dr. Martha Lauzen, 2008. All rights reserved as quoted in POWER UP Magazine

Your Script Can Get You a Meeting w/ Liz Sarnoff

183If you have a GREAT script that you’re ready to get in front of someone who can make a difference in your career, you now have one of the best chances in the world!

The 501(c)3 non-profit organization POWER UP recently held a 2Day TV Writer/Producer Intensive and, as part of that workshop, participants and other interested screenwriters have been offered the opportunity submit a script for review. The top FIVE screenwriters will get a 30-minute, face-to-face, one-on-one with LOST Executive Producer Elizabeth Sarnoff. Thirty minutes to discuss your writing and your career with a professional writer/producer who has written for NYPD BLUE, DEADWOOD, and LOST.

And, as contests go, the odds on this contest are pretty good. There were only about 50 writers in the workshop. If your script is good, your chances have never been better.

To put these odds into perspective, a record 6,380 scripts are in contention for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences’ 24th annual Don and Gee Nicholl Fellowships in screenwriting competition. They will award FIVE fellowships in November. That’s right, five (5) out of 6,380 will win. Of the thousands who submit to the Sundance Screenwriting Fellowships, four (4) are chosen.

So, if your script is ready … if you are ready … the POWER UP Screenwriting Entry is online. Deadline is 15 October 2009. Submit your PDF online.

Why You Should NOT Read the POWER UP Summaries

I am now two days post POWER-UP workshop (not postal, just POST, you know after) and I am still going like a house on fire. I am so glad I did this workshop and, I am realizing, that reading about the workshops so pales in comparison to actually attending the workshop. It’s the difference between having a thimble full of water versus a gallon of water when you’re trying to cross the desert. It’s the illusion of survival versus actually thriving. If you are really committed to being successful, you need to get your butt into the chair, your name onto the list, your face into the crowd. It’s just what’s so.

Don’t get me wrong, the event was FLIPPIN’ FANTASTIC. I took 21 pages of notes. That’s right, twenty one pages of notes. And I didn’t capture everything but I sure as heck tried. (I wish the event had been recorded but that’s another story). I’ve summarized a lot of the key points in the previous posts but, as you can imagine, it isn’t close to 21 pages of content. I just don’t want to type that long and I don’t think most of you will really read it.

BUT, even if I did write it all, even if I wrote everything I thought I heard or remembered, it wouldn’t be the same as you being there. You just can’t network in abstentia. You have to get into the room. Prior to the workshop, I sent POWER-UP co-founder stacylisaStacy Codikow an email asking if this workshop was going to give us “real information AND real access.” She was polite in her reply (I might have ripped me a new one). “You’ll get out of it what you put into it, she said, “It’s up to you.” And she pushed everyone all weekend to get to know not only the presenters but the other people in the room.

Stacy was funny. Half mother hen and half drill sergeant, pushing, prodding, driving us on. She was also the “closed captioning for the new-to-the-industry-impaired.” The presenters would be talking about a pivotal moment in their career and Stacy would point to the important (and often obscure underpinnings) of the interaction. We learned how to handle a general meeting, a pitch meeting and a dinner party (never, ever pitch at a party). She also had the delicate job of pulling a couple of “guard dog” attendees off everyone. There were a few folks that, I swear, attacked any potential connection with such ferocity that they were destroying every chance they might have to succeed. Stacy delicately tried to rein them in, help them succeed in spite of themselves.

I was so delighted to hear Stacy had worked on CAGNEY AND LACEY. I so loved that show and writer Barbara Avedon was one of the first screenwriters to ever read my scripts seriously and help me along. Not only that, when Heather was pregnant with Alec, we were watching Cagney and Lacey when the contractions started. It’s always near and dear to our hearts. And I loved PROFILER and D.E.B.S. (I actually paid $50 for a ticket at Sundance to go to the premiere AND Alec got the final DEBS trading card from director Angela Robinson on a shuttle bus for me.) Weird little touchpoints.

During the course of the seminar, a woman kept standing up to comment on copyright and legal issues. I thought, who is this buzz saw in the back corner? Turns out that POWER-UP co-founder Lisa Thrasher used to work for FOX (as I recall) in the legal department. This chick knows her stuff. Apparently she does a producing workshop that focuses on making sure you get your film made and avoid as many legal pitfalls as possible. I’ll probably go to that and you are sure welcome to read about it but, if you’re smart and committed to your success, you really should get your butt in the chair. I’ll post when I know the dates.

So, now that you’ve probably read THREE blog posts on the POWER-UP event, why am I telling you NOT to do it? Because you’ll get a heck of a lot more out of it if you attend them personally instead.

POWER UP Workshop – Day Two

After an amazing first day, the question was, could the second day of the POWER UP 2Day Writer/Producer Intensive be as good as the first. The day was starting with someone I’d never heard of BUT, to be honest, she knocked my socks off. Day Two totally rocked!

laurenLAUREN IUNGERICH (pronounced YOU-KNOW-RICK) came in all bouncy with her blonde hair and her luscious vanilla-scented lotion that wafted through the room (did I mention I hadn’t had time for breakfast?) and she set the room on fire! There were the questions about her college years and internships and all that. It got really interesting when she started talking about a spoof movie she had done called SKäNK. The film was about several Scandinavian supermodel lesbians who had become directors. The models-cum-directors were named Inga, Molle, Hanna and Inga 2. They had SKäNK hats made that they distributed, posters they put up and a website … that studio officials were calling after the festival to get more information and hire these supermodels … I mean directors. Funny, irreverent, bawdy, subversive and totally hooked in to what is appealing to the market, Lauren schooled us in how to generate pilot ideas, create powerful tag lines, and how to handle yourself in a pitch meeting. Like the presenters from the previous day, Lauren affirmed that you need to connect with your material on a personal level to make it work.

Of greatest value to me was how Lauren revealed how the process works from beginning to end. First, someone reads your work and appreciates the ORIGINAL VOICE; voice is everything. Then, you’re referred to and invited in for a “General Meeting” … a get to know you soiree where everyone takes a look at what it would be like to work together (because there are long hours in television). If that goes well, a “Pitch Meeting” will follow. If one of your ideas is appealing, you will be PAID for the idea and be asked to write a pilot. Then, most likely, the idea will go no further and you’ll be out pitching another pilot idea. But, hey, you’re getting paid along the way.

Lauren’s list :

  • One of the most important elements of the pitch is how you connect with it personally.
  • NEVER leave anything behind at a pitch meeting. Your presentation should leave an indelible image in their mind and make them want more.
  • When creating your pilot, join the story in motion. Show the audience who the characters are and what they’re struggling with in their current circumstances.
  • Never rely on others. Rely on yourself. Work with effective producers.
  • In television, they buy your story and they’re buying you, too.

CarolWriter/comedian CAROL LEIFER not only wrote for SEINFELD, we hear she is the inspiration for the character of “Elaine.” While in college, Leifer was dating (then unknown) actor Paul Reiser which brought her into a milieu populated by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld. Leifer loved both performing stand-up comedy and comedy writing. She shared that David and Seinfeld thought the funniest things happen in real life. Any Seinfeld story based on real events was preferred. In fact, we discovered that the “Marble Rye” episode had happened to Leifer. She went to a dinner party in which the host forgot to serve the bread and the guests snuck it home with them. Leifer also affirmed that this business is all RELATIONSHIPS, you must be a pleasant person who is easy to work with. And, you must network assiduously. With a deadpan seriousness, Leifer said she still had every phone number she’d ever been given.

Carol’s suggestions :

  • You must be your own biggest fan. Always.
  • Mine the moments of your life.
  • Writers write. No one can stop you. Tell your stories.
  • Don’t hide from what you are … when you lie about your age (or whatever) the terrorists win.

lizI was so excited about the final presenter at the POWER UP event … the executive producer of my favorite show, LOST. The weekend was winding down but our enthusiasm was mounting by the minute. ELIZABETH SARNOFF started her presentation by saying she totally disagreed with what screenwriter Josh Olson had said in The Village Voice about being unwilling to read screenplays. Sarnoff said she loves original work! She said that when hiring writers for a show (like LOST), the skills AND personality of the writer come into play because you have to choose “people you want to spend 9 hours per day with, involved in a steel cage death match.” I think she was kidding. A little. Sarnoff shared a writing exercise she got from David Milch. While working with Milch, she learned to write for no less than 20 minutes, no more than 50 minutes, a scene with two characters and no setting. Just two humans deeply involved in human connection. Then, we were told to put it away for six months, come back later and discover what stories are at our heart and core. I tried the exercise and found it very useful. To be honest, I didn’t last six months. I maybe waited six hours before I read it again. And I liked it.

Liz’s tips :

  • Don’t think about writing when you’re not writing. Thinking about writing is totally ego-centric. Writing is like prayer; ego disappears.
  • Actors, when stripped of preparation, become generous, adaptive creatures.
  • More people crumble under success than failure. Success is complicated.

With POWER UP, success is still complicated but it gets a helping hand.

For more information on this event, you can look at JD Disalvatore’s blog. For more information on POWER UP, visit PowerUpFilms.org.

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