Ben Cahan on Talentville and Rising to the Top
Ben Cahan, creator of Final Draft, discusses his online script critiquing platform, Talentville.
By Brock Swinson.
After the success of screenwriting software Final Draft, creator Ben Cahan shifted gear to create his newest industry innovation, Talentville. Ideally, the program is much like an enhanced version of a University screenwriting course that allows for writers to share, read, network, learn, and potentially find footing in an overcrowded industry while working within an ocean of peer feedback.
“Every now and then, bing-bang-boom happens, but more realistically, users join the site, upload a script, and get them critiqued,” begins Cahan. “Tourist memberships are free but it’s important to get involved.” Within the platform users earn Talent Dollars for reading and critiquing others, which in turn, allows for their scripts to be read by others in a global give-and-take program.
Within the Talentville economy, scripts can be uploaded and critiqued in an ongoing exchange, but there’s much more to the program than fictional currency. Users who read more will undoubtedly learn the ins and outs of story as they learn what works and what doesn’t. “Now if you’re a pretty good writer and you have a well-formed screenplay, you’ll rise higher in the rankings. We advertise top-of-the-week or top-of-the-month and then it’s possible one of our industry folks will come across the screenplay to see if it’s worth taking a look. Write good reviews and get the right eyes on your script. We’re creating a market that doesn’t currently exist online. Like Amazon, one review won’t kill you as long as the overall statistics are working in your favor.”
When it comes down to the fundamentals, Cahan has read hundreds of scripts. “From my perspective, when reading a script, there are dozens of things that tell me whether or not the writer knows what he’s doing. A good story with three-dimensional characters are ideal in concept but presentation is the first wave to wash over the reader. There are visual cues and writing-styles that present themselves immediately. Surprisingly, many people do not get these aspects right the first time.”
“Amateur writers need to be careful when reading production-quality screenplays because experienced professionals have the potential to skip the rules. With amateur screenplays, there are simple things to consider.
For example, avoid over-writing. Keep your writing succinct and visual. Assume that the audience is not full of idiots rather than over-explaining every detail. Most readers are relatively intelligent — we get it. We want to be entertained by the story and the visual. Tell me what’s happening on the screen rather than why the character is doing things.
Frankly, everyone does this. It’s not just amateurs. We want to editorialize. We want the audience to know that the lead character is mad at his brother because his brother short-changed him or lied to him, but that won’t show on the screen. Non-visual works great in books but it’s not for film.
“If I’m looking at five pages then I want to see precise action rather than editorializing. Give the reader credit for getting it. If a character is upset or mad, maybe he scrunches his face or turns away but don’t tell us what’s going on his head. If the writing is concise, the reader will understand the underlying message and see the visual just from reading the script. That’s what makes reading a screenplay so great. Readers immediately recall whether a screenplay was a breeze to read or a chore.
“The second necessary aspect for me is creativity within dialogue. Writing a natural conversation is perhaps the most difficult part of the process. Amateur writers will explain things that we already know or that the character obviously already knows. A husband will ask his wife, “How did we meet again, dear?” I mean, it’s his wife—they both know how they met.
In order to avoid repeating lines or over-explaining, I always recommend for writers to read their scenes out loud or with a friend. This will determine whether or not it at least sounds halfway natural. If you’re going to provide information within a scene, it needs to be expressed creatively. Be clever.
Avoid the “Um… Hmm… Well,…” that exists in everyday life. If those beats are needed, that will be up to the actor. Figure out the flow and make sure it doesn’t feel like two robots interacting. Natural dialogue takes practice and it takes getting cut-up by other writers and other people who read your scripts. Keep working on it to find your flow.”
“Another aspect that entices me as a reader are writing pedestrian scenes in a clever manner. A guy knocks on the door and a girl answers the door and she says, ‘Hi, how are you?’ Anyone can come up with that. As a producer, I’m looking for something clever that I haven’t seen before. Tell me some of the sideline action – whether the protagonist is eyeing the other character, looking into the distance, or pulling a flower from the shrubs – anything that can make a scene stand out.
“When I read a screenplay that I’ve just seen played out the same way in thirty other scripts, then there’s nothing enticing me to keep reading. If it’s so ordinary that I could have come up with it, then why would I buy it? I’m looking for memorable lines – the kind of stuff that ends up in the trailer. These are this author’s characters and that author has to know these characters – what they think, what they feel, how they are viewing the scene – and that has to come across to me as the reader. Put time into your script. Mix it up a little. I want to see a scene that is clever and new and different, something I haven’t seen before.”
On occasion, Cahan finds exactly what he’s look for in a single line of dialogue or an individual character. “For me, I just really need to feel a connection to the characters. They need to be real and they need to have some sort of problem or situation that I can empathize with. Picture a character that is going through a tough time or tragically heroic or just loving to his little brother, those are the kinds of things that pull me into the story and make me root for character. Make your audience care about the character.”
“Ultimately, when you’ve read 110 pages, there are things to consider when moving on to that second act. You’ve set the story up and introduced your character, revealed their background along with what they are up to and set up the inciting incident, but I would rather be entertained than worried about whether or not things are structured correctly with plot points and a climax.
“Bottom line, make sure the presentation looks sharp and show me something that I’ve never seen before. Show me that you know your character.
“A lot of times, a writer will get a critique and change their character to satisfy that critique. That immediately tells me that they didn’t think of their story in the same kind of depth as someone writing a novel. Essentially, they’ve created enough background to satisfy the screenplay, but failed to go deeper. When you understand where a character has been and how they see the world, you will understand who the full character.”
“I read a lot of books and it’s amazing how detailed characterization is in books. Characterization is a tremendous amount of what makes up a book. We know why they act as they do because we know the root cause of the actions. This drives my belief in the characters and I wish more screenwriters spent more time defining the characters and what that character wants and needs. If you write cute dialogue and then go back and change it, then maybe you don’t know your character, because that’s not something they would say.”
Moving away from the craft of screenwriting, Cahan describes how Talentville bottlenecks the best of the best screenplays. “Currently, Talentville is a proving ground. It’s a place where users can find out if they’re in the ball game without having to spend hundreds of dollars. It’s a place to find out that you are two drafts away from being ready,” adds Cahan. “I worked with a writer for three or four months to shape the script I later gave to Todd Harris (The Kids Are All Right, Jeepers Creepers). From a management position, I’m looking for writers who can get to the point where I feel like I can give their script to my connections in the industry. Even with the reputation I built with Final Draft, if I send someone three cruddy scripts they’ll second-guess reading the fourth one.”
“In reality, Talentville is about who works the hardest, much like the industry itself. Every screenplay belongs to the writer. It’s their script. They can change it or not. The true question is: what are they willing to do for it? If they’re trying to build a career or simply sell a single script, they’ll need to understand compromises.
“There isn’t a short cut. Screenwriters are not typically willing to listen, but the guy who joined yesterday is different than the guy who spends time on the site every day for six months. In retrospect, despite my reputation for software, producing is a different game and I have to prove myself with projects I endorse so I’m looking for more feature films.
“Overall, Talentville is one resource for writers but there’s no replacement for a certain amount of education. Anybody who wants to be taken seriously needs to understand that it’s all right to have a typo or two, but if you have fifty mistakes or mixed tenses, you’re wasting everyone’s time. After reading 120 pages over and over again, writers need a fresh set of eyes and that’s what Talentville can deliver. It gives people a shot, but a weak script will never rise to the top. Overall, the potential is endless and can be a win-win for both parties.
“Like any producer, I need a real reason to read a script a second time. I’ve made mistakes and sent in scripts too early but screenwriters need to be precise. If you’re expecting to receive a check for $500,000 then you need to act like it. Be worth the offer and work hard for it.
“Within the realm of Talentville, the benefit of living in Hollywood is growing smaller. You can be anywhere if you find an advocate. You’ve got to get serious about it and be open to criticism as well as advice. Figure out why others don’t see what you see and make use of the resources available. This is a job to deliver to an audience and Talentville is that first audience.”
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