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Q&A with Howard Allen - The Script Doctor

Script spoke with script consultant, Howard Allen, about his company, ScriptDoctor, and his new venture into filmmaking with CoyoteMoon Films.

ScriptMag: What effect does living in Tucson, Arizona, have on your work in the film industry? Do you make frequent trips to L.A.?
Howard Allen: I’m expecting to make a lot more trips to L.A. in the future because of my new film company. I’ve traveled more in the past to do workshops. Screenwriting and consulting do not absolutely require a residence in L.A. but success and L.A. seem to go together. Making small-budget indie films in Arizona has some real advantages over L.A.


You recently established the production company CoyoteMoon Films. What prompted you to become a filmmaker? Why do you think so many screenwriters become filmmakers?
To quote one of my inspirations, Heather Hale: storytellers need to be filmmakers. And I would add that even the best producers and directors are in touch with their inner screenwriter. On the website for CoyoteMoon Films you’ll see a Mission Statement all about honoring story and all our storytellers. Screenwriters don’t have to become filmmakers to find collaborators who honor their story—but it is the short route.

Has becoming a producer changed the way you approach screenwriting?
Doing a Business Plan and talking to investors is a good ego adjustment for a screenwriter. It has changed the way I consult with writers. My analysis has always had a special emphasis on looking at scripts from the inside out—the way actors and directors do. Because I’ve been a professional actor and director. As a producer, I can now consult with an eye on the relative costs of screenwriter choices—especially unnecessarily expensive choices—and an eye on how a script might attract name actors and directors.

Do you write scripts differently if you intend to produce them, as opposed to when you're writing scripts on spec?
Yes and no. This is the Catch 22 of screenwriting. If you write a script—even a work-for-hire job—just to satisfy a producer’s marketing scheme, then you risk formulaic characters and plot structures. Flat and superficial and predictable. But, if you write the most cutting-edge cliché-breaking characters in expensive locations loaded with CGI effects, then the spec-script writer can get huge resistance in the marketplace.

CoyoteMoon Films lists an impressive board of Professional Advisors. What is their purpose?
We run stories passed them. We run production choices passed them. We want their advice about the industry—especially in areas we’ve not even considered. Besides, do I have to tell anyone this is a relationships and referrals business??

Why does CoyoteMoon Films accept queries, considering you write your own screenplays?
This is not simply a vanity enterprise. Honoring the story and the storyteller means looking for the best we can find from inside and outside the CoyoteMoon Films team. Who wouldn’t make Frozen River or 500 Days Of Summer or Juno or City Island if they got that script?

What draws you to a script? Is your criteria different when it comes to what type of screenplay you would consider for production?
What draws me to a script is a confident storyteller who has written enough to have their own voice. And they know how to landscape the Subtext (my principal area of expertise). The only difference for CoyoteMoon Films is whether we can afford to be the sole producer of the ultra-low budget film or whether we can only bring the script and an attachment or two to a much bigger prodco.

What sets ScriptDoctor apart from other script analysis services?
First, I am a writer talking to writers and looking at story from the inside out. Most analysts lay their own script formulas and genre templates on top of their client’s script. Outside in. From the inside, I talk about what is working and what is not working in ways that encourage rather than dictate a rewrite. From the inside, I can help them see whether their Actor Moments make great Character Journeys and whether they use great Subtext Tools to attract directors, producers and distributors. One of my tools is featured in the new book from Tarcher/Penguin called “Now Write: Screenplays.”

What is your core message or advice with regard to screenwriting?
I use a concept called Dramatic Action to insure writers (plays and novels too) make their POV character pro-active in an organic way. Passive Protagonists of all kinds are the biggest problem I see in client’s scripts. Even non-linear storytelling works best when the audience knows why the ending the movie is the ending of the story.

Why did you create the Contest of Contest Winners screenwriting competition?
Years ago, even before the current explosion of contests, I saw the value of a contest with a smaller number of entries and a guarantee that Every Entrant gets 2 sets of real coverage from fellow writers (a $300 value in the market). Unlike some Contests which seem designed merely to collect entrance fees. Plus my judges and I enjoy good scripts.

What do you think is the primary benefit to the winners of your contest?
The marketability of their Log Lines when we send out the eblast of our Finalists. Plus all our entrants report real value from Coverage that tells them some about what is working and not working in their scripts. The Winner gets $500 worth of Story Notes, which combines feedback from multiple readers and industry professionals and my Diagnosis & Medication.

ScriptDoctor was rated Rated No. 1 Cream of the Crop in the 2010 Survey of Analysts/Consultants by Creative Screenwriting magazine. Since CS is selling access to the results of its survey, details about the survey results - such as who was top-rated - aren't readily available. What has the top rating meant to you?
I sure wish they gave access to the survey in more ways and less expensive ways. Maybe someday soon. It has meant some new clients inside and outside the U.S. have read the testimonials on my website along with the detailed, professional scoring in the survey.

Creative Screenwriting magazine claims some script consultants objected strongly to questions about marketing being included as part of the magazine's survey. Any thoughts on why marketing would be a touchy subject?
There is a very real gray area when it comes to including marketability in Script Analysis. I tell my clients that 90% of this is between them and their agents and/or managers. I give some very basic feedback on marketability as I mentioned above in the answer about my Producer eyes on a script. I don’t think script consultants should do Industry coverage: “Pass” or “Recommend” or Graphs filled with grades on script categories. We are there, like another hero John August said: to be a coach on the sideline helping the rewrite. Let the paid Industry Readers do that sometimes horrifying job of Marketability Coverage.

What importance do you place on marketing?
I refer you to my number one hero, William Goldman in Adventures In The Screen Trade: in the marketplace “Nobody Knows Anything.” And marketing is a very broad term. In the worst sense it is the tail that wags the dog in the film biz. For example, the High Concept marketing pitch of a new summer teen comedy might be perfect for One Sheets and TV ads. But, why can’t the teen comedy be Judd Apatow’s team of Seth Rogan & Evan Goldberg on Superbad? A brilliant cliché-breaking teen comedy that is ALSO highly marketable. It makes no sense to demean a movie just for being marketable. It makes lot of sense to ask why the movie could not have included real Subtext, Character Journeys and magic in the story structure.

As a sidebar to marketing and promotion - A google of your name produced as a top result a Wikipedia entry for a serial killer named Howard Allen. The second result also went to Wikipedia, for a namesake who was a naval officer and hero in the War of 1812. Wikipedia took third place as well, with Anne Rice (real first name Howard, middle name Allen). Your IMDb page came up fourth.
Search Engine Optimization—do I have to tell you—is the world we now inhabit. See Wikipedia. I’m glad I came up fourth that time at least. We all want to have a serial killer connection but I’d rather it was from a performance like Anthony Hopkin’s legendary Hannibal Lector. And war hero is always good.

Loved the Ann Rice bit and found this when I wondered about her parents’ choice: “About her unusual given name, Rice said: "My birth name is Howard Allen because apparently my mother thought it was a good idea to name me Howard. My father's name was Howard, she wanted to name me after Howard, and she thought it was a very interesting thing to do. Rice became "Anne" on her first day of school, when a nun asked her what her name was. She told the nun "Anne," which she considered a pretty name.”

Consulting, teaching, scriptwriting, acting, journalism, the theatre, and now filmmaking. Are you following your bliss, or being practical?
My bliss has always been connected to storytelling really. Actors do it. Journalists do it—in a non-fiction way. My teaching, consulting and filmmaking all aim to help storytellers with their story. Plus, I’m a performer at heart and even this interview is fun. Following your bliss—as Joseph Campbell would say—has everything to do with the stories of heroes in our cultures. And even the story of our own lives when we cast ourselves as the hero?

For more info on Howard Allen, visit ScriptDoctor and CoyoteMoon Films.