Monday, March 2, 2015

Time For a New Query Letter, Charlie Brown!


I've always felt a kinship with Charlie Brown. I devoured Peanuts books as a child, I played Charlie Brown in a totally illegal eighth grade production of A Charlie Brown Christmas, and the first play I ever directed was You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Oh, and also? The football. I get his thing with the football.

So here's what happened, and I haven't talked much about it because it has taken awhile to process and come to terms with, but I feel like I should put it out there. Some of you may recall, and some may not, that not too long ago I signed with a literary agent, one employed at a legitimate literary agency. Not for anything Race McCloud related, but for my young adult novel Just Debbie. This was last May or so. In fact, I was actually offered representation via e-mail during the final dress rehearsal of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, during my second go-around with the musical.

In hindsight, that should have been my first clue.

My agent and her assistant and I spent much of the summer rewriting Just Debbie; or, you know, they made suggestions and I made edits. During that time, my agent (a woman about my age or a bit younger) happily informed me that she was pregnant with her second child, a detail I wouldn't bring up except, yes, it's relevant a little bit further down the blog.

Come the fall, we were ready to submit, and this, like everything in publishing, is a slow process. My agent told me that, at this point, my job was to sit back and let her do her job. That's a paraphrase, but it's an accurate one. And so I did. It was maddening, of course, but I busied myself by, you know, having a second child (well, I didn't HAVE the child, but I was nearby for it) and by tinkering on a current WIP, book although I'll be honest: most of my writing focus was on what was happening with Just Debbie.

I'm starting a new paragraph here to point this out: I've been writing seriously (or what I would call seriously) for about 16 years now, and signing with an agent was... not to overstate it, but it was a huge step. It was, in a way that probably seems a little silly, reaffirming and validating, sort of a "no, you're not crazy, you can write a little bit" moment for me. It's hard to understand unless you've looked for that moment for 16 years.

Now here's the part with the football.

In December, I got an e-mail from my agent that we needed to talk on the phone. I knew this was either good news or bad news or nothing at all, so in short I had no clue what was going on. After a few minutes of chit-chat she got down to it, and it was clear that we weren't talking about good news or nothing at all.

The agency I signed with was (note the past tense) a small boutique agency, owned and run by one woman who employed (past tense again) a handful of other agents, one of whom was mine. Here's what I learned that December evening: 1.) The agency's owner was retiring. 2.) She was shutting down her agency. 3.) My agent had decided that, with the baby coming and another young son already underfoot, this would not be a good time for her to either strike out on her own or find a new job. 4.) Though she would be wrapping up the final few manuscript submissions we had made for Just Debbie (a number of editors and several very nice publishing houses had wanted to read it), she would not be submitting to any new ones and. 5.) She felt very badly about this. 

All of which, in summation meant this: 6.) I no longer had an agent.

Sort of. Because, technically, Just Debbie was still out under my former agency's banner, and my agent was going to finish up with those requests (I think we're still waiting to hear back, but... well, it's fuzzy at this point). But, no, no more agent, no offer to connect me with a new agent (as of yet), and a few loose ends that still haven't been tied up.

Now, my former agent (you notice the redaction of names here) has been busy having a baby girl, and that baby has just been born and is beautiful. Yes, I've seen pictures. Yes, I remain on good terms with my former agent. Why? Because I'm not one to burn bridges, first of all, and more importantly, there's more to her decision to leave the business than I'm telling you here, more that isn't my place to share but more that I understand completely and better justifies it.

Which doesn't change the fact that I, once again, am an unrepresented writer. Which I've been before. But having had a taste of being represented... let me just say, it's been a lot harder this time around to get back up on the horse. I'm getting there, though. Trust me. If I wasn't, this blog post wouldn't exist.

Look: life is about how you respond to setback, and I lost my agent not because I stopped writing stuff good but because of a domino effect of extenuating circumstances. Besides, of all the things that can go wrong in life, having an agent pulled out from under you isn't the worst.

Still, I can't help but feel sometimes that, of all the Tom Hoefners in the world, I'm the Charlie Browniest.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

That Dark POWER RANGERS Fan-Film (Or, "Let's All Calm Down Now")


Hey, did you see that fan-film short Power/Rangers? That fifteen minute dark-'n-gritty one starring Dawson and the blonde woman from Battlestar? No? Too bad, it's gone. Haim Saban, the owner of the Power Rangers brand, has demanded YouTube and Vimeo pull it, citing copyright infringement.

I got in under the wire, though, and was able to see it. I was, at best, a casual fan of Power Rangers back in the day, but I have kids now and I know it is still a vibrant and very much active franchise, so much so that the current show has built a legacy going back two decades in that it often references the older shows, and welcomes back as special guests members of the old casts. So, yes, if I were the producer of a hit kid's franchise and a highly publicized "dark-n'-gritty" version of said franchise hit the Internet, particularly when I was in the development stage of my own major feature film, then I, too, might set my lawyers on it.

The producer of Power/Rangers, Adi Shankar, as well as legions of Internet fans, are now yelling about free speech and copyright law and parody/satire protection and fair use and all the other stuff that often gets yelled about in moments like this. Full disclosure: I'm not a lawyer. But I'm a college professor who has designed and taught a course on sci-fi/fantasy fan culture, and in that class we spend a lot of time talking about and reading about and hearing debate about these very issues: fan-made work and copyright law and fan's rights, etc., etc. A looooot of time.

So. A few observations based on some things that I've learned/taught myself over the years:

1.) Copyright law and fair use and the like all live in a grey area, and intentionally so. You've got music and film and comics and novels and TV and everything else fans love and build upon, and the intermingling of fan-made stuff and copyright holder-made stuff can be very hard to pull apart and suss out. That being said... the law allows a great deal of latitude to the legal owners of an intellectual property. Essentially (and the precedent for this has been established in the courts in a number of cases): if the copyright holders of an IP can to a reasonable degree establish that a particular fan-created work may infringe upon their ability to make a profit, WHETHER OR NOT THE CREATOR OF THE FAN WORK IS CHARGING FOR SAID WORK, then the courts will more often than not sign with the holder of the IP copyright and issue a cease-and-desist.

This, of course, is why the napkin defense doesn't work. What's the napkin defense, you ask? James Kahn, the director of Power/Rangers, made a statement on Twitter to the point that if he draws a Power Ranger on a napkin and gives it to a friend, that's not illegal, so his film being on YouTube isn't, either. It's a nice thought, but doesn't fly. That napkin given to a single friend likely would not be viewed upon by the court as infringing upon the ability of the IP owner to make a profit, but the same court is far more likely to rule that a film seen by 9 million or so people on YouTube IS infringing upon the IP owner's profit-drawing ability.

2.) Satire and parody are both protected under copyright law, and now Shankar claims that Power/Rangers is a satire, or a parody, depending on which of his interviews you're watching/reading/listening to. An aside: if it's satire, it's piss-poor satire, as the only way anyone would ever know that it's satirical in nature is by reading a column where Shankar has to flat-out say, "Hey! This is satire!" Satire needs to be obvious, or else (IMO, I suppose) it is not satire. So I'm not entirely certain a court would agree with his claims that his film was meant as a satire or a parody. Ask yourself, if you saw it: did YOU think it was a satire or parody? Be honest, now.

3.) Anyone yelling about free speech, please stop. We're a long way from this instance providing any sort of a forum to debate freedom of speech, and I suppose if it made its way deep enough into the courts it could, but "Freedom of Speech" is perhaps the most misunderstood law in America, which is ironic because it's our most important law. Our freedom of speech is simply a guarantee that the government will not persecute you for stating in public your opinion, whatever that opinion may be. The parties in the case of Power/Rangers so far are Adi Shankar, Haim Saban, YouTube, Vimeo, and that's it. This has nothing to do with the federal government; this has nothing to do with freedom of speech. Not yet, anyway. And, honestly? "Freedom of speech" wasn't put front-and-center into the Constitution so people could make shitty Power Rangers fan films.

4.) The idea that big corporations are suppressing the fan artist is laughable. (For the record, Haim Saban is the sole owner of the Power Rangers property and he's not a corporation, just a very rich guy, so this particular debate has nothing to do with corporations.) When there are LITERALLY MILLIONS of examples of fan-created work available for anyone to peruse with but a few mouse clicks or screen swipes or what-have-you, it's really hard to talk about corporate suppression of such material. Disney, Warner Bros., Viacom... name the entertainment company, and 9.999 times out of 10 they just ignore fan-made stuff. Trying to police it is a hopeless quagmire and, frankly, not worth their time. Still, let's be clear: if fan-made stuff that used someone else's IP was brought to court, THE VAST MAJORITY OF THE TIME THE COURTS WOULD SIDE WITH THE IP OWNER. Again, though, as Warner Bros. in particular found out during the initial explosion of Harry Potter fan sites, the battle to suppress fan-made work is a tar pit of bad PR and grassroots anti-establishment efforts that seem very noble but really, when it comes right down to it, are fights for the right to take someone else's property and use it as you want to.

5.) "Fan ownership" is a fallacy. Look: there comes with love of and devotion to a fictional universe a certain amount of a sense of ownership, and the real diehard fans like to say that their favorite story, whatever it is, belongs to them, the fans, and that they made it what it is.

Which is, of course, untrue.

The modern fan is passionate and loyal and creative and appreciative and all of those good things, but far too often far too many fans become entitled and self-centered to the point where their fandom becomes all about THEM and what's important to THEM, and their interest in the actual original IP wanes significantly or, in many cases, turns to genuine disdain. Adi Shankar claims to love Power Rangers, and says that's why he produced his short film. And I'm like, "Dude, for a franchise you claim to love, you sure took one hell of a dump on it."

Which brings me to my final, totally subjective thought here...

6.) Power/Rangers isn't really all that good. No, no, wait... TECHNICALLY it's very impressive, and it's shot well and the effects are well done and the fight choreography is... pretty good, I guess. But the writing, and the plot, and the acting, and the tone... all of that, basically, is crap, which, again, is a subjective opinion to be sure... but I can only imagine that a feature film length of this version of Power Rangers would wear out its welcome very quickly. I mean, it's trying so VERY hard to be so VERY dark-'n-gritty (oh, wait, it's "satirical", wink wink), which is certainly going to play to the people who loved Power Rangers as a kid, grew up without actually growing up, and now have decided that Power Rangers (which by the way is still an EXTREMELY popular kid's franchise) now needs to be "mature." You know, people on the Internet... who are the most likely audience to download the film from Pirate's Bay, anyway. Who would this version of a Power Rangers film NOT play to? The families with kids who love the series now, and love The Avengers, and Star Wars, and Harry Potter, and other great adventure franchises that aren't angry for anger's sake. (I'd also like to discuss the idea that infusing something with blood, sex, drugs, and curse words makes it "mature". It does not. Doing that just turns something into what a little boy's idea of mature is, but it by no means makes that thing actual real-life-grown-up mature.)

All of this, though, is much ado about nothing. Everyone involved, from Dawson to Shankar and Kahn to Haim Saban, is going to get a go-around in the 24 hour news cycle, a little boost in notoriety, maybe a phone call or an e-mail or a lunch meeting, and then that will be that. There will be no lawsuit, no heads will roll, and Shankar will probably end up being hired as a consultant on the forthcoming Power Rangers film or something, which is probably all he ever wanted in the first place.

What, you think he'd turn that offer down on principle? Who do you think he is? A fan?

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Updating the Directing Bucket List

So in recent years I've directed INTO THE WOODS, RENT, the '99 version of YOU'RE A GOOD MAN CHARLIE BROWN, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, THE 39 STEPS... I think it's time for an updated version of my directorial bucket list.

That's right. Just what you've all been waiting for.

HIGH FIDELITY

Adam Mace (@TheRealAdamMace on Twitter) and I are neck-and-neck as to who gets to this one first. One of the most underrated contemporary musical theater scores, and a great story about music and love and love of music, and figuring out how to grow up when you're already in your thirties.

CHESS

Yeah, I'm the one. I love CHESS. I love the score, I love the story, I love the characters, I love the intrigue and cloak-and-daggerness of it. It's a musical about Cold War politics and an international chess tournament, so you understand why it isn't perhaps as mainstream an ABBA musical as MAMMA MIA. But I love CHESS.

DISNEY'S BEAUTY & THE BEAST

Still haven't done it. Maybe the longest-standing show on my list.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN

You want to direct THE PRODUCERS. I want to direct the (imminently flawed) YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN. Don't judge. Actually, what I'd really like to direct is BLAZING SADDLES, but... alas.

[title of show]

No, really, that's the actual title. It's a musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical. We'll hand out aspirin at intermission. I have a hunch I'll get to this one sooner rather than later. Four actors and a piano? Sign me up!

IN THE HEIGHTS

Actually, I think I don't actually want to direct this as much as I want to play Usnavi. One tan and one goatee later, and I'm in!

SUNSET BOULEVARD

But only a low-tech version. I've got ideas.

JOSEPH & THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT

One of my first ever favorite musicals. Story theater at its finest. My version involves no Megamix, puppets, and Jawas from STAR WARS. How have I not done this already?

JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR

Revelation: I apparently like Andrew Lloyd Weber a lot. I'm thinking: a presidential candidate, and YouTube. I don't know what that means, either.

THE BOOK OF MORMON

I think I might have issues with religion. This will have to do until Trey and Matt do a SOUTH PARK stage musical.

SHREK

That's who I'd be too, Shrek. That's who I'd be too.

FROZEN
It's coming. (Oh, relax. That's fan art.)

AVENUE Q

... and until FROZEN gets here, this other Bobby Lopez musical will have to do. (It's almost the same thing. Right?)

AMERICAN IDIOT

I don't think this has a plot. I don't care. Do YOU know the enemy?

I'm sure I forgot something, but this is a good start and I have clothes to go get out of the dryer. These should keep me busy for a couple of years, anyway.

Monday, January 5, 2015

I Invented a Sport

One of the great things about writing fiction, and spec fiction at that, is that you can never guess what the craft is going to ask you to do.

So without further ado, I present to you the rules... of Swaugerball.

  • The game is played on a large ringed field of grass; 3 large rings around a central green. Scattered around the field at random points are boom tubes, and in the center of the field stands the launch tube.

  • At the start of the game the seven man swaugerball teams line up on either side of the field and, at the starting burst, race for the launch tube, the goal being for one person on either side to be first to make it to the launch tube.
    • Swaugerballers may obstruct opposing players with use of a glout, a sort of hard-light luminescent glow stick. Dueling is common.
  • The first swaugerballer to reach the launch post and place hands on it for five seconds becomes the game’s first launcher.
    • When the launch round begins, the launcher’s teammates become slammers and the opposition becomes stuffers.
    • The launch round lasts five minutes.
    • All swaugerballers aside from the launcher are forbidden on the green once the launch round begins. Any swaugerball to encroach upon the green will earn a 5 point penalty for his team.
    • If the launcher steps off the green for any purpose, the launch round is immediately ended and the opposing team
  • Iron balls pop up from the launch tube and the launcher swats them around the field with the glout. As soon as he makes contacts, the ball becomes the glowing swaugerball, luminescent with the characteristic color of the launching team.
  • The launcher, with the glout, launches swaugerballs in the direction of his slammer teammates, who attempt to run the launched swaugerballs down, catch them mid-air, and then race to a boom tube to slam it in for a score.
    • The boom tubes are worth 2, 3, or 4 points respectively, depending upon how far away from the launch tube they are. The further away, the higher the score.
    • A swaugerball may not hit the ground or it is ruled out of play.
  • The stuffers will attempt to deflect the glouted swaugerballs or tackle down slammers with the swaugerball.
    • Stuffers must either catch a swaugerball or knock it to the ground to deaden it. Stuffers can not intercept and score on the other team’s launched swaugerball.
    • Slammers may pass the swaugerball to each other in any direction they like so long as the swaugerball does not hit the ground.
    • A swaugerball may be tossed into a boom tube for a score equal to if it had been placed in the boom tube.
    • The launcher may direct swaugerballs towards the opposing team in an attempt to assist his teammates in reaching a boom tube score.
  • Whenever a boom tube is stuffed, a firework launches up out of it. The launcher may then begin to glout swaugerballs up and into the firework explosion, which triggers another burst of fireworks.
    • The launcher may chain together as many fireworks as they are able; each new link in the chain is worth a half a point, but takes an extra second off of the launch round clock.
  • In the case that the launcher is able to clear the field’s outer wall with a swaugerball, unchainable fireworks are triggered along the stadium’s perimeter. The launcher is, however, permitted a victory dance, upon which the field judges will award him anywhere from 0 to 5 total style points.
    • The launcher’s victory dance may last up to fifteen seconds. All time spent on the victory dance will continue to tick down off the launch round clock.
    • The victory dance is the only time during the launch round during which the launcher is permitted off of the green.
  • In the case that the launcher is able to sink a swaugerball into a boom tube directly off of a glout strike, with no assistance by either the slammers or inadvertent assistance by the stuffers, such a feat is worth 5 points.
  • After the five minute launch round is up, the opposing team can choose to A.) take an automatic two-and-a-half minute launch round, or B.) reset the field in hopes of winning the race-off and earning a five minute launch round.
  • The game continues on until one team has reached 126 points.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Moment-of-Truth Time in Queens

There's a faint beacon of light emanating from Flushing Meadows right now, one we haven't seen since, oh, let's say 2006. You know, nine years ago? That's right, it has been nine years. NINE YEARS.

That's how long it has been since the New York Mets haven't been embarrassing. A few years back, under the shadow of Bernie Madoffs, the Mets brought on board as their general manager one Mr. Sandy Alderson, the man charged with bringing the franchise back to respectability... and, apparently, doing it on a shoestring budget.

Every GM has his hits and misses, and Alderson is no exception. His hits, though, which include acquiring starting pitchers Zack Wheeler and Noah Syndergaard and catcher Travis d'Arnaud, have the potential to be much more important long-term for New York's National League baseball club than are his misses. A group of slowly cultivated players are now, perhaps, coalescing into something greater than the sum of the Mets' parts. The 2015 roster will include (unexpected trades not counted for): an ace returning from injury, the 2014 Rookie-of-the-Year award winner, a Gold Glove center fielder, an All-Star (by default) second baseman, a top catching prospect who hit for four months last season like an All-Star, a first baseman who hit 30 home runs in just over 500 at-bats, an all-franchise third baseman looking for a do-over on a lost season, a former batting champ in right field, a left fielder for whom the team has moved in fences and imported a hitting coach, about 56 quality starting pitchers, and a power-throwing young bullpen.

It's not a can't-miss team by any stretch of the imagination, but it's not a hopeless one either. There's one thing missing from that above list, of course: a shortstop.

Oh, sure, the Mets have some internal "options". Do you want Wilmer Flores? A much ballyhooed prospect who hasn't shown much ballyhoo in the majors with the exception of last September... and you can't count September, really, because that's when major league rosters expand and teams let anyone and everyone pitch, either to save their stars for the postseason or see what their young players can do. Besides, when in the field Flores has hands of stone. For those who don't understand baseball metaphors, that's not a good thing. How about Ruben Tejada? We've seen that play for a couple of years now. We know how it goes. Hit a (very) little, field a (little) bit better.

So it's moment of truth time for Sandy Alderson and his staff. Although, granted, those not directly involved in such conversations can never be entirely sure which players teams are and aren't willing to trade, more likely than not a is deal out there to be had that would bring back a major upgrade at shortstop, if the Mets are willing to pay the price in both dollars and players. Are they, as their fans believe, too broke and/or cheap to make a move? Is Alderson sincere when he says there doesn't seem to be much out on the shortstop market, or is he just playing things close to the fleece vest, much like he did when swinging his deals for Wheeler and d'Arnaud?

It's not always that the biggest need for a team is so obvious it may as well be tattooed across the GM's face. Alderson and his staff have spent the last four years slowly rebuilding the franchise from the ground up. They are on the cusp of that respectability they so crave. The only thing standing in their way is the need to acquire a game-changing shortstop. Will they do it? Can they do it? Do they want to do it? Can they afford to do it? Those standing on the outside looking in won't truly know the answers to any of those questions until the entire offseason plays out, spring training begins, and we see who is standing between second and third for the Mets.

What is obvious to all, though, is this: the brass ring is in sight. The NL East is suddenly, surprisingly weak. The Mets have been building, they tell us, for 2015. Well, here it is. The roster is almost ready. There's one move left to make.

It's time for the Mets to show the baseball world that, for the fist time in nine years, they're serious. It's time for the Mets to go out and get themselves a shortstop.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

METS SHOULD FOLLOW ROYALS DECREE

Two years ago, a baseball team that had been non-competitive for far too long took a look at the young talent they were meticulously developing and decided they were one key piece away. So they took a calculated risk, trading their top prospect, a can't-miss kind of young player, a move designed to bring in that one piece they thought they needed to become a contender again. It was, to say the least, not a popular move among the media talking heads and Internet message boards.

The Royals, though, now turn to that one piece as they begin their first postseason since their World Championship of 1985, and "Big Game" James Shields takes the hill against Jon Lester and the Oakland A's, hoping to propel Kansas City past the one-game Wild Care playoff and into the ALDS. So was the trade worth it?

This isn't about what Wil Myers, the prospect Kansas City traded to get Shields, has or hasn't done since he was sent to Tampa Bay. It's about a team desperate to be relevant again doing what they had to do, maybe even overpaying, to bring in that one veteran player that could supplement the young core talent they had developed over the years. Think of the Mets as Royals 2.0, a notion that would horrify most Mets fans except for the fact that, hey, Kansas City is in the playoffs and the Metropolitans have all gone home for the winter. The $91 million Kansas City payroll isn't even that far off (though too far off for the tastes of many) from the Mets' $82 million payroll. 

But like the Royals, the Mets have been grooming a core of young players they hope will, sometime in the near future, make them contenders for years to come. The difference is that the Mets have been growing arms, and the Royals' young stars, for the most part, are positional players. So two years ago Kansas City spent a bat to get an ace. The Mets have a top prospect, too. He came over from Toronto in the R.A. Dickey trade and his name is Noah Syndergaard, a lanky fireballer who has talent evaluators across the game salivating at his potential.

But the Mets have arms to spare: Jacob deGrom, Matt Harvey, Zack Wheeler, Dillon Gee, Jon Niese, Rafael Montero, Jenry Mejia, Jeurys Familia, Vic Black, Carlos Torres... even must-see-hitter Bartolo Colon is still under contract for 2015. And while pitching arms are that most combustible of commodities, should the Mets look to do some "Big Game" hunting of their own this winter? There are two obvious needs on the Flushing baseball diamond, at shortstop and in either left or right field (depending on where Curtis Granderson ends up playing next year.) In a line-up that would currently feature All-Star Daniel Murphy, 30 HR-man Lucas Duda, injury-returning David Wright, rebound hopeful Curtis Granderson, Travis "Vegas" d'Arnaud, and Rey-Ordonez-as-a-center-fielder Juan Lagares, should the Mets spend their best chip on a supplementary bat, a truly reliable middle-of-the-order line-up threat missing from the aforementioned group? Or do you believe in Wilmer Flores and Matt den Dekker?

(A side note: while Mets fans, and likely Sandy Alderson, dream of Giancarlo Stanton, in players he would probably cost Syndergaard AND deGrom or Wheeler, not to mention an impact bat the Mets don't have. That price is almost certainly too steep to pay.)

This comes back to the Royals, and the question of what matters more: that their acquired piece, James Shields, has played a key role in returning them to October baseball? Or that the traded prospect, Wil Myers, may very well blossom into an All-Star hitter for years and years to come? What matters more, immediate glory or long term potential?

The Royals decided that they had waited for long term potential long enough, and immediate glory was their most pressing desire. The Mets should take note. They have a major league established core of pitchers already. Maybe Syndergaard turns out to be the best of the bunch. Maybe not. The wait for long term potential in Flushing, though, has also gone on long enough. Not all trades work out as well as the Shields trade has for the Royals, but if the gamble is never taken the pot can never be won. The Mets have been irrelevant for too many Octobers. The answer here is clear. If the hitter is out there to be had, and Syndergaard is the price tag, it's a deal and a gamble that the Mets must make.