Black List Interview: Helen Shang

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For our fifth interview in this series, we spoke to Helen Shang, writer of CELINE and DORIAN GREY.  Helen found her manager on the site, and is now staffed on NBC’s HANNIBAL. Today, we talk to her about how the past, present, and future have shaped her screenwriting career, and how the Black List helped foster her journey as a writer. Since Helen writes for television, her answers are TV-centric!

The Past:

What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?

THE X-FILES was the show that made me want to be a writer, period.  I was in the fourth or fifth grade when I watched my first episode – I can still clearly remember how shocked and intrigued I felt watching mutant mushroom spores bursting from people’s necks.  I loved the memorable inventiveness of each case of the week, and the ongoing relationship between Mulder and Scully that made me want to tune in episode after episode.  I grew to deeply care about these characters, and started writing short stories about them myself.  My writing life sparked into existence with X-FILES fanfiction!

Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? How else did the decision to pursue that career evolve?

I wrote stories throughout my school years, but didn’t seriously consider a career in screenwriting until watching HOUSE M.D.  I was in college, and someone told me that HOUSE used shots of my campus center as their hospital exterior.  So I started watching it for the cool factor of seeing my school on TV!  Of course, I instantly got hooked by the story and characters.  Seeing my daily hangout spot on TV gave television a sense of “realness”, and it really hit home that this was a job people did, and that I could be a part of it.  When a Hollywood producer alum came to speak at school, I signed up for a summer internship after my freshman year.  There, I read scripts, wrote coverage, visited the set of a TV show… and realized that I could pursue my love of writing through screenwriting.  My first TV script was a spec for HOUSE.

Most writers have to have “day jobs” in order to stay afloat. What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?

I was a personal assistant for a writer/director, and had to make scrambled eggs for his dog.

The Present:

How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?

I sit down for a set period of time and write down every half-baked idea that pops into my head.  Then, from those, I pick out the ones that I can see being a TV pilot, or feature.  I expand those ideas a little more, and then ultimately choose the idea I feel most excited to write.  My manager (who I got through this site!) gives me good insight on my ideas too – for example, if there were 5 pilots this year already about X that aren’t doing so hot, then I’m probably better off not writing about X just yet.

Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?

In my opinion, at least for TV, thinking about whether or not the muse is in the mood isn’t really helpful when there are hard deadlines looming.  I open Google Calendar and mark down the deadline of when I have to have my script by, and then I divide up the days beforehand to see how long I need to spend on each act.  And then I write every day until I hit the day’s goals.  Sometimes it’s smooth going but sometimes I really have to force myself.  But my goal is to get a draft done, even if it’s not amazing, so that I can see the problems that exist so I can do rewrites.  It’s not really a glamorous way to go about things, but when you’re working on an actual TV show (especially as a lower level!) nobody’s going to halt production so you can work out your personal angst with your muse.  A mentor told me to get used to writing on a schedule before you’re even staffed, and I think that is a great idea. 

Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?

The last big impact was a couple months ago when I watched a lot of Peter Greenaway’s movies (PROSPERO’S BOOKSTHE COOK, THE THIEF, HIS WIFE AND HER LOVER and THE PILLOW BOOK.)  His films are so visually lush, rich, and symbolic.  It really got me thinking into how to effectively write visuals to set the tone, and to convey story and character. 

The Future:

If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?

Something creepy and darkly romantic.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

A psychologist.

Dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive. Who’s coming to dinner? Who picks up the check?

I would invite novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (he wrote NEVER LET ME GO and also worked to adapt his novels into screenplays), Werner Herzog (writer/director/documentarian/legend), and David Bowie (Renaissance man whose sheer creativity transcends genre).  I feel like Kazuo Ishiguro can teach me a lot about writing characters, Werner can inspire me to live and work fearlessly… and I’m David Bowie’s biggest fan, so if I put it out in the universe enough times, maybe one day I will get to meet him!!!  Bowie picks up the check.

The Black List:

How did you first hear about The Black List?

I heard it through a few members of my writing group.

Since using The Black List, how has your career been impacted?

I got my manager through The Black List, so it’s been impacted very positively!  Readers at Benderspink responded to one of my pilots that I uploaded, passed it along to him, and he liked it enough to reach out to me via email.  In his email he asked if I had another piece of material, and I sent him another pilot.  During our first meeting we really clicked, and he signed me on the spot.  I already had an agent at that point, and my agent and new manager worked together to nab me my first staff gig on HANNIBAL! 

Any tips for writers interested in the site?

I would say take it seriously and upload your very best material that you are proud of, because industry people are reading and looking for new writers.  Make your logline pop!

The Black List comes to NYC!

Well, it’s official – we just announced our first NYC cast members!

If you’re in NYC, we hope you can make it out for our very first New York live read! Join the Black List team on Saturday May 2nd to watch screenwriter Jason Orley direct his 2014 Black List Script BIG TIME ADOLESCENCE with an amazing cast. You may want to buy your tickets now – seating is limited!

Zosia Mamet (Girls, The Kids Are All Right)
Alex Wolff (A Birder’s Guide to Everything)
Julia Garner (Grandma, The Americans)
Michael Gaston (The Leftovers, The Mentalist)

Tickets for are available online now at


And here are all the nitty gritty event details…

Black List Live! presents

Date: Saturday, May 2, 2015
Time: 7:30pm Doors, 8:00pm Show
Venue: The University Center at the New School
63 Fifth Ave (at 13th St), New York, NY 10003


The Blockbuster Strategy: Safety Sort of Guaranteed

I’ve recently been interested in the changing landscape of slates within the studio system. The studios have steadily been moving away from midsize movies and focusing instead on fewer, mega-budget movies. In 2006 the seven major studios combined made 187 films. In 2013 those same studios made only 139 films (a decrease of 26%). Those films generated $8.2 billion in 2006 and $8.8 billion in 2013 in real box office revenue domestically (an increase of 6%). More simply, fewer films are sharing more revenue.

On the other end of the spectrum, we’ve seen a huge explosion of indie filmmaking thanks in large part to a dramatic decrease in the cost of high-quality film equipment and in smaller part due to platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter. Indie distributors then acquire a select number of these finished films for theatrical release.

So this has left a seeming vacancy in the middle. I was curious about whether this strategy made sense from a financial perspective for the studios. After all, they all exist either as a subsidiary or business unit of a publicly traded company or as one itself (Lionsgate) and any publicly traded company exists to maximize shareholder value. To understand the financial implications of slate building, I looked at the risk-reward profiles of different sized movies.

Breakdown of Profitability by Different Budget Levels

The Numbers makes available a set of movies for which they have complete box office and budget data. The set I used included 2,649 movies released as early as 1/1/2000. While budget information is often under reported or outright misreported (studios purposely alter their budgets to tell whatever story they want), it’s the best estimate that is broadly tracked.

Below is a breakdown of number of films by ROI and budget.

 Return on Investment (%)

<100% <150% <200% <250% <300% <350% <400% >400%
<=$1mm 82 8 7 5 6 1 5 62 176
($1mm,$5mm] 131 20 15 13 9 9 7 88 292
($5mm,$10mm] 135 23 28 21 11 13 11 63 305
($10mm,$20mm] 202 52 42 37 31 25 21 109 519
($20mm,$50mm] 218 97 81 76 53 47 32 117 721
($50mm,$100mm] 111 56 60 50 41 29 18 58 423
($100mm,$200mm] 17 22 24 26 23 13 11 51 187
>$200mm 2 2 4 2 3 4 4 5 26
Total 898 280 261 230 177 141 109 553 2,649

This gives us a basic reference points for what movies are being made and what their profitability is. A basic threshold to measure is the percentage of films that are profitable — that is, they make back their production budget. And for all those that lose money, what loss in cash does that represent overall.

% of Movies Profitable Total # of Films Cash Loss ($mm) Cash Loss as % of Total Rev
<=$1mm** 53.41% 94 $30 3.72%
($1mm,$5mm]** 55.14% 161 $277 5.82%
($5mm,$10mm] 55.74% 170 $819 12.18%
($10mm,$20mm] 61.08% 317 $1,714 7.65%
($20mm,$50mm] 69.76% 503 $3,328 5.79%
($50mm,$100mm] 73.76% 312 $2,909 3.93%
($100mm,$200mm] 90.91% 170 $675 0.83%
>$200mm 92.31% 24 $92 0.46%

 **The decreased percent cash loss at the lower end is likely due to reporting, i.e. smaller budget movies are tracked more often if they are widely released and hence more likely to earn more money.

I noticed that as movies get bigger, they become less likely to fail. That’s likely partially engineered — marketing budgets are huge and international sales bolster revenue. But it does seem that the studios then are onto something by moving toward fewer, larger-budget movies. The success rate of movies budgeted over $100 million is over 90% with less than 0.5% in revenue loss. That means for every potential dollar, there’s less risk to losing money. Obviously, a big flop means bad press, but from a pure dollar risk standpoint, it’s actually safer. That said, the loss in the middle range is spread across many players (or across a slate of films for a studio), so that minimizes risk as well.

At the end of the day, if you’re a studio and looking to mitigate your overall financial risk, I guess it sort of does make financial sense stick with mega-budget films. So you have permission to greenlight Avatar v. Terminator v. Batman: The Oz Adventures!

Where To Put Your Money: Top Performers

I subsequently wanted to look at which movies are most successful within different tiers. Even though there’s an argument for studios to make mega-budget movies, there are only so many they can make before they start to cannibalize each other (not to mention the bad publicity they get from a large flop).  Looking at total dollars by budget, I found that the bulk of theatrical revenue came from movies between $10-$100 million, approximately 58% of the total.

I started breaking down movies into different groups based on budgets and took note of the highest grossing film by ROI (gross divided by budget) in each category.

Total Budget ($mm) % of Total Highest ROI Film Best Pic Oscar Noms
<$1mm $88 0.09% Super Size Me 0
$1-$5mm $896 0.89% The Devil Inside 5
$5-$10mm $2,470 2.47% My Big Fat Greek Wedding 9
$10-$20mm $8,302 8.29% The King’s Speech 16
$20-$50mm $24,597 24.56% The Passion of the Christ 31
$50-$100mm $30,804 30.76% The Twilight Saga: New Moon 16
$100-$200mm $26,655 26.61% Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part II 12
>$200mm $6,341 6.33% Marvel’s The Avengers 2
Total $100,152 100.00%

That got me thinking about whether there were trends in each of the groups, so I listed the top five movies by ROI in each (Rotten Tomatoes score shown in parentheses for reference). This gave some interesting anecdotal evidence of the superstar performers in each group. It also gives us an idea of where you get the most bang for your buck in each budget group.

Under $1mm – Very Little in Common
Super Size Me (93%)
Paranormal Activity (83%)
Once (97%)
Napoleon Dynamite (71%)
Open Water (72%)

$1-$5mm – Low-Budget Horror
The Devil Inside (6%)
Saw (48%)
Insidious (66%)
Paranormal Activity 2 (58%)
The Lives of Others (93%)

$5-$10mm – Horror Sequels, Comedy
My Big Fat Greek Wedding (76%)
Paranormal Activity 3 (68%)
Fahrenheit 9/11 (83%)
Juno (94%)
Insidious Chapter 2 (38%)

$10-$20mm – Oscar Films
The King’s Speech (94%)
Slumdog Millionaire (94%)
Black Swan (87%)
High School Musical 3 (65%)
The Grudge (39%)

$20-$50mm – Little in Common
The Passion of the Christ (49%)
The Conjuring (86%)
The Hangover (79%)
Bridget Jones’s Diary (81%)
Gran Torino (79%)

$50-$100mm – Sequels
Twilight Saga: New Moon (28%)
Shrek 2 (89%)
Despicable Me 2 (74%)
LOTR: Return of the King (94%)
Ted (68%)

$100-$200mm – Franchises
HP & Deathly Hallows: Part II (96%)
HP & Chamber of Secrets (82%)
LOTR: Fellowship of the Ring (91%)
HP & Sorcerer’s Stone (80%)
HP & Deathly Hallows: Part I (78%)

Over $200mm – More (Mega) Franchises
Marvel’s The Avengers (92%)
Avatar (83%)
Iron Man 3 (78%)
Skyfall (92%)
Toy Story 3 (99%)

For ultra low-budget movies, you’re throwing everything at the wall and seeing what sticks. You can’t really predict what’s going to be a hit. And this makes sense, because there are so many films being made in this segment. It’s a healthy mix of taking a big creative risk and hoping audiences respond.

In the $1-5 million bucket, a clear pattern emerges and it resembles Blumhouse. These are your Conjurings and Paranormals of the world. Weirdly, when you move to the $5-10 million bucket, you see the sequels to those movies along with some indie comedies.

The $10-20 million bucket looks to be prime territory for Oscar favorites, while the $20-50 million bucket you get your higher budget original movies. Once you get over $50 million, however, there’s an overwhelming trend of movies based on pre-existing material and franchises (many times both). These are movies like Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Twilight, and anything Marvel.

Whether this is indicative of what will be successful in the future is uncertain. A movie like Avatar definitely isn’t based on any pre-existing characters, but it comes with all the bells and whistles of a franchise movie (and it now is a franchise). It’s possible that you’ll hit big with an original concept and should spend the $100 million to make it, but what appears to be a safer bet is a proven concept with an existing fan base.

So whether or not audiences will get tired of these mega franchises based on existing IP, they have proven to have the most compelling return profiles. Likely, the studios will continue the course.

The Black List Interview: John Arends


For our fourth interview in this series, we spoke to John Arends, writer of TRICE. John participated in the 2014 Black List minilab in Las Vegas, and was chosen as one of two finalists for the NFL/The Company partnership on the site. He’s now working on a script for the NFL. Today, we talk to him about how the past, present, and future have shaped his screenwriting career, and how the Black List helped foster his journey as a writer


The Past:

What was the first film that had a major impact on your life?

There were so many from a very early age, but if I had to pick one, it’d be Milos Forman’s ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST.  It came out a few years after I had witnessed a close friend in high school break down and get committed to a psych ward in a downtown Chicago hospital. The film just whiplashed me from one emotional extreme to another. Plus, it was produced by Michael Douglas, who was, like, 28 or something at the time. When it won the Academy’s five big categories — actor, actress, director, screenplay and best picture– I was just so connected to the film on a personal level, it felt like I had won a small piece of that Oscar payload, too, in the “biggest fan” category.

Was there a single film that made you want to be a screenwriter? How else did the decision to pursue that career evolve?

BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID and LITTLE BIG MAN were huge influences way back in the day. William Goldman’s Adventures in the Screen Trade was the first book on the craft and business I ever read. The storytelling at the heart of LITTLE BIG MAN and the way it bridged cultures and consciousness — it just ignited the “I wanna be a part of something like that someday” pipe dream…But I was marooned in the Midwest and mentorless. I couldn’t figure out how to be a screenwriter and raise a family responsibly at the same time. So I, ahem, got a series of regular jobs and sort of waited for the Internet to get its act together. Once the online screenwriting community hit critical mass, I was able to find scripts to read, take some excellent classes on the craft, and enter some contests with modest success. And then the Internet finally DID come of age in Hollywood, when Franklin Leonard and Dino Sijamic launched The Black List website…

Most writers have to have “day jobs” in order to stay afloat. What was the strangest job you ever had before becoming a writer?

Writing ad copy for embalming fluids, cadaver cosmetics and mortuary colleges.


The Present:

How do you find ideas and how do you choose which ones to work on?

Story ideas come from all directions and sources. Usually the best ideas come into being when a pair of words or a short phrase crashes into a compelling image or situation. The best ideas really stick with you. After that initial rush of realizing “Hey, these are amazing characters,” or “This could be a really cool idea,” there’s a long period of mulling and chewing and gestating. The ideas that keep kicking me in the cranial shins, demanding that they be written, tend to win out.

Walk us through a normal day of writing for you. Any special habits to keep the muse happy?

I get up early, around 5 am, and write pages for 3 hours or so, and then dive into the day job routine at the ad agency. Over lunch, I may re-read pages or outline a scene. Late afternoons/early evenings are for research on other projects, typing pages into Final Draft, working out, and then it’s quality time with the REAL muse of my life, my wife, Anne.

The writing Muse is happiest when I stick to that schedule for long stretches of days and weeks, without a business trip or other responsibilities messing with the rhythm. The routine takes on its own momentum.

Which films are keeping you inspired at the moment?

BIRDMAN and THE IMITATION GAME are great inspirations–for taking creative chances and unleashing great characters. AMERICAN SNIPER is such a moving example of how stripping away every layer of pretense gets you to some pretty spectacular places, emotionally.  NIGHTCRAWLER is just so compelling with its all-in commitment to that central character…


The Future:

If you could make one film, with no restrictions in place, what would that film be?

I’d make an 11-hour film — chaptered for binge viewing online — based on the science fiction literary masterpiece A CANTICLE FOR LEIBOWITZ — a post-apocalyptic novel by Walter M. Miller, Jr.  First published in 1960, it’s a sprawling epic that has been considered unfilmable, because it spans thousands of years. It’s set in a monastery in the desert Southwest as civilization rebuilds itself after a devastating global nuclear war.

What would you be doing if you weren’t a writer?

I’d be binge-drinking the embalming fluid. I cannot imagine not being a writer.

Dinner with three of your favorite writers and/or filmmakers, dead or alive. Who’s coming to dinner? Who picks up the check?

Rod Serling, Lindsay Doran and Sydney Pollack…with Shane Black, David Milch, Terry Rossio and John Logan slipping in the back door to join us. Rod Serling because…he’s Rod Serling. I just heard Lindsay Doran speak a few weeks ago in LA, at a WGA event hosted by The Black List. Her insights rocked my world, as she dug into how resilience in characters and the fundamentals of positive psychology shape our moviegoing experience. Sydney Pollack is one of my biggest heroes, making timeless movies from timeless stories in so many genres. He bridges the 1st Golden Age of television in the 1950s and 60s into the filmmaking of the 1970s and on. (I was lucky enough to be at the Austin Film Festival when Pollack, Black and Milch were up on the Paramount theater stage for “the best AFF session ever.” Everyone there wanted it to go on all night.)  John Logan? He’s the consummate Chicago playwright / screenwriter / Shakespearean wunderkind.

I’m picking up the check, because I owe Terry Rossio two debts. The first is a pizza, for when I totally fanboy-ed him, in mid-bite at the Austin airport, as he was trying to have a peaceful lunch with his gorgeous significant other. The second debt is more sizable–to thank him for the post-graduate level screenwriting education that he and Ted Elliott created and continue to share with us all FOR FREE via Best. Wisdom. Ever.


The Black List

How did you first hear about The Black List? 

I read about the website being launched in late 2012 on Scott Myers’ blog Go Into The Story, and So I gave myself an early Christmas present by uploading my best script at the time — TRICE — over the holidays, heading into 2013.

Since using The Black List, how has your career been impacted?

In so many ways! The Black List website readers and community embraced TRICE with some astonishing support…and then The Black List staff kicked into high gear. First, they commissioning a movie poster concept for my script from UK graphic designer Paul Alp that literally brought tears to my eyes. I landed representation with a manager who found the script on the TBL website, and BAM! I was “inside the gates.” This past year, everything kind of came to a head. I was invited to the second annual The Black List Screenwriting Labs in Las Vegas — among the coolest 5 days of my life! The pro writers mentoring us there showed us how to think about our material and our careers on a truly professional level. Then, almost two years to the day after I uploaded my first script to the website, I landed my first paying deal. I got a call from producer Charlie Ebersol, congratulating me on winning one of two blind script deals he is producing through a joint partnership with the NFL and The Black List.

So, yes, The Black List website and the team behind it have had an enormous impact my career. They are generosity personified.

Any tips for writers interested in the site?

All that matters in this business is real simple: What’s on the page?  So keep rewriting the hell out of your material until what’s on the page really sings and is the absolute best writing you’ve got in you.  If you have a script that is performing well on the website, then get the word out to your network–via your reps, if you have them; in short, smartly targeted e-mails, if you don’t have reps.  Being associated with The Black List brand via the website is open to everyone. Give it your best and work it to the max. And always be patient and kind, with yourself and especially with those you meet along the way on this crazy filmmaking journey.