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'And best screenplay by a computer goes to...'

You don't need characters or a plot to pen a screenplay. Just $299.99 for software.

By Arts and culture correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / March 14, 2003


Oscar season is upon us. In full-bore, fed-up-with-the-same-old-stuff mode, my editor and I were casting about for something new to say about the movies.

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I told her that a few months ago, when Daniel Handler was trying to turn his "Lemony Snicket" books into a movie, he'd told me that the studio suits had made him use new software that was trying to do his job for him. In truth, David Kelley aside, (the "Ally McBeal" creator is the last, great holdout for the yellow-legal-pad school of writing), it's pretty near impossible to find a writer in Hollywood who doesn't use some sort of computerized help.

"That's it!" she cried. "Most big movies make people want to throw popcorn at the screen anyway. Now, we have proof! It's being done by computer!

"Go find that software," she said, "and tell us all, has technology finally made it possible for ANYBODY to write a movie?"

The short answer is, yes (just remember, nobody said "good"). I mean, how hard can it be when the very first "story box" in the program, which asks what your movie is about, offers this reassurance: "If you do not yet know what your story is about, leave this question blank and return to it later?"

What follows are some of the high - and low - points of my dream to dedicate this award to my computer in the two weeks left before this year's Oscars.

Day 1: Choosing a ghost writer

"Dramatica Pro," says the clerk at The Writer's Store, himself a screenwriter. (Surprise! But then, didn't Jay Leno prove it's statistically impossible to find anyone over 18 in L.A. who doesn't have a screenplay stashed somewhere?) "That's what you need."

Why? I ask.

"Gives the most guidance," he says, a man of remarkably few words for a storyteller. The esoteric-sounding title puts me off a bit. "Screenwriting for Dummies," would be more promising.

But guidance is what I want. So I plunk down my $299.99 and carry my new collaborator home to my computer.

The software loads pretty quickly. The first screen offers 12 boxes with options, so I click the first one, called "Story Guide" - and run smack into a tech glitch. I'm supposed to choose a story template, but I can't find one.

I call the tech guy in Pasadena, and he says, "Oh yeah, that's been a problem for a while."

Really? I bought the latest version, I say. He gives me a phone shrug and offers to fix it now. Now I can choose the screenplay template, but I'm worried that there are other things my new partner hasn't fully disclosed.

Another phone shrug, "nope," he says and hangs up. Not exactly Mr. Congeniality. But then, neither is the software, as I discover.

I go back to my story guide and see the magic words, "The Story Guide will handhold you through the creation of your story." How about my acceptance speech, I wonder? And does it have a little-sister piece of software that would help me design my own dress?

But I'm getting ahead of myself. First, I have to answer 385 questions and choose a story form from among the 32,768 possibilities preloaded into Dramatica Pro.

Hold on, Sparky. Call me giddy, but couldn't a lab chimp typing random keys end up with Shakespeare's plays in less time than it would take me to try out 32,768 story forms? Happily, that's where some of that promised handholding comes in. The software will winnow those forms down for me.

Hooray! Since I don't know what my story is about yet, it might be hard to choose.

Day 2: Only 1 conscience per film

"What's the title? Make something up, you can always change it later," chirps my new cyberguide, whom I have dubbed Mr. Congeniality.

I don't have a clue about my story name yet, but here I tap some advice from a writer friend. There are only two stories in all of literature, he says: A man goes on a journey or, a stranger comes to town.

Which is easier - describing a world of strangers or just one? Easy. I write, "A Stranger in Town" in that title box.

At this point, I'm feeling a bit antsy. Anyone can ask me questions. Where are the answers I laid out all that loot to get my hands on?

With the next question, Mr. C. promises that help is on the way. "If you have not yet developed characters for your story, assistance will be provided to help you create and develop some."

In case it wasn't obvious earlier, the truth is now clear - you don't need an idea, you don't even need characters. A warm body and cold cash are pretty much the only prerequisites to get in the screenwritng game.

So, I tell ol' Mr. C. that I've actually got a few characters in mind; by name, Dodson, Joli, and Mayor Bob.

"OK," he says. Cast 'em first, then we'll talk about who they are. A library of computer-generated headshots scrolls out, a motley collection of pinky-nail-sized pictures that would fit an episode of "The Simpsons" meets "Lawrence of Arabia."

I choose a man wearing what looks like half a turkey on his head, a generic Japanese animé babe, and a murky mug that wouldn't look out of place on the walls of a Biloxi, Miss., post office.