Saturday, January 25, 2014

Journalism FAQs: Where do you get your stories from?

A common question I get is "where do you get your stories from?" The short answer to that is 1) sometimes the newspaper gives stories to me and 2) sometimes I am responsible for pitching my own stories. Each outlet has its own system of doing things and in my experience, the best publications use a mix of both options with their freelance reporters: Not allowing your reporters to add their own story ideas into the mix deprives yourself of an untapped resource but you can retain and grow good reporters by giving them good stories.

From the reporter's perspective, option #2 allows you creativity but it can be exhausting and slow you down in terms of volume. I am more than capable of pitching my own stories but my creativity is a limiting factor in terms of volume: I can only produce so many story ideas and not all of those ideas successfully make it out on the other side of the pitching process so having assigned stories gives me more output.

In terms of where I get stories from, I have a few media lists I'm on (i.e. the Arlington Arts Museum, Arlington Chamber of Commerce, D.C. film office, National Building Museum), I crowdsource (ask friends, friends of friends, people who might know a lot about a certain field), and I occasionally go back to the well on something interesting I wrote before.

I also am not afraid of making a phone call. I once was writing something about the marketing of the film "Les Miserables" and rather than just look it up somewhere, I decided to try calling Warner Brothers Studios. It led to a number of story ideas.

It might sound hokey and cliched but my biggest piece of advice is to keep your ears open. There are often interesting things occurring in your vicinity as you go about your daily life. The difference between myself and a person who doesn't self-identify as a reporter is that if something interesting happens, a light bulb will go on in my head and I will go check it out. I have a business card on me so I can say "hey, I'm a reporter and this story interests me."

Often, this happens retroactively. I was driving down a highway and saw a motel that didn't anything like its neighbors and didn't think to actively go inside and find out why but several months later when I needed a story idea, I thought about that hotel.

I'm not saying that if you follow this advice, you'll leave your house tomorrow morning and a meteorite will land in front of your doorstep, but in my case, the first two thoughts that would go through my head if that happened would be "I wonder who might publish this" and "I wonder who would give me the best deal for it?"

I have been published in somewhere around 20 publications and have published between 100 and 150 stories (if you count school newspapers). In the next installment, I will discuss some of the specific stories I've written and where I got those story ideas from.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

2013 Best Picture Nominees Update

The Oscar class of 2013 is Her, Captain Phillips, American Hustle, Philomena, Dallas Buyers Club, Gravity, Nebraska, Wolf of Wall Street, and 12 Years a Slave. Here's an updated list of who's appeared in 3 or more Best Picture contenders:

9          Robert De Niro-Godfather Part II, Taxi Driver, Deer Hunter, Raging Bull, The Mission, Awakenings, Goodfellas, Silver Linings Playbook, American Hustle
7          Tom Hanks-Forrest Gump, Apollo 13, Saving Private Ryan, Green Mile, Toy Story 3, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Captain Phillips
7          Leonardo DiCaprio-Titanic, Gangs of New York, Aviator, Departed, Inception, Django Unchained, Wolf of Wall Street
6          Ed Harris-The Right Stuff, Places in the Heart, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, The Hours, Gravity
6          Brad Pitt-Babel, Curious Case of Benjamin Button, Inglourious Basterds, Tree of Life, Moneyball, 12 Years a Slave
6          George Clooney-Thin Red Line, Good Night and Good Luck, Michael Clayton, Up in the Air, Descendants, Gravity
5          Rance Howard-Chinatown, Apollo 13, A Beautiful Mind, Frost/Nixon, Nebraska
4          Michael Pena-Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Babel, American Hustle
4          Sandra Bullock-Crash, The Blind Side, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Gravity
4          Judi Dench-Room with a View, Shakespeare in Love, Chocolat, Philomena
3          Bruce Dern-Coming Home, Django Unchained, Nebraska
3          Christine Ebersole-Tootsie, Amadeus, Wolf of Wall Street
3          Paul Giamatti-Saving Private Ryan, Sideways, 12 Years a Slave
3          Jonah Hill-Moneyball, Django Unchained, Wolf of Wall Street
3          Amy Adams-Fighter, American Hustle, Her
3          Kyle Chandler-Zero Dark Thirty, Argo, Wolf of Wall Street
3          Chris Pratt-Moneyball, Zero Dark Thirty, Her
3          Paul Dano-Little Miss Sunshine, There Will be Blood, 12 Years a Slave
3          Dennis O'Hare-Michael Clayton, Milk, Dallas Buyers Club

Also, if you want to know the past Oscar nominations of this year's Oscar class they are: Coming Home, Deer Hunter, Kramer vs Kramer, French Lieutenant's Wife, Sophie's Choice, Silkwood, Out of Africa, Iron Weed, Evil Eyes, Steel Magnolias, Pretty Woman, Postcards from the Edge, What's Eating Gilbert Grape, Bridges of Madison County, Mrs. Brown, Elizabeth, One True Thing, Music of the Heart, Chocolat, Erin Brockovich, Adaptation, Aviator (2), Mrs Henderson Presents, Junebug, Notes on a Scandal (2), Blood Diamond, Devil Wears Prada, I'm Not There, Elizabeth: The Golden Age, Doubt (2), Blind Side, The Fighter (2), Winter's Bone, Moneyball, Silver Linings Playbook (2), and The Master
Can you guess which actors earned which nominations?

I've seen four of these films so far and find them all innovative enough to merit the title "Best Picture Nominee." My capsule reviews on them:
American Hustle: American Hustle is a film that's suave and stylized while simultaneously having some fun (particularly with Irving's hair) deglamorizing itself.

Some might complain that the plot is convoluted, but I found the plot to be a red herring to explore more complex themes about identity, transience, and the pursuit of wealth. The fact that Bradley Cooper's character was constantly changing his game plan and ultimately didn't really know what he was after (which brought about his doom) was a telling indication of that theory.

With a plot that was secondary to the complex web of betrayal and ambition, the film was the perfect excuse for its cast to flex their acting chops, and the film earning four acting nominations (David O. Russell films amassing 11 acting nominations in a 4-year period, which I'm pretty sure is a record) is no small coincidence. Amy Adams and Christian Bale give career best performances.

Whether the film is thematically muddled or has any sort of grand message anchoring it are certainly up for debate, but that's a debate I see great merit in: I easily found the film to be the most thought-provoking of the year.

Captain Phillips: Paul Greengrass, Tom Hanks, and the production rights for the most recent topical news story of heroism seems like a can't-miss proposition and there's nothing disappointing about it. The film doesn't necessarily overtly deliver on its ambitions (if you believe whomever wrote Sony Pictures' press release) to be a "complex portrait of the myriad effects of globalization" with a couple conversations about the alternative lives the pirates could have chosen that didn't really resonate. Still, the film is an effective and emotionally resonant thriller with what seems like  painstaking authenticity and that's pretty darn good. A major asset of this film is the casting of four Somalis with no prior acting experience to play the four Somali pirates which terrorized the real Captain Phillips. Barkhad Abdi deservedly got nominated for an Academy Award for his role as the head pirate. The story's pacing is also ideal for a docudrama of this sort with very little unnecessary back story and a near-perfect stopping point.

Gravity: I expected to see Gravity as the Apollo 13 of our era: A story about NASA and space exploration that inspired a new wave of kids to go to Space Camp. The more I think about it, the more I see Gravity as the Star Wars and 2001: A Space Odyssey come to mind: A movie-going experience that pushed the capacities of the medium technologically to the point where it was  something audiences had simply never seen before. In comparison to the last big attempt to revolutionize 3-D cinema-going, Avatar, Cuaron showed you don't need to create an elaborate visual world. Cuaron's film is minimal like 12 Angry Men or Cast Away set in space. The only other on-screen actor, George Clooney mercifully (as he is one of my least favorite actors) disappears 30 minutes into the film and it's just Sandra Bullock and the void of space to fill in the time. The film also packs emotional punch in Bullock's arc that one might not expect out of a film in this format.

Her: Some of the best comic performances (Jack Lemmon in Some Like it Hot, Christopher Guest, David Cross in Arrested Development, Slim Pickens in Dr. Strangelove) come from people playing their parts as seriously as possible. In that same vein, Spike Jonze chose to play a rather absurd premise for a love story as straight as possible and it works really well. The love story is set in what first appears to be a depressing, almost dystopic, future where technology has taken over people's lives, but the excitement of the film is how this satirical overlay doesn't take away from the love story. The first twenty minutes of the film show Ted (Joaquin Phoenix) as a depressed and lonely figure with strong suggestions that his overreliance on technology is what's keeping him from interacting with humans. The film, curiously, seems to ease up on this pretense as Ted's romance with his phone is set alongside his coworker's romance with a fellow human and a blind date (Olivia Wilde) that seems to at least have the potential to go well (it ultimately doesn't). Eventually, it's revealed that Ted isn't locked in a hellish world where his only hope for companionship is a machine, which is what makes the love story worthwhile: Ted doesn't have to be with a machine but he slowly is won over by her.

Megalist: My two favorite films of every year

Inspired by Anthony Strand's blog post ( here are my two favorite films of every year:
2013 Gravity/Girl Most Likely 
2012 Dark Knight Rises/Argo
2011 Artist/Tree of Life
2010 Inception/True Grit
2009 Inglourious Basterds/Up in the Air
2008 Gran Torino/Frost/Nixon
2007 Lars and the Real Girl/3:10 to Yuma
2006 Departed/Little Miss Sunshine
2005 Junebug/New World
2004 Aviator/Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou
2003 Cold Mountain/Last Samurai
2002 City of God/Road to Perdition
2001 Royal Tenenbaums/Ghost World
2000: Gladiator/Wonderboys
1999 Three Kings/Cider House Rules
1998 Truman Show/Life is Beautiful
1997 Titanic/Good Will Hunting
1996 Independence Day/Evita
1995 Apollo 13/Mr Holland's Opus
1994 Shawshank Redemption/Client/Ed Wood/Forrest Gump/Quiz Show
(I racked my brain trying to eliminate three of these two, sorry)
1993 Fugitive/Pelican Brief
1992 Unforgiven/Player/League of their Own
1991: Fisher King/Terminator 2
1990: Postcards from the Edge/Goodfellas
1989: Do the Right Thing/Dead Poets Society
1988: Who Framed Roger Rabbit/Rain Man
1987: Good Morning Vietnam
1986: Children of a Lesser God/American Tail
1985: Back to the Future/Brazil
1984:  Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom/Passage to India
1983: Year of Living Dangerously/ Return of the Jedi
1982: Fast Times at Ridgemont High/ET
1981: Raiders of the Lost Ark/On Golden Pond
1980: The Gods Must be Crazy/Bronco Billy
1979: Kramer vs Kramer
1978: Days of Heaven/Monty Python and the Life of Brian
1977: Star Wars
1976: Network/Marathon Man
1975: Man Who Would be King
1974: Chinatown/Blazing Saddles
1973: American Graffiti/Three Musketeers
1972: Cabaret/Poseidon Adventure
1971: McCabe and Mrs Miller
1970: Airport/MASH
1969: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kidd/Wild Bunch
1968: Lion in the Winter/Rosemary's Baby
1967: Wait Until Dark/In the Heat of the Night
1966: Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf/Our Man Flint
1965: Ship of Fools/Cat Ballou
1964: Beckett/Goldfinger
1963: Charade/Great Escape
1962: Manchurian Candidate/To Kill a Mockingbird
1961: West Side Story/Judgment at Nuremberg
1960: The Apartment/Inherit the Wind
1959: Some Like it Hot/North by Northwest
1958 Vertigo/Touch of Evil
1957: Bridge on the River Kwai/Spirit of St Louis
1956: The Searchers/Around the World in 80 Days
1955: Kismet/All that Heaven Allows
1954: Caine Mutiny/Brigadoon
1953: From Here to Eternity/Roman Holiday
1952: High Noon/Singing in the Rain
1951: American in Paris/African Queen
1950: All About Eve/Harvey
1949: Pinky/The Third Man
1948: Johnny Belinda/Key Largo
1947: Out of the Past
1946: It's a Wonderful Life/Big Sleep
1945: Detour/Mildred Pierce
1944: Double Indemnity/Meet me in St Louis
1943: Shadow of a Doubt/Arsenic and Old Lace
1942: Sabetour
1941: Ball of Fire/Meet John Doe
1940: His Girl Friday/Rebecca
1939: Rules of the Game/Mr Smith Goes to Washington