Thursday, March 12, 2009


Genre: Dramedy
Synopsis: A professor at a small liberal arts college is up for tenure.
About: Tenure was on the 2005 Black List and will be hitting theaters this year.
Writer: Mike Million

What is the single most important tool you can use to connect with the reader? What is the one thing above all others that gives you the best chance of creating something they'll be interested in? I'll give you a moment. Give up? Okay, I'll tell you. It's subject matter. If you give the reader a subject matter they like, they'll immediately be interested in your story. And there's the catch. Different people like different things. So you can't possibly find something to satisfy them all. Sure, you can pick some overarching widely known piece of pop culture (I'm sure the studios can give you a list). But no subject can satisfy everyone. Inevitably SOMEONE won't like the story you're telling because they just don't care about the subject matter you've presented them with.

This is why when I read the first few pages of "Tenure", I was instantly onboard. Likewise, I knew there were going to be a hell of a lot of people who would rather skin themselves alive than watch this movie. See Tenure is about a small liberal arts college. I attended a small liberal arts college. Believe it or not, our college is kind of famous. Sure, you've probably never heard of "Ripon College", a small liberal arts school in the middle of the second fattest state in America (Wisconsin). But I bet you've heard of Harrison Ford. Yes, Harrison Ford went to Ripon College. And when I went, some of the older professors, who had just begun teaching back when Harrison started, loved to tell stories about him. Apparently, Ford was the laziest motherfucker on the face of the planet. He never went to class. Never participated in any social functions. He never did much of anything . The fact that he even made it to his senior year was a bit of a miracle. But I bet you didn't know, Harrison finished one credit shy of graduating, and therefore never earned his degree. After his movies made billions at the box office, Ripon aggressively offered to forego that notorious missed credit and give Ford his degree. Harrison (or "Harry" as they called him) basically told them to fuck off. He never gave a single cent to Ripon. I hear the college is slightly more lenient nowadays when it comes to the whole "required credits" issue. It seems apt, really, that in a screenplay about college, I give you a history lesson. I hope you enjoyed it.

Tenure is awesome. I wish I could tell you all the ways in which it was awesome but that's the problem with liking something. You don't have time to pay attention to *why* you're liking it. I'll do my best though. I think the first thing Tenure does right that a lot of other "artsy" screenplays do wrong is it gives the main character a clearly defined goal. He wants - no he needs - to make tenure. If he doesn't, he's screwed. See a lesser writer who wanted to write a movie about a college professor might take us through his daily life, show us all his wild and wacky situations, but not give us any direction, any end goal. Million reminds us every step of the way how important it is that our protagonist makes tenure. This allows him to have fun with the story, but still keep us interested and focused. I wish I had learned this lesson a long time ago.

CHARLIE THURBER, an English professor, has an amazing connection with his students. Having been a teacher myself, I know how essential finding a connection with the people you teach is. The problem with Charlie though, is that he's not very good at what he teaches. He can't get published for shit. And since Gray College puts such a high premium on being published, Charlie's dream, to get tenure, is in doubt.

Things only get worse when ELAINE, an attractive graduate of Princeton University of all places, joins the English Department, threatening to steal tenure away from Charlie. This prompts Charlie's slacker best friend and fellow professor, STANLEY (whose life goal is to find Big Foot - I kid you not) to lead a sabotage effort to destroy Elaine so Charlie can land tenure. Stanley deserves his own movie. He's fucking hilarious.

There are some sub-plots that all work well - like Charlie's father's stay in a local Assisted Living Home (he desperately wants out), the trials and tribulations of a few of Charlie's students, and of course the sexual tension between Charlie and the very woman who might steal his tenure, Elaine.

All-in-all, Tenure is a master class in character development. Every character in this script is instantly memorable and all of their stories are compelling, like we could jump into their lives and be transported into their script without missing a beat. I don't even know how he did it to be honest. How we jump from the very serious problems of Charlie, to Stanley's ridiculous pursuit of Big Foot, never upsetting the tone of the movie, is something I'll be studying for a long time . Contrary to popular belief, I don't know everything. :)

Again, if you've never been to a small college, some of the details here might be lost on you. But I'd recommend Tenure for character study alone. Pay attention to how he introduces his characters, how he paints them, and how he resolves their conflicts. It's really great stuff.

[ ] trash
[ ] barely readable
[ ] worth the read
[x] impressive (very close to genius though)
[ ] genius

What I learned from Tenure: I could point to 20 lessons in this script, but I'll go with the age old adage. Any time you can raise the stakes, you're improving your script. Near the midway point, Charlie's sister informs him that she's paying 3 grand a month to keep their father in a home. She needs help. "You can spare $1000 dollars a month." "I make 36,000 a year." "You get a raise when you reach tenure right?" The way I present it here is a little clunky and simplistic. In the script it's given more weight. The point is, it's just one more reason in the back of our minds we know Charlie has to achieve tenure.