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Amp Up the Pressure

Nobody likes conflict.

Well, some people thrive on it. Come to think of it, I’ve dealt with people who wake up in the morning looking for ways to stir the pot. Ick. Us normal folks avoid conflict whenever possible. If you’re a writer, this is not a recipe for success.

Watch a movie. Watch television. See how much conflict they cram in, everywhere, all the time. Large and small. Have you seen DEAD TO ME? Netflix. They have so much conflict all over everywhere that, were you not totally sucked into the story, you’d think it was ridiculous. But it’s not.

See how many kinds of conflict are in each scene…

1. Character vs Character

2. Character vs Nature

3. Character vs Society

4. Character vs Self (all that internal angsty stuff)

5. Character vs the Supernatural

6. Character vs Technology

“Conflict” does not automatically mean “fist fight.” It can mean, “I can’t get this tube of paint to open. Dammit.” It can be as small as a paper cut or as large as running away from the bulls in Pamplona or an asteroid exploding. Characters who have no problems and live a happy life without woes or concerns… are boring. People don’t want to read about them. Actors don’t want to play them.

If character is action, which it is, then good drama is conflict. Don’t ever forget it. I often see scenes that are conflict-free. Things just happen. There’s no energy. Conflict-free scenes suck.

Here is John Le Carré’s idea of story.

1.) The cat sat on the mat.

Dull as dishwater. No conflict. No drama. No paycheck.

After the rewrite…

2.) The cat sat on the dog’s mat.

Bingo! Everything changes! For the better!

Your job is to tap your finger on that scene, or part of that scene, or line of dialogue, and slide it up the Conflict-O-Meter higher and higher until it goes into the red — where it becomes unbelievable. When the reader thinks, “No way! There’s zero chance this’d ever happen in real life.”, you scoot the Conflict-O-Meter down a notch, back into the realm of believability.

Scene by scene, do a conflict pass through your script. Ask yourself, “What can I do to make this more intense, even just a teeny bit?”

When I wrote Your Screenplay Sucks!, I did not understand how many writers have a crippling aversion to conflict. I see it constantly. You gotta have CONFLICT! If you don’t, your script won’t sell and your husband will leave you. Jam conflict into every crevice of your script, make money, stay married, live happily ever after.

Once upon a time I wrote a scene about a nebbishy hit man who goes into a men’s room to pick up a revolver hidden in the stall Michael Corleone-style. Fun movie reference! He finds the gun. He gets the bullets. He loads the pistol and goes out into the restaurant to take care of, as we say in the South, “bidnis.”

No conflict whatsoever! Yukko!

Being a superbly gifted rewriter, I realized I had written crap that needed improvement. Just like Aaron Sorkin! And most likely, you. “How can I add conflict to this miserable scene?”, I asked myself.

First, I made it more difficult to load the pistol. Our tyro hitman is nervous so he fumbles putting the bullets in the gun and one falls on the floor. Does he reach down and easily pick it up and slip it into the cylinder? He does not! He reaches down to the sticky bathroom floor, grabs at the bullet skittering across the tile and… misses!

To make it worse, I decided to have the bullet roll out all the way out to the sinks! That makes our hero more anxious! It makes the reader more anxious! I asked myself, “Can I make the reader even more anxious?!” Bien sûr! I made a list of all kinds of problems to make the hero’s situation worse! That was not hard work. Heck, it wasn’t even writing. It was just thinking of obstacles. A Pet Rock could do it.

I settled on a man at a sink, washing his hands. Who, OMG!, might see that bullet rolling by! Some actor somewhere might get a paycheck, when 16 seconds ago, that part didn’t exist… Then, the topper. I decided, “What if the guy’s a cop?!”

And… the bullet rolls right up next to his shoe…

You can always find a way, in every scene, to raise the conflict level. Just because you start at DEFCON 5 doesn’t mean you can’t get it up to DEFCON 2. Ask yourself, “How can I make him suffer more?” “What can I do to make this worse for her?” “What’s the most unpleasant thing that could possibly happen, right now?”

Have you read The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? You should. Lisbeth Salander is such a great heroine. One night, she went to her enemy’s apartment, bent on taking him down.

“The plan began to go wrong almost from the start.”

Fantastic! The clever hero, in whom we have extraordinary confidence, faced awful problems. She’s super-duper smart, but her plan, no doubt superb, was collapsing. Guess who did that to her? Not her opponent. The writer!

Just because you wrote it, doesn’t mean you have to stick with it. Your first idea may be your best idea. But your 19th may be far better. Your mission, Mr. Phelps, should you choose to accept it, is to look at every single beat of every single scene and ask, “How can I crank up the tension for my characters and my readers?” You’ll be surprised at what you can figure out. It’s just about applying pen to paper, fingers to keys, butt to seat.

What scenes from your favorite movies stick with you the most? What was the conflict in those scenes? Make a list! Instead of just passively watching television, write things down. Scene analysis really develops your writing chops. Plus, it gives you a record you can go back to again and again.

One of the most intense scenes I ever saw was in THE KILLING FIELDS. The stakes were life and death. The conflict revolved around a small photograph and an errant, tiny… spot of glue.

Phnom Penh, Cambodia. 1975. The government is slaughtering citizens by the tens of thousands. For next to no reason. Or no reason at all. A terrifying time to be alive and to be attempting to stay alive a day longer. In the scene, at the Embassy, the character’s goal is to glue a photograph into a forged passport so he can get out of the country on an airplane. If he can finish the passport, he has a prayer of survival. There is time pressure because the Khmer Rouge are coming.

Nice story element: a ticking clock! Steal it for your own work.

I saw the movie 36 years ago and the scene still affects me. As I write this, my palms are sweaty. Because there is only one photograph and one passport, he’s only got one chance at it. There can be no mistakes or failure. The slightest slip up equals death.

He carefully puts the glue on the passport and pushes the photograph down, squeezing evenly to get it fully cemented. Then, oh fuck!, a small blob of glue oozes out the side!! I cannot adequately describe how terrifying that was. Now he has to clean up the glue without marring the photograph. If he gets glue on the picture, he dies. And the bad guys are closing in!

Watch the movie. See how it turns out.

Hell of a film, based on a true story. It would be interesting to know if the photograph and glue incident happened in real life or was it invented by Bruce Robinson, the screenwriter, to jack up the conflict?

Except… Oops

Full disclosure. At it turns out, the scene didn’t happen in real life nor was it thought up by Bruce Robinson.

It was invented by me.

To make sure I had the story order correct, I rented THE KILLING FIELDS. To my surprise, the scene doesn’t exist. There’s a scene about a photograph but it has nothing to do with glue. Funny how your memory messes with you. I searched to see if there’s another movie with a passport photo and glue and turned up nothing.

Here’s what actually happens… Oh so tense, but different.

Sam Waterston plays Sydney Schanberg, an American journalist. Haing S. Ngor plays Dith Pran, his journalist interpreter and friend. John Malkovich and Julian Sands are photographers. If the Khmer Rouge get Ngor, there’s no way he’ll survive. They kill every journalist.

Sands tells Malkovich that he has an expired passport, but the visa is still good. They just need a photograph of Ngor and they can stick it on the passport. Malkovich hopes Ngor has a photograph of himself, because he has no film.

Nearby, the bad guys round up citizens.

Across town, Ngor is leaving to escape with dozens of his friends. Waterston says, “Give me an hour. I need some time to think.” Ngor hasn’t got time and starts to go… Malkovich runs up and says, “I’ve got an idea.” Ngor’s friends all leave.

At the Embassy, Malkovich and Waterston ask Ngor if he has a photograph of himself. Old passport picture, press card photo. He has nothing. The bad guys took everything. Malkovich says they’ll find the film somewhere at the Embassy!

They need to find chemicals they can make into photo developer. Worse, the water in the Embassy has been shut off. A friendly contractor says they can drain the air-conditioning units to get the water.

Malkovich runs up to Waterston. He’s found a roll of film! He can use the men’s room as a darkroom! He and Waterston hug, intensely happy.

They are ready to shoot the photograph of Ngor. It’s difficult to keep him from smiling. Conflict! Malkovich takes the picture. CUT TO: the darkroom.

Malkovich and Sands have developed the film. From a wee black envelope, Malkovich removes a square of photo paper.

Outside in the hall, Ngor rehearses his new name out loud. Over and over.

In the darkroom, they make a contact print. They put it in the developer. They get an image! With extreme care, Malkovich moves the little photograph into the fixer. But, the photograph turns completely gray. Crud! They have to start again.

Waterston and Ngor wait. Ngor paces, terrified.

Another try developing a picture. This time, it fades to white. They have to adjust the chemicals. This is a disaster. They are crushed. Wound tight, Malkovich sends Sands out. The bathroom is too small and driving him crazy. He has to do this alone.

Waterston and Ngor sit on a swing. Ngor is so afraid. Waterston smiles encouragingly.

In the darkroom, Malkovich has printed another photograph. This time, it does not fade. “Yeah!”

CUT TO: A knife blade scraping the old name off the passport.

Malkovich tells Ngor he’s going to New York! They got it! Huge hug! Huge relief!

A British government official collects everyone’s passports preparatory to beginning the journey home. Outside, heavily armed bad guys search a car. Waterston turns in his passport along with Ngor’s. Winks at him. We feel good.

CUT TO: Pouring rain, bad guy trucks and cars roll into the Embassy compound. Armed Khmer Rouge get out.

Inside the crowded Embassy, a Frenchman brings Sands a piece of paper. Sands reads it aloud and says that the trucks are there for everyone’s evacuation. But, that has to be confirmed. Waterston and Ngor stare at each other, afraid. Happy French people sing their national anthem.

Pouring rain. Sands and the helpful contractor are digging up bodies. The Frenchman comes, takes Sands off to the side under his umbrella. He gives Sands Ngor’s passport. The photograph has turned completely gray. The Frenchman says he’s sorry and walks off. In a wide shot, Sands stands in the rain. In CU, it comes down on the now useless passport.

Embassy. Ngor is still rehearsing his new name, out loud. Waterston comes and shakes his head. No dialogue! It’s over. Waterston pats Ngor’s hand. We feel terrible. Now, Ngor has to escape overland, through the jungle. The worst possible outcome.

Either I saw the scene with a passport photograph and glue in a different movie, or I imagined it.

Fascinating.

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Real Life Into Drama

I’ve been radio silent because I’ve been in deep consultation with a client in France and am just coming up for air. She has an interesting situation in that much of what she’s writing is based on real people and real events.

This can be wonderful, especially if the events start off basically working as a “story”, because you have much less to invent. To a buyer, Intellectual Property is catnip. It’s easier to sell something that happened because you can point to it and say, “Look, this blew people’s minds. You can make money here, easy!” The less they have to use their imagination to see dollar signs, the quicker those dollars will work their way into your pocket.

The trick with real life into drama is you sometimes have to wrench your story and characters away from “what really happened” and into the best possible story. You cannot be a slave to the truth. When turning real life into drama, you do not owe anyone anything unless you signed an agreement where they have any degree of creative control. Then you’re dead.

It’s tempting to think, “When this happened in real life, it was exciting! I’m going to do that!” No, you’re not. Not all the time, anyway. If your story demands it, you’ll slide it away from the true events because, while a slavish devotion to the past will delight your high school history teacher, they don’t write checks.

It can be exceedingly difficult to change “what happened in real life” in favor of a rearrangement, as it were, of the facts. The pull of “staying with the truth” is a tractor beam that at times, must be escaped. Above all, you are there to serve the story and the characters. If the real characters did something that doesn’t help your fictional version of their story, keep in mind that your job is to enhance life and turn it into art. Not repeat the past.

This can be very, very hard to do.

This is especially hard if you’re writing about your own life. Like my client in France. Unlike most writers turning real life into drama, all of whom must let fiction ride herd on the truth, the truth actually happened to her. That makes it doubly more difficult. Fortunately she hired me to keep her out of trouble. We’ll see how I do.

You have to allow your characters to do things they would do as a character in a drama, not what they did in real life. Just because it happened doesn’t mean it needs to be on the pages of your story.

“This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, screenplay by James Warner Bellah and Willis Goldbeck.

This real life into drama problem happened to me.

A producer wandered out of the Hollywood jungle up the path to my door with IP, a book a man had written about his days as a pro hockey player, playing in a league one notch below the NHL. He wanted to finance a movie based on his book. Excellent! I’m always interested in people of means with open checkbooks.

The book worked delightfully well as drama. Nearly every step the hero took in real life worked smoothly in the story. A fabulous arena, cast of fascinating characters, humor, a solid three act structure… All elements tough to find in a true story. In this case, it was all there. Except

The sticking point came with the climax and the overall reason for the story to be told. The “What is this story ABOUT?” conundrum. In drama, the audience wants an uptick at the end, a “happy” ending, but, because in real life the book’s writer never made it to the NHL and that part of the story couldn’t be changed, that “loss” had to be constructed to be a victory.

This works in stories all the time. It did in ROCKY. As you no doubt recall, Rocky lost the fight with Apollo Creed. But, because the story was structured so that, if he stayed on his feet until the last round bell and “went the distance,” he would feel great and so would we.

The ending doesn’t have to be happy. Just satisfying.

So, I had to figure out a way for a character who doesn’t get into the NHL to be content with what some might perceive as failure. The answer came through his father. In real life, father and son lived, ate, breathed, slept and dreamed the National Hockey League.

After pondering, I took that truth and turned it around.

In my version, the father (I recreated him as the hero’s Opponent) wanted the son to be in the NHL and drove him hard to achieve that dream. Toward the end of my version, the son discovers that he wants to stop this senseless pain. He wants to do things he wants to do, not what his father wants him to do. So he quits hockey and becomes his own person.

Worked perfectly. The hero gets the victory the audience craves and it fit the incontrovertible fact that he never made it to the big time. A stumbling block came when the guy with the money and the control refused to sell his real life father down the river for the sake of drama. I understood the sentiment, but it killed the story and the deal went away.

Real life can be excellent subject matter for stories. But if the drama asks, be ready to jump ship

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In Praise of Typewriters – II

Perhaps the single most important post in all of yourscreenplaysucks.com…

You may be getting weary of my proselytizing for typewriters as a useful writing tool. Old fashioned technology, right? You know, like the quill pen or papyrus. I don’t tout the lowly typewriter all that often. Last time was three years ago. [Search: In Praise of Typewriters. May 21, 2017] But, as yet another semester ends, it has again struck me how incredibly useful a typewriter can be.

Especially for people who have never written on anything but a computer.

The inability to get words on the page stems from a fear that the thing you’re about to write won’t be perfect. So why write it, right? With a computer, you can so easily work it and work it and work it until it’s either perfect or… until you give up, go out back, and weed the garden. With a typewriter, you Do. Not. Have. That. Option. You write it and it sucks and then you write the next sentence and it sucks and you write the next one and the next one and so on, and none are perfect, but once you get to the bottom of the page and pull it out of the machine, the page exists.

I ask my clients and students, “Do you write a sentence, erase it, and then hate yourself?” Some look at me like I’m stupid. Others… sag, moan, and glaze over. To them, I say, “You need to try writing on a typewriter.” At my film department, we have a Writing Room dedicated to a typewriter — with correcting tape removed. You can go in there and write to your heart’s content and you cannot erase a single word. Whether you like it or not, you move forward.

The idea for the Writing Room was born from the superb documentary, CALIFORNIA TYPEWRITER. Check it out on Criterion. It’s fantastic. Here is the relevant clip…

And the relevant quote…

“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process as I’m trying to be a wacko. I’m trying to be an absolute whack job when I’m typing. And it’s like, the typewriter doesn’t judge you, it just goes, ‘right away, sir. Right away sir. However you want it to be.'”

Again, boiled down…

“I can’t get to stream of consciousness when I’m involved in my own editorial process…”

John Mayer

If you can’t get to the fragile zone you need to be in to write, and stay there, it’s game over.

If you write a sentence and hate yourself, you may as well go be a banker. Just to get to the bottom of the page, you have to think you’re Thor.

One student this past semester had crippling writer’s block. The computer was her deadliest enemy. She’d write a page, highlight it, and delete it. Again and again. The rough part was that she could really write. She had the talent to earn money. I finally took her to the Writing Room and basically locked her in. On the typewriter for a couple of hours, she ended up writing five pages, the most pages she’d ever gotten done that fast in her entire life. She was flabbergasted.

The nail in her writer’s block coffin was a line I got from Ellen Sandler, “Write fast, write badly.” After I told my student that was her goal, just to fill the page and fix it later, then it was, for her: don’t spare the horses! Every assignment she turned in began with, “You asked me write fast and badly. I have written fast and badly.”

After she wrote fast and badly, she had something she could print, hold in her hand, and rewrite. If it doesn’t exist, you can’t fix it. I tell my students, “I can help you make anything better, but if the page isn’t there, there’s nothing I can do.”

If you rewrite while you’re writing, get a typewriter.

Spend $300. Change your life.

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Unity of Place

Simple to fix. Difficult to discover. Especially if you’re not looking for it!

Elsewhere on this earth, like my series of packed house lectures on storytelling at Lincoln Center, (not really, but my, doesn’t it look just dandy in print?) I’ve mentioned the “M-80 in the mailbox” drama theory. When I was a kid, an M-80 was the biggest firecracker we could get. Supposedly, a quarter of a stick of dynamite. I doubt it. But we certainly bought that legend when I was 12.

It was a ton of fun to blow an M-80 up in the middle of your driveway. But, if you stuck it inside an unsuspecting neighbor’s mailbox and then blew it up, my oh my, now you’re talking some entertainment! As well as a Federal crime. But I digress…

The tighter the confinement, the more effective the explosion. This has a lot to do with writing, especially how long your story lasts. But I digress…

The same is true about “place.” Keep your story planted in the same place and it will be wrapped tighter, more confined, and any explosions will be felt the more strongly by your characters and readers.

Does your whole story take place in Tuscaloosa except for one wild trip to Paris? If your redneck character needs a sumptuous meal, why drag her to Paris if she can just as effectively learn her lesson in Birmingham? Well, me, I’d much rather eat dinner in Paris than Birmingham, but I’m not living and struggling in a plot centered in Tuscaloosa paper mill.

I didn’t invent this. This “unity of place” wisdom comes from our buddy Aristotle. Dude knew what he was about. Rooting your story in the place the story “needs” to be often strengthens your narrative. If an event takes place far from where 95% of the story happens, take a deep, hard look at that action and see if it can be moved to the character’s backyard, or neighborhood, or, at least town.

THE BREAKFAST CLUB is a superb example. The whole movie takes place in a high school. For one thing, it’s a lot less expensive to shoot. More important, the story is about people in high school and it stays at the high school.

The whole time.

Often, when you move your story away from its core location, it weakens your tale. A lot like lighting an M-80, tossing it in a mailbox, and… forgetting to shut the door.

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Lots of Drafts! Learn from Burma-Shave!

Dad said “What do you know about a brushless shaving cream?” Carl said “I never heard of one.” Dad tossed him a tube of Lloyd’s Eux-E-Sis and said “Can you make a better one than this?” Carl took a look at it and said “Well, I can sure try — I used to be chief cosmetic chemist for the old Minneapolis Drug Company.” Then Carl picked up the phone and ordered the ingredients that he thought he needed, and about 3 o’clock that afternoon batch number one of Burma-Shave came off the fire. It was, frankly, terrible stuff. We had formulations on and off the market about three times. It wasn’t until we got to formula One Forty-three that we came up with a good, stable product. Actually we’d gone by it and were up close to formula Three Hundred, and then Dad discovered some of the old One Forty-three left in a jar and got a real fine shave from it. That’s how we discovered that, if you aged old One Forty-three for two or three months, you got a fine shave with it.

The Verse by the Side of the Road

Frank Rowsome, Jr.

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How Difficult is it to Write at the Level Where Your Work Will Sell?

Extraordinarily difficult.

Here’s a musical illustration that, every time I hear it, scares me to death.

“Because the Night” was written by Bruce Springsteen & Patti Smith in 1977. Reached 13 on the Billboard Hot 100. Springsteen wrote a draft, but, after struggling for four months, stopped working on it. His producer, Jimmy Iovine, suggest giving the song to Patti Smith. Iovine took her Springsteen’s recording and she finished the song. It became her biggest hit.

In 1993, “Because the Night” was covered by 10,000 Maniacs, with vocals by Natalie Merchant. It reached 11 on the Billboard Hot 100.

Do not watch the 10,000 Maniacs video. Just listen. It’s a superb recording. She can really sing. Their version has got a lot of strength and emotion.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UYZv-o01Qis

The single most terrifying thing about making art is that, if your screen, novel, poetry, or song writing is only at that level of achievement, you have to keep working on it. “Really good” is not enough. “A lot of emotion” is not going to get you a check. You have to blow the reader out the back of the theater. They have to pick themselves up off the floor in awe of whatever it was your work just did to them.

What 10,000 Maniacs did was very good, but it’s a pale thing next to the massive passion and power Patti Smith brings — with fewer instruments. To get you where you want to be, your creative work has to be at the Patti Smith level.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c_BcivBprM0

This creative stuff is in no way easy.

On YouTube, the 10,000 Maniacs version has 499,000 views.

The Patti Smith recording has 9.6 million.

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Know Thy Antagonist!

My son’s a writer. Go figure.

He’s made a living as a writer since he graduated from college. He’s a game designer, had five or six plays produced in New York and now, he’s got a novel coming out. The folks at Save The Cat! asked him to write a guest column.

Interestingly, he and I reached the same storytelling conclusion, separately. Know what your Antagonist wants. And, importantly, why does she want it? It’s the whole ball game. Everything good and useful flows from those two decisions.

I’ll let him tell you about it.

http://www.savethecat.com/novelwriting/know-your-villains

Please pass this post around to your writer buddies and your reader buddies. Repurposing his existing material means I just had my morning handed back to me and I’d like to help the guy sell a few books!

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MISSION IMPOSSIBLE TO UNDERSTAND

Anybody see MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: FALLOUT?

Everybody told me it was the best one.  I was excited to see it and came away disappointed.  Disappointed and confused.  I’m not a dim guy but I had no idea what was going on in the plot.  None.

Well, there was some plutonium.  And two women.

Who looked EXACTLY alike!  Same color hair.  Same unusual mouth.  I didn’t realize there were two of them until late in the movie.  Imagine my bewilderment!

Am I the only one?  I mean, I was able to follow TINKER TAILER SOLDIER SPY and that was a plot and a half.

They kept throwing twists at me until I had zero idea which people were on his side and which ones were on the bad guy’s side.  Every henchman had the same build, wardrobe and facial structure.  The plot, or my ability to keep the plates spinning, went flying out the window fairly early on.  After that it was just a ride.  A fun one with cool chases, but story?

I imagined the studio executive reading the script, thinking, “What the hell is going on here?  If I tell ’em I’m confused, they’re gonna say I’m stupid.  I’ll stay mum and pray they know what they’re doing.  But, whoa, this’s like following a single strand of spaghetti through an Olive Garden-sized bowl of pasta.”

Who was the bad guy?  He or she or they seemed to morph and change and waver, like a wisp of cigarette smoke in a barely lit room.  Hard to see or remember.

And, hey, read my book!  One bad guy’s name was LANE.  Another one was named, I swear, LARK.  I never knew which was which.  I’m old and decrepit and have two feet in the grave, but please:  LA** as two characters’ names?  Why not LANE and LAIN, to make it more entertaining?

Oh well.

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the Book works…

Got this email from a former student, working for a lit agency in Los Angeles.

“I cannot tell you how many times I wish writers would have read your book. We had one submission where the character names were Simon, Sarah, Mitch, Mikey, and Emily. Needless to say, we don’t rep that writer…”

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Top 5 Screenwriting Book of 2018! I blush.

I’m happy to report that Your Screenplay Sucks! has been chosen by EzVid Wiki as the #5 best screenwriting book on the planet.

Best Screenwriting Books

Founded in 2011, Ezvid Wiki was the world’s first video wiki. Their YouTube channel has over 300,000 subscribers, 175 million views since its founding.

Pretty cool.

Tell your friends.

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