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Pro Screenwriter can clue you in to the realities of writing for film, so Ask Me Anything about what it takes and what to expect.

A. Wayne Carter
Apr 12, 2018

It seems like everybody wants to sell a screenplay. Everybody else wants to sell them a book or seminar on how to do it: How to format. How to structure. How to pitch an idea to an agent or producer. There’s even software available that will create a plot for you.

Nobody tells you what the real experience of a working screenwriter is like.

I wrote five screenplays before I sold one. I wrote 40 more by the time I sold 12 to the major studios. The mind games you play with yourself and within the industry to not only survive, but to sustain your focus and dreams are unbelievable. But they are no less an essential part of the process than format, or story, or structure. This AMA is not just about your practical business questions about working in the industry, but the realities of screenwriting.

www.hollywoodaholic.com

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What screenplay have you written are you most proud of even if it hadn't been made? Why?
Apr 19, 11:26AM EDT0

LUCHAZO99,

My favorite script is the one that is, as of this very day, possibly getting the financing to move forward and with a director attached. It's only taken a few decades.

While working in LA, I heard a news report about a group of freshman cheerleaders at a local high school who all fainted after one of them smelled what they thought was leaking gas. Firefighters and hazardous material teams arrived to investigate. They found nothing. Much like the story The Crucible, one young hysterical girl's experience touched off a wave of mass hysteria that ultimately physically affected others.

I sat down the next day and, in 10 days, wrote a comedy called The Mysterious Wonderful about the two most powerful forces in the tween universe: a first love, and the ability of one kid's vivid imagination to set off another's.

My agent sent the script out on a Friday to three studios. He was paged on the golf course the next morning by Paramount Studios. They were interested. Fox Studios also called. They wanted a rising young actor they had on contract named Keanu Reeves to star. I took meetings.

Paramount eventually dropped out because the story wasn't 'global' enough. I painfully told Fox and Keanu's manager that he was too old for the part. The innocence of the story would be lost. No deal on the script. But Fox loved the project so much they hired me to write the script for another project they owned about kids in a haunted toy factory. Suddenly, I was pegged as a 'kids' writer.

Meanwhile, my original script, though building a fan base of people in the industry through the years, never got made. It was the easiest thing I ever wrote because it just flowed out of me in those joyous 10 days as pure as spring water out a well.

The script didn't get made by studios because it wasn't big and expensive and global enough. Nevermind that they could have spent less than $5 million on it and possibly had a big hit (like Get Out).

I eventually left LA, taught screenwriting at colleges, worked in the commercial/industrial film arena for a dozen years, spoke at film festivals, but never let go of faith in that script. It recently was optioned again and there is some momentum to see it go forward as an under $5 million independent.

It just goes to prove that no great ideas are ever dead. Just don't base them on trends or technology (like MySpace, or... Facebook) that will pass in a few years. Keep the ideas timeless.

The story of how 12 year-old Tommy Gallipiano creates mass hysteria in a small, uptight Florida town while also trying to impress his first love... is one for the ages.

I hope you see it on the big screen (or at least, on demand) in the near future.

Apr 19, 6:17PM EDT0
What makes a film production company take a chance on a new screenwriter?
Apr 19, 5:45AM EDT0

SHAKEEL,

An irresistible script. Simple as that.

The great leveler of the business of screenwriting is that you can be a noobie or non-entity in the business and still hit one out of the park (or grab a deal).

The problem is, getting it read in the first place. That's always the biggest hurdle. And the other big hurdle is getting it read by someone who KNOWS what they are reading.

As renowned screenwriter William Goldman famously said about the business, "Nobody knows anything." He meant that, ultimately, no one knows what is going to be a hit with audiences or not. Studios and production companies do everything they can to hedge their bets, with brand name projects (Marvel, DC, Star Wars), remakes, and adapted bestsellers, but they can never be 100% sure where a hit is going to come from. That's why newcomer scripts or projects still get through. They won't throw the bank at those projects, and that's why I always advocate keeping your budget down, but they've seen it happen so many times, they can't ignore the Blair Witch Projects or Get Outs that blow the whole algorhythm for what can exponentially bring a huge profit on a modest investment.

Because of the insecurity, there's few people that read with certainty. You have to find those people. Meaning, they know what they have when they read it. They recognize something potentially great. That's why I also advocate entering some screenwriting contests. Because, if you win a few, there is some validation to these uncertain readers that you are offering them something better. The market has told them this is something that might be worthy.

To me the greatest challenge as a screenwriter is finding a worthy READER: A fan who recognizes something good and can do something about it. Be a champion for it. That's really how so many fresh or new projects break out: an industry champion who has some certainty about what they've found and going to bat for it.

So much of the business now is just about making deals, and I hear all the time, "Oh, nobody reads scripts, anymore." But that's bullshit. Any producer who is actually MAKING films does not shoot something new without first reading a script. It still works that way.

Your mission is to find whatever means possible; query letters, emails, referrals to get a fresh script to one of those integral readers. If you read the trades, do the research, you start to get a feel for the names of those players. Once you get your targets, it's basically a numbers game. I would send out 30 queries to get maybe 2 reads. Those two maybe wouldn't buy, but they became fans for whatever I wrote next. Or they became referrals to where that first project might be welcomed. 

I got a comedy script to the woman who produced This is Spinal Tap, and she became a fan, and when she was later a Vice President at Paramount, she took a pitch from me and hired me to write my suspense thriller for the studio. She took that chance on me... because she knew WHAT she was reading, and it didn't matter who.

Write something irresistible.

Last edited @ Apr 19, 11:10AM EDT.
Apr 19, 11:05AM EDT0
Do all screenwriter freelance or are most of them hired by a film production company?
Apr 18, 8:50AM EDT0

JOE,

I would say that all screenwriters, including those who are hired by a film production company or studio are essentially free lancers. You work job to job, there is no guaranteed employer.

In the old studio run days of Hollywood in the 30s-40s, screenwriters were often under contract to particular studios to work exclusively for that studio for the term of the contract. You were basically an employee and may have to write as many as 7 or more screenplays for the studio in a given year, and on a basic salary.

Those days are long gone. Studios still have 'go-to' writers they hire again and again, and a screenwriter may have a production or development deal at a studio where that studio gets 'first look' at anything the screenwriter writes as part of that deal fee, but it's basically a free lance world for screenwriters. Television writers are a different situation.

If you have an agent, you're not just winging it on your own. That agent is getting you pitch meetings, development deal meetings, circulating your spec script, and trying to get you assignments with studios or production companies to write or re-write projects they already own. But you are still an independent contractor for the most part.

This is a blessing and a curse. A blessing because you are the master of your own fate, and once you are established you can pick and choose what you want to work on. It's a curse only because nothing (including a living salary) is guaranteed, and your stock goes up and down depending on how hot your last script was, either by word of mouth, demand, or by sale.

Unfortunately, it seems the days of auctions for most scripts is over. Your agent would send a script out on a friday to 5-7 studios and if they wanted the project they would bid against each other. That's what drove some script fees up into the millions during the 80s. That rarely happens anymore, and usually only to the purchase of hot books or potential bestsellers in galleys before they are even published (at which point the author is put aside and a seasoned screenwriter is hired to adapt that book). 

You can still make a good living as a freelance screenwriter, but the purchase fees are more down to earth (WGA minimums or slightly above), with only the more larger production bonuses earned if the script goes to film, or becomes a hit. You get a film made and, whether it's a hit or not, you often get booked deals for many more scripts and years on that basis because it's just such a remarkable feat that your script made it all the way to screen. It's like there's a superstitious 'good luck' charm attached to that writer for that occurrence, even though it's an entire array of circumstances that helped that script go forward.

It's a difficult slog to navigate, but if this is what your heart and talent desires, you will pursue it, learn the ropes, enjoy the freedom of freelance and find a way to create the life you want out of it.

Good luck!

Last edited @ Apr 18, 1:12PM EDT.
Apr 18, 12:59PM EDT0
What are the differences between the first screenplay you've written and the latest one?
Apr 16, 10:30AM EDT0

PONCJO,

The first screenplay I ever wrote was full of camera directions, and descriptive adverbs on how every character was supposed to deliver their lines. These are big no-nos, as I  have mentioned. Don't tell the director how to use his camera, or the actors how to deliver their lines if you want them to honor and respect your script.

Thematically, in my first script, I took on way too big and philosophical a topic. It was a dark comedy called Pay the Devil His Do, about the devil being a Calvinist (he doesn't need to buy souls because he knows you are either predestined to go to heaven or hell; so instead he commissions murders against people predestined to join him in hell). A good premise, but there was a lot of speech-ifying and over-the-top action, and it was like a poor attempt to match the more brilliant type of social satirical film Paddy Chayevsky had achieved with Network.

My latest script, and one that actually got made, was a simple romantic thriller about a depressed college age girl who falls in love with an immigrant taxi driver on Nantucket unaware that his older brother has entered the scene and is potentially radicalizing him for a terrorist attack.  Who is the boyfriend more loyal to in the end? A simple premise but with good dramatic conflicts and potentials.

I wasn't shooting to change the world or make some big great statement, but just tell a good story with rising suspense. That's the number one lesson I try to get across in the screenwriting lectures and classes I've taught: Learn how to tell a simple effective story first using the craft before overreaching or tackling subjects too ambitious or diffuse. Even the greatest filmmakers sometimes falter when taking themselves too seriously or self-importantly.

The best statement films are often very simple and locally-based. The more you blow something up, the more you dilute the power of that statement and its effect, instead of on the one or two characters it will have the most power.

Other than that, the first script I wrote was 86, pages, and this latest one was edited down just prior to shooting from 112... to 88.

Now if only those two and a half hour CGI destruction porn superhero movies could learn that less is often more.

Last edited @ Apr 16, 11:48AM EDT.
Apr 16, 11:46AM EDT0
In what ways does the location of a writer impact that writer's capabilities of having a successful career in the film industry?
Apr 14, 11:44PM EDT0

TANYA,

Fortunately, where you live is not as critical as it used to be thanks to the technologies that instantly connect us all. I did revisions on my last film in my home office working with the director and producer via Skype. Granted, the director made me fly up to Nantucket three times prior to get the ball rolling, but we proved you can collaborate long distance.

A student came up to me after finishing a college class I taught in screenwriting and asked me where he could get his 'Masters.' I told him... the streets of Los Angeles. I wasn't being facetious. Those seeking a long-lasting career in the industry will inevitably have to spend time there. It's where all the agents are; it's where you would take pitch meetings with studio and independent producers; it's where many of the funding conferences are; and it's where you could take improv or acting classes to learn that acting part of the business and make friends with a future A-list actor who could make one of your scripts an instant go-picture (That's how Robert Towne's career took off thanks to Jack Nicholson).

But I don't think you need to START there anymore. If I were starting today, I would get my feet wet posting my script with as many contest and festival sites as possible to build a consensus that it was a 'hot read.' I did this with a TV pilot script a few years ago and it won between first and third places in more than 14 festivals. I actually went to the Las Vegas Film Festival to accept a first place award, and it was an opportunity to network with many industry people who scooted over from Los Angeles. 

If you were a newcomer to the business and garnered some awards or great reviews with your script first, that makes a more powerful case for submitting your scripts to agents or producers through query letters (emails) and actually getting it read. If there's a stack (or email backlog) of scripts on the producers desktop, which one is she going to read first? More likely the one that has won a bunch of awards around the country proving it has some commercial appeal across the board.

Once you get an agent, you basically have to do your time in Los Angeles if you want to work consistently or sell consistently. I took as many as 250 pitch meetings in Los Angeles in one year basically trying to get deals to write my ideas. You also take meetings for assignments on films already in the pipeline. I would have meetings with the president of Warner Bros. on whether I was going to write the next Sean Connery picture. That's still how a lot of assignments happen.

But it was also the case that once you made a name for yourself in the business, the first thing you did is GET OUT. You had an agent, you had your cred, there was almost a magnetic allure that the writers not scraping around the city for deals became somewhat more desirable. Just human nature. The less available or accessible, the more demand. Just ask Bill Murray.

To summarize, you can start from anywhere to start getting your material out and finding out if it's worthy. Once you have something you know is bulletproof, you take the next step and get the 'real' industry people to start taking notice. If that means spending some time in Los Angeles, by all means, check it out.

If you can get a bite without going there, terrific. Chances are you'll have to take some initial meetings there, but the writing can pretty much all be done remotely... until the big table read with the cast once the film is a go. You want to be there for that no matter where it is. You're hanging out with the stars of the film, getting a vibe for how they speak so you can adjust the dialogue, bonding or not bonding with the director who will now rule over your property, and just finally living the life of a successful screenwriter. You made it. Where's the party?

Last edited @ Apr 15, 1:29PM EDT.
Apr 15, 1:23PM EDT0
Have you experienced the difficulty of reconciling the difference between what you desired and what you achieved with a screenplay, if so, how did you move through it, if not, what advice would you have for other writers that struggle with it?
Apr 14, 1:00PM EDT0

SHWETA,

Usually, I'm pretty satisfied with my first drafts of a screenplay. They spend some time gestating, but I almost alwatys get close to what I was trying to tell or achieve. That doesn't mean it's going to sell or always satisfy the studio, but my first draft makes me happy.

There are exceptions. The ones I fought the hardest with to actually get down came out the worst. Or at least the most disappointing. 

I really believe that the experience should be smoothe, somewhat fun and easy. Again, why do this if it isn't? 

People overthink the process. There are so many books and 'teachers' coming at you with structure this, structure that, follow this template, hit these beats, have some big action every 15 pages, it just can drive you up a wall. That's NOT how the experience should be. Sure, you need craft and you develop pace, structure, but it's GOT to come somewhat instinctively, and without so much struggle or effort. Because if it does take that struggle, it will show in the writing and your pains will be exposed on the page.

I spoke about readability on one question, and again it goes to that. If there's no joy in the writing of it, there's little joy in the reading, whether it's a comedy or horror or whatever.

One way I've maintained a positive outcome with my scripts is NOT to overthink them ahead of time. Just come up with a good premise, a lead character or characters you are interested in putting into that premise and then TAKE THE LEAP.

Most of my scripts I don't know exactly how they are going to end... and that's a beautiful thing. If I know, then, most likely, the audience is surely going to know and I'm stuck in cliche-ville. I want to be just as surprised as the audience as to what's going to happen. So I just take the leap, put one scene in front of another, let the character lead me along, set up the colliding circumstances and direct it all toward some conclusion, and hope I come up with something. I always do. And the best ones I never saw coming when I started. 

It's scary to get toward the end of the script and not know how it will end, so step aside, take a shower, go to the beach, let it go, and I guarantee you some original answer will pop in your head.

Nothing is written in stone. So if you have something you are not satisifed with, throw one or two acts out and take a different path. Just make sure it's one you find interesting and fun, because the audience will, too.

Vince Gilligan, the genius showrunner behind the Breaking Bad series, explained that his writers would paint themselves into a corner with an episode. They had NO IDEA where the next episode, or even scene would come from. But the fun was creating some crazy predicament, and then brainstorming some off the wall solution. It shows in the final result. That's what made the show addicting: The writers had no idea where they were going either and surprised themselves, and the rest of us along with them.

So take the leap, trust your creative abilities, and surprise yourself... and the rest of us, as well. We'll happily take the ride.

Last edited @ Apr 14, 3:47PM EDT.
Apr 14, 3:43PM EDT0
Was there a specific moment that made you start writing and if so what was it?
Apr 14, 6:07AM EDT0

A_LAVF,

I was a pretty inquisitive kid, collected comic books, read science fiction books and just absorbed as much interesting topics about the world and the universe as I could. But I can remember many of the science books I was reading not answering the most basic questions that plague inquisitive kids: Where does a thought come from? What happens after you die? What is consciousness?

I had wanted to be a scientist early on, but since science couldn't answer some of the most burning questions I had, I soon realized that, as a writer, you could make up your own answers. And that was fun. And that's what led me into science fiction and writing my first short stories when I was as young as 11. And having my first stories printed in the fan sections of Creepy and Eerie magazine when I was probably 14 or 15. I was hooked.

And then, again, as mentioned previously, when I actually SOLD a story to Twilight Zone magazine and saw how paltry the check was, I focused on scriptwriting as a better opportunity to survive pursuing this craft.

There were tough periods and some survival jobs along the way, and I'm not living in a fabulous estate overlooking the Pacific in Monterey, but I made a good living as a writer for the majority of my career, have a great family, and zero regrets.

You really can't ask for more.

Last edited @ Apr 14, 3:28PM EDT.
Apr 14, 3:26PM EDT0
What, in your opinion, should the film or TV industry be doing for screenwriters that it isn’t?
Apr 13, 8:44PM EDT0

LMEL717,

The only thing the film or television industry owes aspiring screenwriters is some modicum of opportunity to break in. There are a plethora of businesses, websites, festivals out there right now exploiting the unaware aspiring screenwriter. Many are legit, but many are just there to make a buck off your inexperience. 

The minute actors or actresses step off the bus or arrive in Los Angeles, there are scores of business like books that print headshots no casting agent will ever see that exploit their desperation to 'make it' in the industry.

I kept writing but struggled for two years trying to catch a break when I first got there. I thought the Writer's Guild helped aspiring screenwriter, but they really only serve and protect writer's who have alread sold material. That's okay, but where's the nuturing organization giving fresh voices a chance that maybe has their interest at stake? 

Maybe the industry doesn't owe that to anyone, and you just have to tough it out because you're going to need that toughness to survive and thrive within the industry. 

I'm sure some of the studios probably have development programs tied to USC or UCLA or other schools that promote and develop talent, but getting into those schools is tough enough by itself.

I honestly don't know every opportunity out there the industry legitimately offers these days. I know of withoutabox.com, inktip.com, stage32.com and all the other websites sprouting up around the industry offering the chance to have your work judged, evaluated and possibly exposed to a legitimate industry executive or employee, but you really have to dig deeper to see who's really being lifted by these outfits. I just don't know. But short of some officially sponsored industry outreach program, they may provide some beginning of a path.

I read today that Amazon Studios will no longer be accepting speculative scripts on their website. So there was a legitimate studio access channel just turned off.

It's discouraging, but persistence and playing the numbers game still pays off for some, and their are so many other ways to garner attention these days (YouTube, etc.). I'm actually preparing a TV series pilot pitch to post on YouTube since we haven't been getting traction through normal channels. But you've really got to be creative and find new ways of getting attention. 

The industry may not owe screenwriter's anything, but the WGA does look out for writers once you're in, with guaranteed fees, arbitration for any dispute over authorship, great health insurance if you earn the minimums, and a possible pension. They didn't help me get started, but they came through big time for health insurance and other protections while I was working in Hollywood.

Good luck!

Last edited @ Apr 14, 3:09PM EDT.
Apr 14, 3:08PM EDT0
In what ways have your personal and educational experiences affected your writing?
Apr 13, 8:44PM EDT0

LMEL717,

I went to college (UM), majored in mass communications and took a class in screenwriting from a professor who was good, but had never sold a screenplay.  Still, he encouraged me and I had at least two feature spec scripts written while still in school and I was already making submissions.

I worked in television on a music dance series that was syndicated nationally for two years after college in Miami. It was valuable because it gave me practical experience in many areas of production, from setting up lights, pulling cable, timing shots for the director, renting Winnebagos for dressing rooms - the whole thing. Of course, it didn't mean anything when I got to Los Angeles and had to start from scratch, but at least I knew something about the 14-17 hour grueling days involved in production.

Personally, I was a foreign exchange student in Peru my senior year in high school. That experience opened my eyes to the potential adventures life offers. And whenever I started a new script, I tried to attach some type of adventure to that experience to not only research, but help energize the experience.  I snuck aboard a freigher in Long Beach harbor to research the ins and outs of a ship for a project. I spent a night in a haunted toy story to write a ghost screenplay. I spent two weeks simulating basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina to write a National Lampoon comedy about the army. 

I realized that every new idea was an opportunity to explore a new interest and live that new interest for a period of time. Obviously, actors do this with every production, as well. But remember, they're just reading our words. We are the ones who lived it first. 

I also learned that I needed to make my leaps of adventure from a secure place: an established home or family life. I was not some gypsy running from experience to experience. I needed to always fall back on the safety and security of my writing cave at home for the final drafts.

My ideas were not born out of any chaos in my life, but out of that security foundation from which to leap into these adventures. And I've gotten more conservative as I've aged so I don't go running around the world anymore, but in my youth, 20s, 30s and 40s I can't recommend enough going for as many travel or experiences outside your comfort level. These will enrich your work for years to come.

I've climbed the Great Pyramid of Egypt, meditated at Stonehenge, explored Machu Picchu, hitchiked across the Andes, and thrown up from food poisoning in King Tut's tomb. But the greatest adventure of all is raising a child and revisiting the wonder of the world again through their gleeful eyes.

Carpe Diem!

Last edited @ Apr 14, 2:52PM EDT.
Apr 14, 2:49PM EDT0
What, do you consider to be, the most difficult thing and the most enjoyable thing about screenwriting?
Apr 13, 8:38PM EDT0

JEANRUA,

Collaboration is the double-edged sword that is one of the enjoyable aspects of the screenwriting trade, but also the most fraught with potential frustration.

You create an original story or script (not talking about an adaptation here), and the minute you finish that task is a moment of pure exaltation. Writing is tough. Facing the blank page is tough. Having written is blissful; it's a fantastic experience. 

I used to almost make a ritual out of finishing a screenplay, whether it took 10 days or 2 years (it's taken me both). First, register that puppy with the WGA as soon as possible. To me, and as a WGA member (you don't have to be one to register), that wasn't about paranoia that someone would steal my idea, that rarely happens (everyone's got their own pet projects); it was more a ceremonial moment that this story was done. I did it. I tamed that beast and turned it into something wonderful for the entire world to see. It's finished.

But, of course, that's just the beginning.

If you should be so lucky as to have that first draft sell (or have been hired to do that first draft), now comes the difficult part: Building a consensus around it from all the other parties necessary to bring it to the screen.

The producer has his or her notes: Can the computer somehow electronically kill people instead of psychologically enslave them? The studio or production company executive has theirs: We have Kevin Hart under contract; can you make it a comedy instead of a drama? Maybe a finance source: Can you lose the expensive train crash in act three? And when a director is attached, those notes: I see this as an action picture not a romance. And then the actress or actor who helped get the project bankrolled or moved forward weighs in. Can you make the lead more likeable? Can one or the other not die at the end (hey, it's a tragic romance)? 

You're ready to pull your hair out from the roots.

Now, it's not always stuff that you dread. Sometimes the ideas really do contribute to making the story or characters better. And sometimes that process is completely and positively energizing.  But you signed up for this circus and you need all these.... participants to bring it to the audience, so grin and bear it and remember that next great idea you had.

And you will have that wonderful moment of having written that one.

Light a candle. Drink some champagne. Light a cigar (or spark a doobie). Pat yourself on the back. Celebrate.

And maybe wait a couple weeks before actually turning that puppy in for notes.

Last edited @ Apr 13, 9:46PM EDT.
Apr 13, 9:41PM EDT0
What do you wish you had known when beginning your career as a writer that you know now and how would this knowledge have affected your career?
Apr 13, 4:13PM EDT0

MARISSA,

I think my naivete and the things I didn't know often helped me in this career. I didn't know how much it would have helped to be born in the business. I didn't know how hard it would be as an outsider. I didn't know how stressful living in LA would be. I didn't know what material producers were specifically looking for or not. I didn't know how hard it was to get an agent. I just went in knowing this was what I wanted to do and I painted myself into a corner that this was all I COULD do, and that's what guided me.

I didn't know what I was up against. And that actually worked for me. I didn't take things personally, I just adapted to what I learned along the way and figured these were just the hoops you had to jump through. The real stress came later when I had some success and I knew better what was at stake. But I also got through everything maintaining a degree of innocence that, in a weird way, helped protect me from toxic characters who might have exploited me or my talent, if that makes sense. Like a cross against vampires, if you will, LOL.

As far as the creative process itself, the biggest lesson is always to trust the well. When you start, you have the luxury of waiting for inspiration or the muse, but as you turn pro you have to turn on the juice and deliver on command. As I've mentioned in another question, I had to find ways to make that part of the process as fun and free as possible, otherwise what was the point of a career as a writer? So there was a struggle period transitioning from that free wheeler to the gun-for-hire, but the beauty of writing is, unless you're in a 9-5, it's done on your terms. You already learned the discipline part and trust that you'll get whatever you need done, so that's when you can play with the program and work at night only, or at a cafe, or scribbling on a legal pad first, or dictating while you drive through a beautiful setting. The world is your oyster once you trust and take command of your process. It takes a little time, but you'll get there.

I suppose if I knew that earlier on, I might not have discovered the creative ways to still be creative.

Last edited @ Apr 13, 5:07PM EDT.
Apr 13, 5:07PM EDT0
What are some of the tricks of the trade when attempting to make a successful pitch on a screenplay?
Apr 13, 8:01AM EDT0

MAGGIE,

Aah, the pitch. Perhaps the most essential skill you will need to either sell your first project, or continue to get deals to write more. And it doesn't come natural to us 'writer-types,' who often, due to our skill set, aren't the most loqacious or socially-skilled talkers on the planet. Unfortunately, to promote your work, it's just something you have to practice practice and practice until you can exite someone else enough with your idea to the point they are ready to put up serious money to make your film. And you often have to do it BEFORE anyone will read your script, either on paper or email or in person or verbally.

So first get your idea down to the most irresistable three to five minutes you can. Even get it down to one logline that will intrigue enough to want them to read more. Always think in those terms: What can I say about my project in a short twitter amount of words that will want them to know more? The one line logline leads to the five minute verbal pitch which leads to reading your script which leads to the deal.

Here's a sample logline. Not saying it's perfect or ideal, but just that I think it helps intrigue a reader to want to know more. For my comedy script The Mysterious Wonderful, my logline is: "12-year-old Tommy Gallipiano creates mass hysterial in a small town with a jar full of air." That's it. Want to know how? Read the fricking script.

For a live pitch, here's your most important tip: Make your pitchee part of the pitch. They will invariably interrupt of offer suggestions, or like this and not like that. Welcome their ideas. Doesn't mean you're stuck with them. Never forget you're there to close the deal, not justify your own ego. Accommodate their ideas and suggestions and make them a part of the pitch so that they will be invested in the project and want to see it go further. I can't emphasis this enough.

I blew a huge pitch (or should I say I hugely blew a pitch) to the president of Orion Pictures because I kept shutting his ideas down. I had a major producer with me already on board. I made great small talk and bonded with the president over a love of Baltimore Orioles baseball before the pitch (appropriate). I began telling the story of my script; he became very interested; I knew I was snagging him. And then toward the end he started suggesting ideas that I resisted. I resisted them because I HAD ALREADY WRITTEN THE SCRIPT, and I was stuck on my ending. Nevermind that I was supposedly there to get him to hire me to write the idea, I was stuck with my version and I shut him down. I wasn't thinking that the goal was just to get him aboard and get the project rolling and then everything would be negotiable - and a director would have his own ideas, too. No, I was too cocky, I couldn't see it any other way, so I went negative and was saying, No, that can't happen. And I blew the deal. And in the hallway immediately after the blown pitch - which was IN THE BAG early on - the big time producer who was already attached just turns to me and says, "Schmuck."

Don't be a schmuck. Pitch your ideas with excitement, but welcome any interested input. You can always ignore it later when the egomaniac director comes in with his or her own ideas.

Pitch away!

Last edited @ Apr 13, 2:32PM EDT.
Apr 13, 2:25PM EDT0
How important is the services of an agent to a screenwriter and what are some of the advantages and disadvantages of signing with an agent?
Apr 13, 6:07AM EDT0

SV9ZIST,

The agent question. I was wondering when someone was going to get around to it. I went through about 6 of them in my time in Hollywood, from the one man to the boutique to the just plain big. 

Here's what you need to know: Agents are only in the business of earning their 10% commission. They are not in the business of breaking new talent. They are in the business of getting the best deals for the writers that are already earning them money. And they do that job very well. My agents always got me more money for a deal than I ever could on my own. But in the meantime, I had to deal with the agents, and they were pretty much all like Ari Gold on Entourage. A-holes, if you'll excuse the stereotype characterization. Necessary often, but just a pain to deal with. If they hadn't sold your spec script in two weeks, it was 'Next.' (Nevermind that you just sweated six months on that precious thing.)

The other thing they mostly focus on is getting their writers writing assignments. Again, it's a good thing to keep working. But you aren't up for those assignments until you are a known quantity.

The Catch-22 of getting an agent is that you usually can't attract one until you already have some heat - either a potential deal, a big champion in the industry pushing for you, or just the imminent ability to start earning. And supposedly, you can't get the deal until you have an agent. Wrong. You just have to hustle like a maniac and build a fan base of readers one by one until you strike the possible deal, but once you do, suddenly you can choose your agent as they come sniffing.

So the advantages are getting more money for deals, taking plenty of meetings where you can pitch your next film idea, and getting assignments for projects already in the pipeline.

The disadvantages are they aren't interested in you until you already have some earning capacity. There are exceptions where they might put you 'on the cuff' and make some submissions for you before they sign you to see if they get a bite. But it's very rare to even get an agent to read an unknown quanity at this point. Unless you have a great referral.

You can make deals without an agent. I have used an entertainment attorney. I've also had a manager, who can't make deals, but can help circulate your material around to build some heat to the point where you can get that agent to sign you. 

Also, I was with some large agencies, and unless you are their top earner, you get lost and can go a long time without getting the attention your career needs. Smaller, boutique agencies are more hands on to helping further develop personal careers. You want meetings to pitch your ideas, because it's all a numbers game what will sell. The more hits, the more strikes (in a good sense, not a baseball sense).

Dont' sweat the agent until you've done enough footwook and contact making on your own to get some heat. Then, you grit your teeth and sign with one.

Last edited @ Apr 13, 2:02PM EDT.
Apr 13, 1:59PM EDT0
What are the types of stories that particularly excite you and why?
Apr 13, 6:07AM EDT0

SV9ZIST,

I previously mentioned I don't go for predictable tentpole superhero or apocalyptic stories any more. There's nothing in there for me to relate to. Part of this is because I've seen so many films and written so many scripts I know all the tricks, tropes, and plots (supposedly, there are only 36, but lately it seems more like 3).

So give me something more personal, more relateable, and unpredictable. I think the general market agrees because Get Out, a low budget horror movie with some very different twists jumped out and grabbed audiences and made more than $200 million.

My favorite film of the year was Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri. What an unbelievably awesome character to begin with, working out supreme grief and anger and beyond unpredictable. I cared about her and her plight, and was willing to accept whatever and wherever she went. And then you add in the almost despicable Sam Rockwell cop character, and you take them both on a journey that (SPOILER) puts them together on the same mission at the end, and I'm in, man. Never saw that coming. Martin McDonagh's earlier film, In Bruges, hit me the same way. Loved the characters, had no idea where the film was going, but I just grabbed on and went along for the ride.

If you're writing a script, forget doing the big superhero or apocalyptic story because the studios have the budgets and teams of writers to do that and they just don't need it from you.  What they DO need is deeply personal stories that only YOU could tell. Maybe something from your personal experience. Because if you tell it in the right way and make it authentic, EVERYONE can practically identify with what is human about it. 

The perfect example this past year was Lady Bird, which is really just a coming-of-age story about a girl too eccentric for her 'boring' hometown. But the humanity of wanting to find your own way is just identifiable by everyone. And it's the eccentric touches of the story that lift it above the cliche. 

So dress up something personal with the touches only you can provide, and when the script sells, only YOU can do the revisions and stick with it. For cliche action pictures, they can just drop you and go to their usual bullpen.

Last edited @ Apr 13, 1:45PM EDT.
Apr 13, 1:41PM EDT0
What, do you consider to be, the most important aspects of building a great character?
Apr 13, 5:54AM EDT0

BOJANA,

I usually start with physical characteristics and way of talking. But this can be tricky with screenwriting versus novels because you have to consider casting.  You want to get a visual of your character, but that could be at complete odds to who ultimately gets cast. I remember one comedy script I described the lead female as small, blonde and fierce. And then the script went to Whoopi Goldberg.  (pause for effect). Now, I suppose she was actually quite pleased that she was considered for this role which meant physical characteristics were beside the point. We just wanted funny. But from that moment on, at least as far as descriptions in the script, I kept it to a minimum. Just sex and age range (40s, etc). But again, that could backfire. But you've got to start somewhere, right?

So, putting aside idealized characteristics, you focus almost entirely then on how the character speaks and interacts with other characters. Are they southern, do they have a dialect, do they speak rapidly and in complete sentences, or just shot clips, are they combative, or more docile or submissive? Once you get an ear for how your character speaks and interacts, you start to flesh out more of their personality.

One script I had a heroic action character that I had modeled after Clint Eastwood (It's perfectly okay to actually CAST your own script as your write to get a shorthand feel for how they will speak or act - it can always be modified later).  It was a train detective ghost story and there was a villain nemesis. And I remember getting back the comment that the hero wasn't heroic enough in the story. Bummer. What do I do? So I talked to Dennis Shryack, who actually WROTE a Clint Eastwood movie (Pale Rider).  And he tells me, "Oh, that's an easy one... Make your bad guy more villainous." Never even thought of that. So I had the bad guy kill a 10-year-old kid. Spielberg immediatley does this in his next film Schindler's List, as well. Must have talked to Dennis.

So it's not just who your character is, but his or her relation to other characters in the script that help define them.

Building a great character doesn't happen in an instant. And it doesn't even happen most often before you start the script. But there's a point in the writing where that character finally and fully comes to life for you. And at that point you almost know everything they would do or say in any situation. It's a great moment. And you will find it if you just keep them talking, walking and acting through your scenes.

Last edited @ Apr 13, 1:29PM EDT.
Apr 13, 1:25PM EDT0
What are some of the clarifications one must gain before attempting a written collaboration and in what ways will these clarifications help the collaboration?
Apr 12, 5:16PM EDT0

CHARLES,

If you're a first time collaborator, you figure that out along the way. Who's going to pitch and who's going to catch. Someone has to sit at the keyboard and actually punch the keys. Do you work better talking it aloud or someone does a first draft and someone takes that draft and does another? Or you alternate scenes and then rewrite each other?

The great thing about collaboration is there ARE NO RULES except the ones you create, and you create them by discovering them as you try to hash something out. You find out what each of your strengths are and then defer those aspects to the other person. I'm great at structure, story, exposition, and my former collaborator Bruce Vilanch was great at funny, one-liner dialogue. I built the skeleton and the muscles and he did the embellishments that brought the beast to life. 

If you need to spell out who does what, by all means assign that, but it's just a process that becomes clear once you just learn each other's rhythms, habits, strengths and weaknesses. But by all means, when the process is over, don't feel the ego need to take ownership of any particular part of the work. Really admit that even the inspired stuff you came up with was inspired by either the competitiveness of the complementary-ness (word?) of the collaboration.

And if it doesn't work at all, you can still fly solo.

Last edited @ Apr 12, 5:27PM EDT.
Apr 12, 5:27PM EDT0
How important is the readability of a script with regards to its ability to get produced?
Apr 12, 4:55PM EDT0

LEIRB,

Great question. To me, it's everything. I just served as the screenwriting judge for the Orlando Film Festival last fall, read dozens of scripts, and I can say that just about EVERYONE knows how to at least professionally deliver a script.

What most miss is that they are so focused on the shorthand of the format, elements, etc., they lose sight of making something actually enjoyable to read. 

My best scripts could easily be published as books because I not only care about the format, I care that the exposition is interesting and fun to read as well. Some of my best work or humor within a script would never appear on screen because it's in that exposition. I know the reader's going to laugh and just have a good time reading the script - particularly if it's a comedy.

If it's a horror film, your exposition should be full enough to just sink that person so deeply into that environment they are there. Sure, production designers are going to come along and bring their own visions, but the more you can paint that picture, mood for the reader on the page first time out, the better off you will hook them into submitting to your world. 

Readability. Don't even know if it's really a word. But it's everything.

Please deliver it every time out.

Apr 12, 5:20PM EDT0
Where and when do you write and how much of an impact does your environment have on your productivity as a writer?
Apr 12, 4:34PM EDT0

SETHJOHNSON,

To stay interested and fresh in the craft of writing over an entire career or lifetime, you have to ocassionally shake things up and just learn to work anywhere at anytime and anyhow.

After having faced a blank wall and written many screenplays and then been getting assignments and feeling like the process was really becoming... ugh... WORK, I started to vary things up. I rewarded myself with the process instead.

When I got an assignment, I'd drive or fly out of town, rent a cabin up in the mountains, or a condo in Sante Fe - somewhere the normal duties of my life didn't impose... and just free myself to have fun and write without interruption or anything routine. I could write as many as 30 pages in a day that way. 

For a scary picture for Fox, I once took the train up the coast of California and wrote the first 30 pages of the script staying overnight in a haunted toy store that was on the national ghostly register. You do whatever you need to inspire the muse.

Short of funds or travel opportunities, you can do the same thing in your own environment. I would often just drive to the beach, sit in my car and write, at least feeling like I was somewhere exotic. And to not feel completely isolated, I started writing in cafes surrounded by people. If you have the ability to go into deep focus, it shouldn't matter, or you will develop the skill to find that focus despite surrounding distractions. But then there was that time the actress came over and starting reading the script over my shoulder and...

So you can get inspired and productive anywhere. Again, just make it something you look forward to instead of dread.

Apr 12, 5:14PM EDT0
What are some of the elements of a script that you would advise other screenwriters to avoid and why?
Apr 12, 4:31PM EDT0

RUDI,

I've mentioned this earlier, but don't put in camera directions because that will turn off any director; don't characterize your dialoge with parentheticals (slowly, smirks, loudly, etc.) because that will turn off your actors; and don't choreograph your entire action or fight scenes because there's someone that does that better, too.

Basically, don't step on the toes or the jobs of the people you ultimately are hoping to collaborate with on bringing your vision to the screen.  You will always know that castle was built on your blueprint, so you have to let go the ego factor on trying to control everyone and everything, but let's face it, no one would be there without you.

Other than that, stay away from cliches, and current trends. Remember that a film often takes years to get to the screen, so if it is too strongly based on something current, either politically, socialogically or technically... that too will pass. Keep the elements more timeless. Strive to make a classic.

And stay away from zombie, superhero and apocalptic stories. We are just so done with all that.

Apr 12, 5:06PM EDT0
What is your definition of an artist’s mentality and do you, as a screenwriter, consider yourself do be one as a result and why?
Apr 12, 4:27PM EDT0

DIANACHAIKA,

Of course we're artists. We're creators and magicians alchemically manifesting a story and characters out of nowhere and sending them on a journey. The process of coming up with an idea is hard to define, but I can only describe my experience with it as being suddenly inspired. You do a lot of reading and research, perhaps on subjects and things you are interested in, it goes into your cauldron of personal expression and out pops something new that didn't exist before. 

Having said that, the CRAFT of screenwriting takes over after the initial inspiration. That's what separates the seasoned screenwriter from someone who just popped out their first script and thinks it's the greatest thing ever. You learn how to put yourself in that state where inspiration strikes, but you also learn how to compartmentalize and turn off the simply creative and use the tools of the trade to express that creation in a way that fits the business model. You become a pro.

Hopefully, any great screenwriter retains that almost naive sense of wonder that brings them an inspired idea or story and defines them (and their mentality) as a creative artist... and maintains it under the rhino skin the business often requires.

We also suffer and struggle for our creations. We give them birth, let them go out into the world hoping they find their place, and watch helplessly sometimes as they are pushed, pulled and shaped by the forces beyond our control.

And then we get hopeful again and create another.

Last edited @ Apr 12, 5:00PM EDT.
Apr 12, 5:00PM EDT0
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