Rules of Hollywood #2:
So you Want to Be a Screenwriter...
It Takes Talent
There’s this strange belief that anybody can write a screenplay. I don’t know how or why this thought process began, perhaps it’s the countless screenwriting books or classes and seminars a person can take. Those things, though, are meant to be tools for writers, not lessons on how you can write when you have no experience in doing so. You don’t wake up one day, read a book about expressionism and suddenly know how to paint or read about Tae Kwon Do and know how to fight. You need the ability and talent first and then have it refined, like Luke learning how to use his abilities from Yoda. He had it in him, he did blow up a rather large-sized space station with his natural gift, but only until Yoda entered did he truly understand it.
Writers want to get their material out there and get read but often don't know how the business works. More often, though, they really don't realize that their script is just not very good because they aren't very good writers in the first place and don't get the proper feedback to understand that. Even great screenwriting books and seminars can only take you so far, in the end, you simply need to be exceptionally talented. You see, everybody, has an idea (and that means everybody, writer or not) and a lot of those people try to write a script based of that idea. The thing is, they really don't know how to write a script, or in some cases aren’t able to write well at all.
This is probably the biggest problem with many scripts I see. Sure, a writer might have great tools at their disposal, such as “Save the Cat” by Blake Snyder, grammar stylebooks, thesauruses and the latest version of Final Draft, but they have no idea how to tell a story. That’s really what a script is: a short story. If you can’t write, you suddenly aren’t going to be able to despite the fact that a screenplay is such a different format than a typical article or novel. These are meant to be movies, yes, but that isn't an excuse for anybody to try their hand at it. You have to write visually and understand flow and pace through that visualization. I suppose it has to do with the universal appeal of movies, how everybody watches them and are critics themselves, in combination with the "I got an idea" mentality.
Trying to write a straight story will ultimately end in failure, however at the same time you can’t neglect the fact that it’s still a story, merely told different. That’s really what scripts are, actually: short stories around 120 pages, give or take (hopefully take, because long scripts are often skimmed, not read). Screenwriting is no different than any other type of writing. If you've never written anything past your high school English essay, then you have no business trying to write anything beyond that. A writer is an artist. Those tools I mentioned are for already talented writers to understand how to transition to screenwriting, not for inexperienced writers to suddenly figure out how to sneak their story into a hundred pages or so. Creative minds always are pushing their ideas outward somehow. To suddenly decide one day to write a script is no different than deciding to write a novel. You still have to have the ability in the end, no matter how great your idea is.
Speaking of which....
Everybody Has an Idea
During a pitch a few years ago between a writer and producer, the following discussion happened:
Producer: That will never be a movie.
Writer: But it's never been seen before.
Producer: You're right, and no one saw the shit I took two weeks ago but it doesn't mean that'll it'll be a good movie.
One major attribute to working in Hollywood is meeting many new people from many different places. A simple get-together for drinks can turn into a half dozen people if not more because many are interconnected and know each other. This town isn't quite as big as you might think. I try and network when I can, but I’m often more interested in hearing from people with actual talent, such as writers and directors, than I am meeting up with the agency crowd (which is dumb to say as many may just be the big-wigs running the show one day). When you have a meeting like that, you expect to be pitched ideas. That’s their careers, some have worked insanely hard at it and there's quite a number to go around already.
Then you have those that simply hear that you work in Hollywood and they suddenly have an amazing idea as well they want to try and sell you on. This can happen anywhere, usually out at non-industry events because at the industry events, pitching ideas is something that needs to be scheduled. I usually ignore these people, but they definitely don’t ignore me. I don’t have a ton of power, just some minor influence, but that little bit has everyone at a party, a dinner, a lunch or drinks start pitching ideas also whether they be writers or not. These are often the people who fell into the problem with Rule #1: don’t fall into the Hollywood mystique. Sure, they’ll offer up some ideas, but they couldn’t write themselves out of a paper bag. In fact, a majority have no talent whatsoever. Weeding these people out is actually one of the major parts of my job, because lord knows there are way too many things flying around with few worth grabbing on to.
You see, there are thousands upon thousands of scripts out there and even more ideas. I get, on average, six unsolicited inquiries a day, multiply that by seven (yes, weekends as well because most don’t understand that Hollywood is dead on weekends) and you have 42 a week. 42 times 52 weeks a year gives me 2,184 letters from people wanting me or someone in my company to read their screenplay (mind you, this is only writers, directors and other talent are a whole other story).
Also, six is a relatively low number. I’ve been at other companies where you’re looking at 10 to 15 per day.
All are different, all from different writers. Some writers have more than one script in their letter as well, trying to shell out their last chance ideas to anyone willing to read it. The harsh reality is, out of those thousands of scripts, one may be lucky enough to be read by someone who is legitimately in the industry. The rest are just garbage because their idea, simply put, is not good to be a movie. Everybody has an idea, but few have an idea worth listening to.
Because of this overflow, and those that simply don’t have the talent still trying to make headway into the industry, most places don’t even bother with unsolicited scripts. You need to know that just because you might have an idea doesn’t automatically set you apart from the rest. You also need to know that just because it’s your idea doesn’t automatically mean it’s a good one and that just because your idea hasn't been seen in a movie doesn't mean it's a movie in waiting.
Learn to Accept (disparaging) Feedback
“How do you know it’s garbage without reading it?” A legitimate question, so let me give you an example. Here’s just a few ideas from the letters people send me in hopes I will read their script.
-A superhero who can draw on his skin and gain the power of whatever he draws.
-A story about a blind man who gets bitten by a bat and soon discovers his amazing ability to pitch baseballs.
-Two words: Pirate Bankrobbers.
-A logline telling us about a woman and Mother Earth who are being used and how the Galactic Federation will save them (this is a problem with a lot of loglines, they don’t tell us what it’s really about and just throw out words).
I do not need to read these scripts to know they won’t make good movies. Nobody else will read these scripts for the same reason.
A major problem with screenwriters is that they don’t quite realize that their script is either not ready to be read or is simply not good at all. Perhaps they have a great idea and a horrible script, they don’t know any better because much of their first feedback isn’t going to be from people who read scripts or make movies for a living, it’s going to be from friends and family: two major groups that will never give you good feedback because they are biased but also because they have never read scripts before and have no idea what they’re talking about. A good outlet, though, is college professors in the English or film departments (if your college has such a department). They at least understand what a script should be like and how it should be written and basic storytelling elements. Just remember, though, that they are teachers, not people who will make your movie or know how to make your movie. They can at least help you understand how to bring out your story although they could probably never be able to determine its value as a potential movie.
What many don’t understand is that, sure, you may have a neat idea, but is it worthwhile to be made into a movie? To a writer, of course it is, but that’s where self-honesty comes in to play, and many writers just can’t accept that. There’s a lot of elements to go into film making. 'Can it make money?' is probably the biggest one, which is why there’s a lot of bad movies out there that do make money. The big films can have dumb ideas, but boy do they make some bucks. 'Can it garner producer/director/actor interest?' is another. This isn't as subjective as you may think, most who read scripts for a living, get movies made or represent potential writers will know in the first 40 pages - the common jumping off point for a script to "grab" the reader. If it isn't working by that point, then it simply won't work.
A great place to take your idea is through competition, such as the Nicholl’s Fellowship, Disney Fellowship, an AFI sponsored competition or something that will be more hands on such as the Sundance Screenwriter's Lab or the AFI Screenwriters workshop. If you want feedback, these are absolutely fantastic places to go to. If you're lucky, you can great feedback and maybe read by legitimate and established companies seeing as how you probably have no credits to your name and aren't a member of a the Writer's Guild (WGA). That's also a great measuring stick of yourself against other writers and, believe me, there will be people a lot better than you. There always will be. It's up to you to take those facts, that feedback, and turn it around as a powerful tool - more powerful than those books, thesauruses and computer software. It will make your material better but only if you let it. If you take it and are hurt by criticism, then you aren't made to be a writer. This is just the first steps of your script, if you can't take the criticism at that early stage, then you'll never be able to handle the feedback you would get from later stages where people might be calling for massive overhauls and rewrites with piles of notes.
You must have thick skin. If you're a writer and can't take criticisms, then you're wasting your time and everyone else's time and should absolutely not be writer. If you're a writer and can take criticisms to better your material, then, as I mentioned, you're on the right track. If you're a writer and feel offended by this article, then I'm sorry my directness isn't for you. You must understand the notion of criticism. It's not that people don't "get" your material, it's that you have something that they don't "get." Hollywood execs, agents and managers aren't going to beat around the bush when it comes to your script if you actually get them to read it. They don't have time to be cordial or even give you a deep analysis of it, that's for you and perhaps an editor to do in the presentation not in the liner notes. They judge what you hand them, and if it's not good, then it's simply not good. Don't mistake their honesty for rudeness, such as the previous producer/writer conversation when discussing ideas. Rudeness would be not getting a response at all.
Now you can take that script of yours that collected dust in some office's reading pile and rework it, but make sure it's not the "idea" that I mentioned earlier where the problem resides. If it's the entire premise, then that's the very core of your script and you simply have to accept that it's something that will not work-especially if you get the same response from multiple places. Nonetheless, there is always this groundrule:
Sell Yourself (Put on a Happy Face)
Sadly, I can always tell just over a phonecall of a writer that has been repeatedly rejected or are just not experienced at all trying to discuss material with people. They have no enthusiasm, or perhaps their email is just so bland and boring I get no sense that they even remotely care. You have to understand that you need to sell yourself just as much as you do your idea and script. I always suggest taking communication classes to try and expand your ability to communicate with others and forcing yourself to speak in front of people. As a writer in Hollywood, you will be doing that a lot. Now writers are often hermits and reclusive, but these aren't regular everyday writers we're talking about, here. Nothing will get you noticed more than walking into an office with authority and confidence or speaking well over the phone to someone. As stated before, you aren't going to sell your script on just it alone. Everybody has an idea, you have no credibility and most likely no experience. By all accounts, you should feel intimidated and, like anyone who is intimidated, will probably shut down, speak softly, look at the ground a lot and the next thing you know you're outside the office trying to figure out what just happened.
On a drive to work one morning I was listening to KROQ here in Los Angeles. They claim themselves "world famous" but that's just a label because outside of Los Angeles I doubt anybody knows about them. it is a radio station, afterall, can you name me a radio station in New York? I can't.
Anyways, their morning show was interviewing Billy Mays (pre-death, of course) and he brought up the notion that it's not so much the products he's selling as much as it is himself. People trust him, the love his enthusiasm...he was a brand in and of himself. Due to that ability, he made a fortune selling you crap you probably don't even need. Yes, this deceased, coked-up pitchman understood the philosophy of self-promotion and is a shining example of how you should sell your script - sell yourself alongside it. Learn that, have talent and thick skin, and you're well on your way to waving to a studio exec in a car...but I'll save that for next time.
Ok, so you have a script. now what? Next time we'll talk about pitching, how scripts are read in Hollywood (and by who) and some serious warnings for those looking to get their stuff out there (such as, don't you think it's odd that a submission fee for an online script competition is double that of something like the Nicholl's Fellowship? You should, and that's what I'm here to show you.)