Digital Polyphony

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  Rules of Hollywood #2:

 So you Want to Be a Screenwriter...

(Part Two)

 

 

You Have a Script...now What?

So let's take a step back and talk about what to do, and not do, once you have a script. I've already gone over things briefly, but now it's time to get more detailed. If you've made it to a point, got past all I've already lined out for you and feel confident in your ability and material, then you have to know what is next. It's time to go over what your first steps should be, more detail on understanding criticism and accepting rejection and things to avoid when going out with your script, pitching, and questionable "contests" or "events."

 

Where to Go

Probably the first question on anyone's mind once they have one is what the hell to do with it. Probably the best place to go, a mentioned in Part 1, is through competition. Many competitions do require a fee, so be warned. 

The best places to start are fellowships. These are usually places where your script is read by people actually in the industry. They aren't paid for doing this, they do it because they want to find the next big script and a fellowship is automatically a seal of approval. Fellowships are fantastic because even if your script is only a quarter finalist, that still says "this person can write." More importantly, though, is that those reading give responses to the writer to help them refine their script. This feedback is crucial, and really what gives the fellowships a new level. The people reading know movies, know scripts and know what makes a good script. This is the single best feedback you could ask for at such an early stage.

Of course, fellowships also give out prize money. And that's always a good thing as well.

Nicholl Fellowship - With the best record of careers launched and movies made, this is unquestionally the single best competition you can enter. I know when I get a list of entries, I know I'll be in for something at least readable even if it doesn't make a movie. This fellowship is sponsored by the Academy. Always look at your sponsors when going through these things.


Disney Fellowship
- Probably the second best fellowship out there. It's a little difficult to get into it but worthwhile to any budding screenwriter.

Warner Brothers Writer's Workshop- A course more than an actual competition, this will teach you everything you'd want to know, help you write and tool a script and give you plenty of outlets to take your script out or give you opportunities to find work once completed. I know a few that have found great staff jobs on shows and that is invaluable in getting your name out there.

Sundance Screenwriter's Lab- No question that this is the most hands-on fellowship you could ask for, it's also one of the more exclusive. Only around 20 projects are selected to be admitted into the lab where five full days are spent on them, analyzed and put into a prime position to actually have a movie made from them. Expenses are paid by Sundance if you get accepted and you spend a week in the mountains of Utah with people who know their stuff. It is an open submission, and the fee is only $35, so really there's no excuse to not send in your script.

Samuel Goldwyn Writing Awards- The only downside here is that you must be a student at UCLA, otherwise this is really one of the better college-based screenwriting competitions out there, if not the best. Of course, if you don't know by now that UCLA has one of the best film schools in the country, then you're way behind. There's a similar one at USC as well with the Hanks and Miller Screenwriting Program.

Nickelodeon Writer's Lab-  First know that this competition does not accept features. It's very specific on submission requirements, and you should read them before considering. For the right type of writer (especially comedic) this could be perfect for some.

 

Those are the best of the best. Know that many film festivals also have competitions, there's also Zoetrope (by Francis Ford Coppola) and Slamdance which are solid, but not quite as prestigious. There are hundreds of competitions with few that are worth your time...and especially worthy your entry fee.

 

Where not to Go

As enticing as some places online might seem, the truth is you're absolutely wasting your time. Nobody cares about these, feedback questionable and putting your "winning .com screenwriting contest" doesn't mean a thing to a person who may be reading your query letter. 

In any industry magazine, website or blog, you will probably see advertisements for things called "Pitchfests." A Pitchfest is an event where a screenwriter will go from table to table in a large room and pitch their screenplay to various studio execs, managers and agents. Of course...that's what the website tells you.

The truth is, every Pitchfest is 10% legitimate (you are, afterall, pitching people who are willing to listen) and 90% bullshit. You're told you're pitching to representatives, what you aren't told is that, often, these reps are assistants and interns. There are, occasionally, some low-level managers there which is at least a legitimate representative, but usually you're pitching someone who has no idea what they're doing. Why are they there, then? Easy...they are paid an honorarium. Pay for assistants is already low, and interns get paid nothing usually, so when an exec or agent's office gets an invite, that is who they'll send (if they decide to go at all, that is). 

Rarely does a script get picked up, does a client be found and does everyone leave happy from these things. Well, those that come as representative are often happy, after all they just got a hundred bucks and probably free drinks afterwards.

Although I might get heat for saying this, the  Pitchfest is an absolute scam. They prey on the hopes of people and their dreams of Hollywood, as well as their ignorance of it, and will take their money laughing all the way to the bank. Think about it. You have a script, perhaps you spent a good year really working on it. Most likely you have no idea about things like fellowships and the like because every time you look on the internet you're bombarded by Pitchfest advertisements or other un-credible things like internet script sites (to those in a minute). You put in the application, pay the fee (hundreds of dollars, not including the travel costs involved) to sit in a room and pitch to people who, quite honestly, probably know less than even you and are as wide-eyed and inexperienced as yourself.

Another place to avoid is the internet. If it looks questionable, whether it be a script site or some online competition, it is for a reason. Many of these places, like pitchfests, are using the mystique of Hollywood. Most likely, they don't know anyone in it, their competition means nothing to your credibility and they probably won't even offer good feedback. Some aren't horrible. Triggerstreet.com, inktip.com are nice websites, although they really mean little in the grand scheme of things. I suppose it's more that people will go to these places first and spend time there without really moving forward. These are, perhaps, good feedback places and maybe nice communities of other screenwriters, but they aren't something that's going to impress anyone and exposure is very limited. You want to get that foot in the door, not still be waiting outside for it to crack open. 

As for online competitions, they're often about as credible as the pitchfests and about as overpriced. At least you don't have to travel for those, though.

Another place to avoid are companies that offer "script coverage." Coverage is basically a rundown and synopsis of your script. It acts like a summary, with notes perhaps, and they sell this off as things you can send to companies so they don't have to read your entire script, they can read a third-party synopsis and breakdown. 

This is an absolute joke. The fees for this service ranges from 50 to 150 dollars...all for something you can do yourself. Talk about shelling the Hollywood mystique like a dealer at Venice Beach.  Some will go further and offer to have someone look at it even deeper, going as high as $400 at some places.* You have no idea who is reading or even their own ability to judge. Think about it. For $35 you can send in your script to be read for the possibility to go to Sundance (and be read by people who've been doing this for years, not some fly-by-night website) or you can spend hundreds on this junk. Between this and the pitchfests, it's hard to know which are more  scummy.  Say what you want about Hollywood agents, at least they're not these guys.                                                                                                      

                                                                                                                       

More Advice and Steps

 

 -Cold Calling and Emailing-

In Part One of this article I mentioned that I get countless emails every week of people sending unsolicited scripts (scripts without representation by a writer without representation, which few places accept). What I didn't mention is that, often, I also get calls. Here are a few steps regarding calling people.

1) Do not pitch your idea on the phone. First off, the person listening is there to answer phones, not listen to ideas. If you want a person that only answers phones and wish to pitch him or her an idea, go to a pitchfest. 

2) Do not ask for someone in the office to talk to and pitch over the phone. I can't stress not pitching over the phone enough. That isn't for you, especially at this stage of trying to get a script out there.

3) Do ask if they accept unsolicited material or query letters first. If they answer no, say thanks and hang up (you will be doing this a lot). If they say yes, simply ask for an email or address to send a letter.

4) If you don't get a response, let it go. Do not follow up query letters. The only time you should follow up with anything is when you actually send a script in. Then, and only then, is following up important. The company already accepts the query letters, they know what they're doing and aren't going to respond to anything unless it sounds interesting or has some good credits (such as being in one of the fellowships listed above). 

5) Know that this isn't always the best route and you will be rejected many times. You never know, though. There could be one who wants to meet or consider your script for producing. Anything can happen.

When I say "Anything can happen" is completely mean that, too. Every single writer has a story on how they were discovered and the hardships they went through. If you can't get through that, and aren't well-versed enough to speak your idea and get out there, then there's no hope because you already think there is no hope. 

Years ago, I randomly read a script while interning at a production company. After reading, I was impressed. I sat down and spoke with the other producers in the office and told them to read it. A day later, the writers were set to meet, a few weeks later, they were signed and they began looking for work and their script sent as a writing sample. People read and were impressed, and the next thing you know they're writing Wonder Woman and getting their spec scripts optioned. **

 

 -Who's Logline Is It Anyway?-

Next up, you have those letters and emails at the ready, your fingers typing as fast as they can. Well, slow down. Like any letter, get yourself a good draft first; something you can keep and send out en masse. You first must start with the magical world of loglines. It is that two to three sentence idea that will get interest, not how well written your letter is (in fact, most query letters should keep the logline front and center, everything else should be in the background).

A logline is usually a one to three sentence summary of your script. Below are some sample loglines so you get an idea of how they should be written.

 

A clever, but gentle, shoe bandit is abducting women, and stealing their shoes. All is fun and games, until a copycat,with a thirst for violence, joins in.

Things go murderously wrong for the night guard and his family on haunted Alcatraz Island when he becomes possesd by an evil, demonic prison ghost intent on finding escape. It's The Amittyville Horror in the confines of a decrepit prison.

When the evil, undefeated bullies lose the little league championship to the scrappy, "good-guy" underdogs, they enlist a down-on-his-luck drunk to transform them from Goliath into David, embrace their inner cliche and reclaim the title.

 

Those are just a few solid ones I picked. The scripts could be great, they could be bad, but at least there's a feeling on what it is about and if it's something that will grab the person reading it before they even open the material.

Another note on loglines, be a little humble. Don't say there's a twist, don't say it's "better than" or "is more emotional than" and especially don't downgrade other films in the process, such as "it's like (movie title) only without the (disparaging comment)." Keep them short and to the point and try to leave the reader wanting more.

Remember, in loglines, it's all about the flare. Be creative, not mundane. Don't just go through the motions and say "this happens, then this, then this...like to read?" (Also, don't cheat with lots of dashes and ellipses. That just looks ugly). Do something like "It's Top Gun meets The Longest Day" or "He's stuck in a nightmare that he may never wake up from" (cliffhangers are good).  It's hard to do it all in only a limited space, there are many I see that are so vague I have no idea what they're about and wasn't interested enough to ask for the script. Just remember, as I said in Part One. It takes talent. If you can't write a logline, why are you writing a script?

 

-Don't Cancel Yourself Out-

If and when you contact someone, whether it be a manager, producer or an agent for representation on your own (in other words, those festivals, labs and fellowships aren't working out for you) the one thing you must never do is bombard anyone with your ideas.

Actually, it shouldn't be just "ideas" to begin with. Only give loglines to material that is actually complete. Throwing out a bunch of potential ideas doesn't mean anything. People need something tangible. They need to see if you can write (crucial if you're looking for representation), they need to see if it's what they envision as a movie and, above all else, they need to see that you're dedicated to doing it.

Sending out an email with half a dozen ideas or loglines of scripts is one of the worst first impressions you can ever give. It doesn't say "look how creative I am." 

It says "here's a bunch of stuff, what do you think? I'm really desperate."

Scripts take months, maybe even a year or so, to write and rewrite. If you already have six sitting on your desktop that are done, nothing happening with them, then you need to really sit back and analyze the issue and what needs to change. That isn't passion about writing. That's not even a showcase of talent. It shows a lack of dedication to one central story and a dedication to sloppy, haphazard writing. Rather than work and refine one central story, many are written in hopes that somebody will like one. Now you say you have five scripts, none sold, none with any awards or options only tells the person reading it you have no talent

These scripts are never good. They do not have the focus put on it that a script should have. It shows a writer was just writing for sake of writing, not someone who is passionate or inspired and yearning to fine-tune their script and their specific writing style.

This is especially frustrating when a laundry list of ideas includes various genres. That's even worse! A writer knows one specific style, not three or four. A comedy writer writes comedies. Horror will be horror. This stretches to book authors as well. It's not that a company isn't open to various genres, it's that nobody will believe you have such versatility. If I get an email with four loglines, one a wartime drama, one a horror-thriller and the other two romantic comedies, the email will be deleted. That's not just me, that's every single other creative exec, assistant, producer and manager that I've ever talked to. If you aren't showing the interest in one piece of material you're confident, you can't expect anyone to show interest in it either. Pick one you're confident and comfortable with and run with it.

The same goes for where you submit. Make sure you do some research first on who you are submitting to and what it is they're looking for. All you have to really do is look at producer's credits in what they specialize in. If you see that they focus on horror movies, don't send them a script on the biography of Walt Whitman.  If they do primarily comedies, don't send them a mystery/thriller. This may seem basic, but knowing your companies before you take action is elementary to most, but not to the unexperienced (this is where representation comes in...they know this stuff already and the best steps to go out with your material).

Also, understand that many times, a person reading may not even finish your story, especially if the script isn't formatted correctly or has numerous grammatical mistakes.*** So they may not even know what your story is about because they couldn't get past page 40 without rolling their eyes at how your script presents itself.  A good rule of thumb to many in this town is that if a script dosn't grab you by page 40, it's not good. That's 40 minutes into a movie should it become one. If it doesn't entice or compel, it's not going to be completed. As a writer, you must understand pace and structure and really grab the reader, especially with a screenplay where length is restrictive.

  

-Following Up (Don't be a Nuisance)-

Our final step is regarding following up if and when you do submit a script. If you submitted, wait around two to three weeks before following up. Any sooner than that won't get you anywhere. It's best to email if you can, but calling is fine if you don't have an email address (just make sure you know who to talk to and who read your script). If you've tried following up and get no response after three or four times (lets say over a span of a few months) then it's best to let it go and assume they are passing on it (or you). 

Do not argue or get offended if someone doesn't like your script (or even if they make a mistake). The last thing you want to do is make enemies with someone. Like I said, you need tough skin and accept criticism, but you also can't ask for further explanation than what has been given. If someone says they didn't like the main character, then that's all you're going to get. Don't call and ask "why?" or email for more detail, they took time out of their schedule to not only read your script but to email you back with their reaction to it. 90% of people don't even get that far and the fact you did already says you're at least doing something right and are ahead of the curve.

A while ago, I know of one filmmaker who sent out a scathing email because someone a) didn't like his short and b) got the title wrong in the response. People are human, they make mistakes, and this director of a short ended being known as "that guy." Hollywood isn't that big of a town. A lot of people know each other or have a small number in terms of the degree of separation. If you make one enemy, you are ruining yourself because that one will tell others, then others, and your name will be out there as "that guy who got all huffy because someone made a mistake, sounds like an asshole." Don't ruin your career before it even begins.

 

A Quick Note on Representation

One of the more difficult aspects to get around is a chicken-egg scenario. Often, you aren't going to get your material read by producers and companies without it coming from official channels (in other words, legitimate business propositions). Often this would be an agent or manager, although sometimes lawyers can also represent material. However, sometimes you aren't going to be up for consideration to be represented unless you have some sort of credibility.  The best credibility you can garner, as previously mentioned, is through prestigious competition.

There are three major types of representation: Agents, managers and lawyers. Each can represent you as an individual or at the very least your script as a property. Most will look to managers first. Managers are often more hands-on with a client or a property, tailoring their approach to the client needs and coming up with a "plan" and can help in regards to notes on your work or getting your name out there to executives and producers. This can lead to agents as well. While not as hands-on, they will find you work and will sell you and your talent and, hopefully, your script.  A manager can do these things as well, to a degree, however they aren't as specific or specialized in that regards and agents often will have a full team from their department that will be out selling you as well. Agents are also more involved in negotiations and contracts and finalizing deals, although managers are in the loop on those things as well and often work with the agent in regards to it. Some managers can step on toes, though, which is why a good relationship between a manager and an agent (should you have both, which many do) is a necessity. 

Despite it being a parody at times, the HBO series Entourage actually shows the client-manager-agent relationship incredibly accurately, only exaggerated at times. In fact, many of the plot lines are based on real-life events. I would suggest checking the show out when you get a chance, even if Vince is a douchebag.

 

 Final Points

Of course there's also the "who you know" approach that dominates the industry. If you know someone who's working at a company or agency, that's an outlet for you to get your material through. Sure, you may be using people but no more than this business will probably end up using you. If there's that extra path, take it and exploit it. What's the worst that can happen? They say they don't like it?

Word of mouth is a big thing. there's a whole group of writers who have their screenplays on what is known as the "Hollywood Blacklist." These are the best scripts that are unproduced and many of these writers are able to have representation despite their scripts not going anywhere. They would find jobs elsewhere and maybe that old script of theirs will go somewhere someday. 

Patience is a virtue. Whether it be a writer, director, actor or technician, and whether they are looking to get representation, into a contest or have their stuff sent to some production company, you have to show patience in every facet. It takes years for a screenplay to start to even go anywhere, and even more to try and get it made into a movie. I hope this two-part article give at least some insight on the right direction to go and what to avoid. Not all is perfect, though, and every company, studio or agency is different. All I can say is keep your chin up, even when the wind blows hard against you, you need to still take those steps forward with a smile, confidence and willingness to continue on. It all will pay off in the end.

 

Read part One Here


 

* A "Spec" script is a script that is written, unproduced, but available. It's written on "speculation" that something might happen with it. It's written, it's out there, now it's a matter of who will bite.  

 ** I did one google search for one of these so-called "services." I only looked at one site and was astouned by the $400 price. I didn't need to look at anymore.

*** A standard screenplay is 90 to 120 pages, courier font with limited in narration - meaning no large paragraphs. Wordy scripts aren't wanted because it's about the flow and dialogue of a scene, not your rambling of descriptions. To do that will turn many off of your material. Scripts should be tightly fastened with brass fasteners (backside washers recommended for sturdiness) with your name and contact information (or representation information) on the cover along with the draft date. A script cover isn't required, but is a nice touch. 

 

 

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