A few folks posted comments the other day, requesting I talk more about the business of being a working screenwriter. A big part of that is, frankly, paying attention to market trends, which is why I post about pitch and spec script sales, spec script sales analysis, shifts in leadership at movie studios, and so on. But what I think I heard was more about the do’s and don’ts of screenwriting as it relates to living and working in Hollywood. So without further ado, a Do and a Don’t.
Do: Regularly generate story concepts.
I was going to write “Generate a story concept a day,” but I thought that might come off as too daunting. However, you should spend a portion of every working day with story concepts. There are three elements to this process:
* Research: Everything from reading obituaries to odd news items, you never know where a great story concept will come from.
* Brainstorm: Take pre-existing movie concepts and genre or gender bend them. Put a job and a location together (“A cop in kindergarten”). And when in doubt, ask yourself, “What if…”, as in “What if the President of the United States had a sudden debilitating medical condition and the Powers That Be substitute a look-alike as the acting President” (the premise to the movie Dave).
* Test: Find a few close associates or friends, people who know something about how Hwood operates, and pitch them your story concepts. If they respond well, put that concept on your Keeper list. If they shrug or say they hate it, put that concept on your Backup list.
DO NOT THROW AWAY ANY IDEA!!!
You never know when you’ll look at it in a slightly different way and see a whole new (and better) story there.
Why so much emphasis on generating story concepts? Because most writers can’t or don’t come up with their own story ideas, they basically work on assignment. If you can generate great story concepts, that puts you ahead of the others.
Also it puts you in a position so that when you do sell your spec, you’ve got other story ideas you can bring to meetings.
Finally, this way you’ll have a trove of story concepts from which you can draw to write spec scripts in your spare time.
Don’t: Tell your story concepts to anybody you don’t trust 100%.
This is especially true in Hollywood. Your agent and manager are safe. But unless you’ve got the idea worked up into a formal pitch… or your reps have set up a meeting with you where everyone knows going in that you’ll be throwing out ideas — which means the producers are on notice that your reps know what’s going on — don’t pitch story concepts.
Story concepts are the lifeblood of Hollywood. Movies have been greenlit based on the story concept itself. However story concepts are hard to protect. Your best protection is to flesh out your story concept into a completed spec script. The next level of protection is to work up a pitch. The next level of protection is to keep your mouth shut!
Let’s say you’ve got a great Easter bunny story concept. And you find yourself in a meeting with a producer or studio exec. Then the conversation winds its way around to one of them saying, “Gosh, we’d give absolutely anything to have a great Easter bunny movie.” What do you say?
Here is your response word for word:
“Really? Well, I’ve been working on something I think you might find very interesting.”
They’ll say, “It’s about an Easter bunny?”
You give them a tiny smile.
“What is it?”
You give them a little more of a smile, then say, “Let me work out a few more story points… get back to you in a week or so.”
You don’t pitch your story concept. Rather you use the moment to hook them. As soon as you leave, you get on your cell, call your reps, and tell them what happened. They will work the back channel for you.
And you? You go right back home and work up a pitch.
Then you go back the next week and sell it.
But again – don’t pitch the story concept. You can’t protect it. A buyer can say, “Oh, gee, we just so happen to have a story we’ve been kicking around with that exact same premise.” If, on the other hand, you work out a whole three-act story for a pitch, you’re much more protected.
So do generate story concepts. And don’t pitch them until you make sure you’re in a protected situation.
[Originally posted April 22, 2009]