The Business of Screenwriting: Do’s and Don’ts #1

January 24th, 2013 by

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]

9 thoughts on “The Business of Screenwriting: Do’s and Don’ts #1

  1. With regards to the “don’t share with anyone you don’t trust” I’m astounded that there are whole websites where people put up log-lines for critique by their peers. That’s madness surely?

    1. Scott says:

      That’s a bit different because you have the objective reality of a time-stamp in a public forum to verify your idea. I’m talking about a private conversation where it’s just your word against theirs.

      The chances of someone ripping you off are slim. If you are repped very, very slim. Perhaps the larger point to the advice is you want to make sure you have vetted strategy with your reps, don’t just go off half-cocked spewing an idea in a meeting without having talked over how to approach it, the meeting, etc.

      And then the REALLY larger point is the first one: Always be generating story concepts. Often the best way to come up with a great idea is to come up with a LOT of ideas.

  2. I went around town mouthing off about a brilliant concept to everyone I met and no one ever stole the concept from me. Then I sold it and got paid nicely to write it.

    However – years later after the project languished in the wake of exec moves and other things out of my control — I used the WGA 5 year window to try and move it to another studio without luck.

    THEN – one of the studios that I used a personal connection to get into, mailed me my script with their notes in it in a studio envelope. Then the person I was getting hot with got fired from there too.

    Now that same studio is making a total rip off of my movie with an A list producer who I pitched the original movie too in the first place. Same title, same concept, only slightly different in one tiny way…

    I can’t wait to sue them after it’s come out and is a box office smash. I’m guessing I can make a lot of money since I have the hardest evidence possible.

    1. Scott says:

      Sorry to hear this. Reminds me of this recent situation to hit the trades.

      Your story underscores the importance of concretizing an idea as thoroughly as possible, the best route to write a script and copyright it. At least then you have something tangible on which to make a legal claim.

      Good luck.

      1. Amazing. Thank you for posting the link to the Disney lawsuit. Guess what studio stole from me? Yep — Disney. They seem to have a very long history of this kind of behavior and it’s sickening. My guess is one regime finds the notes and emails and left over projects from a previous regime and they just steal it and play dumb.

    2. Shaula Evans says:

      Good grief, Michael. I really hope this resolves in a positive way for you.

      1. SabinaGiado says:

        Scott, I’m glad you’re talking about protecting your ideas and copyrighting because it’s something I’ve been worrying about.

        Would you suggest copyrighting a logline? Also at which stage in our writing process should we be copyrighting? When we’re writing the treatment, the outline, after writing the entire script?

        And which stage should we be developing a pitch?

        And another thing – when we’re discussing our project with a producer, are NDAs any use at all?

  3. I should not that the studio never even changed the title of the movie – and the title is unique and IS the concept.

  4. Shaula Evans says:

    Scott, to help people brainstorm concepts, I created the Idea Factory at the forum. It’s a bit like the logline workshop, but for premises: I put up a news article or odd fact (every day, if I can manage it), and we toss around ideas about how to turn that into a movie premise. We also share good resources for triggering story ideas, strategies for brainstorming premises, and some people are even putting up their premises to workshop and get feedback on. Some of it is as silly as the recent news story about Flaming Viking Cheese that was just in the news, and often the silly prompts are the ones where people feel free to get really creative and throw out wild ideas.

    To be honest, I created it originally as a challenge for myself, to come up with an idea, or a prompt for an idea, every day (yes, inspired by your annual spring “idea a day” series), but the users are running with it now, and the brainstorming that’s going on is really fun. It’s turning into a sort of “brain gym” for working up your mental muscles for working out premises, which was my secret hope all along.

    If anyone likes the creative spark of brainstorming with other fun and brilliant people, or if you want to generate a story concept every day but don’t know how to get started, you’re all really welcome.

    PS This is all part of my secret plot, along with the logline workshop, to drive Max Millimeter crazy by making him have to choose between truly excellent loglines for exciting, commercial, cinematic story premises when you relaunch the Quest next summer. ;)

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