The Business of Screenwriting: Who does what in a writer-representative relationship?

May 19th, 2016 by

Let’s assume you get a manager and/or agent to represent you. Then what? What are their responsibilities as a representative? What are yours as a writer?

Who does what in a writer-representative relationship?

Every writer is different. Every rep is different. So obviously, working relationships between writers, manager and agents can vary.

Here is my perspective.

Your responsibility is to write the hell out of your scripts.
Your rep’s responsibility is to sell the hell out of your scripts.

Your rep’s responsibility is to put you up for a writing gig.
Your responsibility is to land the gig.

Your responsibility is to generate possible stories.
Your rep’s responsibility is to provide an honest assessment of your stories.

Your rep’s responsibility is to get you in a room with a producer, studio exec, actor, or director.
Your responsibility is to work the room.

Your responsibility is to focus on your writing
Your rep’s responsibility is to focus on your career.

Your rep’s responsibility is to have inside information with what’s going on in the acquisition and development market.
Your responsibility is to know enough about what’s going on in the marketplace so you don’t waste either of your times.

Your responsibility is to create.
Your rep’s responsibility is to strategize.

Your rep’s responsibility to introduce you to Hollywood players.
Your responsibility to build and sustain relationships with those Hollywood players.

Is there overlap in what you do? Absolutely.

There is no denying you are going to spend a significant portion of your time pondering your career, just as a manager or agent may respond to their own creative instincts (e.g., story ideas of their own they run past you to see if you take a shine to them to pitch or spec).

And no matter how much your reps handle the business side of things, you must understand at least the essentials of how movies are made.

You are not simply a writer, you are a screenwriter. You don’t work in a creative vacuum, you work in Hollywood. Movies may be art, but they are always commerce. You don’t need an MBA, but to the degree you understand the broader context why your rep is advocating this move or that choice, the more easily you will be in sync with them about your career.

A rep is not your friend… although they can be friendly.
A rep is not your partner… although they can be creative.
A manager and/or agent is your advocate.
If you do your job… and they do theirs…
It should be the beginning of a wonderful relationship.

One final thing.

Your rep’s responsibility is to meet you for lunch a couple of times a year to touch base about things.
Your responsibility is to let them pick up the tab.

UPDATE: In comments, John asks a really good question:

A question about overlap on the creative side: how “hands-on” should your literary manager be when it comes to providing notes and feedback on drafts — both early drafts and final polishes?

Is it common and expected that their notes include: line edits and dialogue edits at the word-choice level and on up to “take this section out, move that over here, punch up this sequence by doing this, eliminate that character” etc.

If your rep seems to be venturing into the territory of “writing partner” what should you do and how?

To which Bah Bahrbahrossa answers:

Question: “If your rep seems to be venturing into the territory of “writing partner” what should you do and how?”

Answer: “You’re fired.”

There’s certainly nothing keeping you from firing your rep for too much interference in your writing process. But how much is too much? And who’s to say if you switch reps, they won’t have a similar attitude about creative input?

Indeed the line between between writer and representative in terms of creative input has become increasingly blurry as the role of manager has evolved over the last 15 years or so. Unlike agents, managers can act as a producer on their clients’ projects. This is not necessarily some sort of arbitrary thing as managers can be much more hands on re script development. As an example, here is an excerpt from an interview I did with screenwriters Jeremiah Friedman and Nick Palmer, who sold their spec “Family Getaway” last year to Warner Bros:

You mention doing a “number of drafts” of “Family Getaway” based on feedback from some AFI connections, then “two additional rewrites over the next several months” in conjunction with your managers at Mosaic, all the time while holding down day jobs. How did you manage your time to enable you to write all those drafts?

NP: It was tough and honestly, it was really hard for me at first. Because we both had day jobs, it meant working nights and weekends and basically giving up our social lives.

JF: Our friends can tell you we essentially disappeared for about a year and a half.

NP: Our schedule had been writing maybe three nights a week, 7 to 10-ish, and then usually one weekend day.

JF: And we should say that was at the point where there was no light at the end of the tunnel. We were a year out of grad school, we had kind of humiliating day jobs, we weren’t repped and we really had no idea how long we’d have to maintain the lifestyle.

NP: Yeah, by this point I had to stop telling people I’d just gotten out of grad school because that had become, you know, a lie and I just started telling them I was a Lego Robotics instructor.

JF: We were both getting pretty depressed but we knew our only way out was really to keep writing and push through.

NP: So we just kept working nights and weekends. Then, once Mosaic got involved, it basically became a second full-time job and we were writing till 11 every night after work and then writing 12 hour days Saturdays and Sundays.

Friedman & Palmer spent months working with Mosaic [their management group] rewriting their script. I don’t know how extensive their notes were (e.g., line edits, dialogue edits), but clearly their managers were quite hands on in the process.

You also have to consider where you are in your writing career. If you’re just starting out, you’re more likely to consider a rep’s creative input on your script. If you’re an established writer, perhaps not so much.

Those of you who have an agent and/or manager, what is your attitude about their involvement in your creative process?

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted June 2, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: Celebrate your victories

May 12th, 2016 by

Based on my experiences as a screenwriter in Hollywood, there are many things I can advise you to do that are not particularly enjoyable:

I harangue you to read scripts.
I push you to come up with story concepts daily to help you generate a great one.
I advise you to learn about who the players are at the studios.
I force you to track spec script sales so you know what the studios are buying.
I tell you to study movie marketing campaigns.
I implore you to analyze movies by breaking down their narrative and character structure.
I fling screenwriter interview after interview at you to expose you to different ideas about writing.

Basically I am just one big pain in the ass in reminding you again and again: Your competition is not your friends, your writing group, or that online screenwriting forum you recently joined.

Your competition is professional screenwriters. And if you want to have any chance of competing with that select group, you must do everything you can to act and write like a professional.

With that as a frame for today’s post, I can provide a tip I am sure you will enjoy. And it’s something you can start doing right now, even if you’re not living in the Hollywood Hills and just signed an overall deal with Warner Bros.

Celebrate your victories.

In all honesty, I have not done enough of this in my career. Through the weird combo plate of my own personal DNA, growing up as a military brat, and being raised as a southern Baptist, I have a work ethic that while enormously helpful in getting things done, flat out resists me enjoying myself when I land a gig, score a coup, or hit it big.

Don’t you make the same mistake.

There are plenty of tough times in the writing trade. Frankly a majority of them. Rejections, criticisms, critiques, questions as to your sanity, your talent, your creativity.

And that’s just you dealing with yourself before anybody else reads your material!

Speaking from the experience of those handful of times where I indulged myself and celebrated a victory — okay, most of them were hoisted upon me by agents, producers, and studio execs related to specific deals — I actually enjoyed it. It is an uplifting, positive experience to sit amongst people who have read a script you wrote or heard your pitch that sold. They say nice things about you. And I confess there have been entire moments where I have allowed their words to soak into my consciousness.

I’m not going to be so bold as to suggest what you do to celebrate. Other than cracking open a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, I don’t really have much to contribute on that front. However I do have a few moments in a writer’s life which you should celebrate. Here is that list:

* When you generate an absolutely great story concept.
* When you have a fantastically fruitful day brainstorming your story.
* When you have prepped your story to the point you are ready to type FADE IN.
* When you finish your first draft.
* When you finish your final draft.
* When you sign with an agent and/or manager.
* When you get your first meeting with a producer or studio executive.
* Whey you land your first OWA.
* When you sell a spec script.
* When your movie opens as the #1 film at the box office.
* When you get your very first residual check.
* When you kiss your day job goodbye.
* When your parents acknowledge, “You’re actually making a living at this?”

Now take a good look at that list. You will notice big moments. And little moments. Monetary moments. And creative moments.

Each of them is worthy of celebration. Maybe not taking off a month to go lie on the beach in Fiji. But certainly inviting a few friends over to grill some burgers (or a vegan alternative), enjoy a glass of pinot noir, and share the news with them.

Why celebrate your victories? So you don’t become your typical slump-shouldered, pasty-faced, sour-puss cynical screenwriter. I can’t swear to this because, as I’ve noted, I don’t have a good track record on this front, but if you do take the time to celebrate your victories, I imagine you’ll not only be a much more enjoyable person to be around, you will also have a better time doing what you do — writing.

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted August 11, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: OWA

April 14th, 2016 by

Three little letters: OWA. But they mean big things for Hollywood screenwriters. What do these letter stand for?

Owen Wilson’s Assistant?

Afraid screenwriter Mike Le has that covered already.

Okay, maybe Overworked Wretched Assistants.

Nah, see in Hollywood, they’re just called assistants.

The real significance of OWA in relation to a screenwriter is this:

Open Writing Assignment.

There are basically three ways for a Hollywood screenwriter to make money plying their craft:

* Sell a spec script.

* Sell a pitch.

* Land an open writing assignment.

The odds of doing either of the first two are quite long, which is why writers — and their managers and agents — focus a lot of attention on OWAs.

So what precisely is an open writing assignment? They are projects owned by a studio or production company that need a writer’s services. That can range from the very beginning of the script development process, such as a new manuscript the studio has acquired that is set to be adapted, to a project that has already been written one or more times and needs a rewrite, to a project that requires a production polish, and so on.

The world of OWAs used to be a pretty mysterious one, studio development slates and the status of their projects shrouded behind a wall of secrecy. Nowadays where spy satellites can zoom in on you from outer space and transmit information to the Department of Homeland Security about how many nasal hairs you have, Hollywood’s defenses are officially pierced. There are online resources where for a mere pittance, you can see what writing assignments there are, what their status is, in short wallow in a virtual world of OWAs.

What is the process whereby a writer goes up for an open writing assignment? I can only speak from what I have learned based on my personal experience and the plethora of conversations I have had with other working writers about how they have fared on the OWA front. For all I know behind closed door, agents and studio executives engage in some sort of satanic ritual to determine who lands an OWA or not. But basically the situation plays out like this:

* Once you break in and become established as a working screenwriter, your name goes onto a list, sometimes multiple lists. For example, let’s say you have written and sold two action spec scripts. Your name will go onto an action list. What if the buzz about your scripts is that you are really good with one-liners? You may go onto a punch-up list as well. Every studio has their own list although my guess is the degree of cross-pollination of names is pretty substantial. And it may shock you how specific some of these lists can be. If a studio has a found footage project that desperately needs a rewrite, there are names of screenwriters around town who have a reputation for writing those kinds of projects… *cough* John Swetnam *cough*.

* Your reps track the OWAs all around town. When they hear of a project they believe to be up your alley, they may contact the studio or production company and pitch you to them. If that conversation goes well and the studio has read you recently and likes your writing, more than likely you get to go up for the OWA. However there are no guarantees. If you haven’t worked for a half-year and are considered cold, that’s a tougher sell for your reps. That’s when you may find your reps putting you up for gigs that are somewhat outside the domain of material for which you are known.

You: I’m an action script guy, not a kids movie writer.

Agent: “Barney the Purple Dinosaur A-Go-Go” has got action. Hence the whole “Go-Go” thing.

Hey, at the end of the day, it’s your rep’s job to get you into the room.

* Now you are officially up for an OWA. You may go in for a preliminary meeting to discuss the broad perimeters of the project. This session could be mostly about them getting a feel if they like you or not. Other times, you may simply receive a script that is to be rewritten. Once you have the material in question, your job is to read, analyze, and come up with a new take.

Let me stop right here and ask a simple question: Can you see one big fat reason why I keep pushing the GITS Script Reading & Analysis series? To help you develop your critical analytical skills. You absolutely need to be able to break down a script, determine what its problems are, then come up with a take that resolves those issues.

* Here comes the tricky part: Almost assuredly, you will not be the only writer going up for an OWA. In most cases, there will be multiple writers brought in to pitch their version of the story. In some situations, that number can be a lot. I’m not going to name any names, but there’s a certain studio which rhymes with Frisney who for years has been famous for bringing in dozens of writers on OWAs, then ending up giving the assignment to a writer with whom they have an overall or first look deal.

* Here’s another tricky part: You go in and pitch your story, don’t land the gig, then a year later see the movie, and there they are, some of your ideas in the final product. Now to cover my ass, allow me to clamp a big honking version of the word “allegedly” onto that statement, but the simple fact is, as a writer you can bust your hump, generate an incredible take, and have zero protection on those very ideas. All the studio needs to say is this: “Gee, we already came up with that idea internally.” How can you possibly disprove that?

* And there’s this: Preparing to pitch on an OWA requires a lot of man / woman-hours. Over time, this will wear on you. Your first OWA opportunity, you will move the sun and moon to come up with an incredible take. By the 20th time you go through the routine, make sure you do not have any sharp objects in your vicinity because it can be soul-stultifying stuff. Suddenly you look at your calendar and you realize that you — ostensibly a writer — haven’t actually penned a story in months. Oh, sure, you’ve worked up a bunch of OWA takes, pitches, and treatments, but other than receiving a lot of gauzy feedback from gaunt black-clad execs, you may find yourself with little to show for it and drained of energy.

* On the other hand, you may land an OWA. Perhaps two back-to-back. I’ve had three in hand at once. That feels pretty good. Here you’ve got your work schedule lined up for the next 6-9 months. Plus all those pretty, pretty checks. And because the studio or prod co already owns those properties, for which they have spent money, and you are now writing said property, for which they will spend additional money, the more pregnant they get, the more likely they are to pull the trigger and greenlight the movie… that is assuming you do your job and turn in a great script.

Bottom line to live in the world of OWAs, you need a delicate balance of boundless creativity, endless energy, mental dexterity, ignorance of the facts, leather-skin, blind faith… and the ability to do it over and over and over again.

Not to mention a large reserve of Chivas 18.

UPDATE: I meant to include this thought in the OP. Piece of advice: While you are busy going up for OWAs, always work on a spec script. Whether you’re just cracking the story, prepping an outline, writing a first draft or revising it, that way you ensure that you are always producing an actual finished product, not just pitches, treatments, etc.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted March 1, 2012]

The Business of Screenwriting: Hip pocket representation

April 7th, 2016 by

On Friday, January 9, 1987, the spec script “K-9” went out to 20th Century Fox creative execs for the weekend read.On Monday, January 12 at 11AM, after the weekly meeting of their creative staff, word got out they wanted to buy our script.

The unusual thing is this: We didn’t have an agent.

By 8PM that night, we did.

Yes, getting representation can happen that quickly.

More frequently, it takes time and an additional step.

An agent or manager may show interest in you and take you on in a provisional, unofficial way. This is commonly referred to as “hip pocket representation.”

The particulars vary from agent to agent, manager to manager, writer to writer.

It may mean that an agent or manager is actively involved repping you… or they pretty much pass you off to one of their assistants.

They may provide detailed feedback to help steer your creative process in writing a spec script… or they may send you off to turn in a draft you write on your own.

They may set up meetings for you with producers and studio execs… or they may wait to see what you can do with your networking skills.

The specific manner in which an agent or manager handles you in a hip pocket representation arrangement has something to do [more or less] with the following:

* Their perception of you as a writer.
* Their sense of you as a potential full-time client.
* Their feeling about your earning capability.
* The status of your various spec script projects.
* How busy they are with other clients.
* How hungry they are to seek out new writers.

If you write a spec script and it sells, or a spec you wrote which goes around as a writing sample leads to you landing an OWA (Open Writing Assignment), then most agents or managers will move immediately to take you on officially as a client.

That wasn’t the case when I ended up at CAA.

Cut to 1992. Now with a new writing partner, I had made a startling discovery: All the writing I had done with my first writing partner amounted to squat. That was then [and that partner]; this was now [and this partner]. In essence, I was starting over virtually from scratch.

We had written an action comedy spec script called “Stalemate.” That got a senior agent at CAA interested in us. So for over a year, we were hip pocket represented there. During that time, we scored a nice string of writing assignments. But we still weren’t officially taken on until CAA brought up our names for consideration at a meeting. Evidently this was the entire extent of the discussion:

“What business have they done?”

“One option, three OWAs in the last year generating X amount of dollars.”

Done deal. They signed us as clients.

While hip pocket representation is not the best situation in the world for a writer, it’s almost assuredly better than no representation. At least if you’re repped, you have access to more Hollywood players. With an agent or manager, you are considered to be an ‘insider.’

But here’s the key thing: As important as it is to get representation, long term it’s even more important who the rep is and what they feel about you. If the nature of the hip pocket arrangement is based on taking you off the market, a generic shot in the dark, or any other sort of ‘lip service’ type of basis, is that really what you want? It’s much more preferable to find a rep who believes in you, who is excited by your writing talent and your potential to succeed as a writer in Hollywood.

How can you tell if they actually believe in you… or they’re just saying they believe in you?

That’s a subject for another TBOS column.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted July 28, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: Trailer Moments, Set Pieces and Bits Of Business (BOBs)

March 3rd, 2016 by

You may have read countless screenwriting books. Attended seminars. Taken courses. But I doubt if you have stumbled across these three items in any tome related to the craft: Trailer Moments, Set Pieces, and Bits Of Business.

These may have come up in some other context, perhaps a newspaper or online article about the movie business, or a film producer’s memoir. But trust me, while these three may not appear in any best-selling screenwriting book, they are phrases you will hear from in the context of the script development process. Therefore it behooves you to understand what industry types are referring to so you can keep up with the shorthand. Moreover this trio is actually a helpful packet of concepts when it comes to crafting your stories because if a screenplay is, indeed, a blueprint to make a movie and these three narrative elements appear in every movie ever made, you should toss them into your creative mix with the usual suspects: acts, sequences, plot points, subtext, dialogue, and so on.

Trailer Moment: It is what it sounds like, a moment in a script which is so noteworthy, it is something worthy of inclusion in the movie trailer. This is a big deal. Perhaps no other sales device is more critical to a movie’s success than its trailer. And when the task at hand is to put together a trailer that conveys key highlights of the plot, characters, tone, mood and feel of the movie, believe me editors [at the behest of marketing execs] carefully study film footage looking for trailer moments. So when a producer or studio exec says to you about your script, “I’m looking for the trailer moments here, but just not seeing them,” you have a problem. Either you have what you think are trailer moments, but they aren’t written in a compelling enough fashion to come across as such, or you just flat-out haven’t mined your story for enough truly memorable movie moments. And while you may be focusing on story and character, they are thinking about how they are going to sell the movie. To do that, they need trailer moments. A smart screenwriter provides them.

Set Piece: As far as I know, this is an old phrase dating back many decades in the movie business and technically refers to scenes or scene sequences which involve the location or construction of a big set. Think the chariot race in Ben Hur. That is a big ass set piece. Over time it has come to mean any substantial scene or sequence of scenes that is critical to the plot. The importance of set pieces can not be underestimated. I have never been able to find the actual quote, but I have heard that Irving Thalberg, Hollywood’s first great movie producer said something to the effect when talking to his stable of screenwriters at MGM, “Just give me five great set pieces… and I’ll give you a hit movie.” I like to think of it this way: Set pieces are what make movies… movies. They are cinematic and memorable. They are the scenes you most likely talk about as you exit the theater, what you discuss with your co-workers the next day at the water cooler, and as such are the foundation of by-word-of-mouth buzz, a critical aspect of marketing a film. For a screenwriter, if you’re looking for your script’s set pieces, check out your major plot points. Chances are they’re there. If not, maybe your script would benefit by making those scenes bigger and turning them into set pieces.

Bits Of Business (BOBs): This one confused me when I first heard it at meetings. “This scene could use… you know… a bit of business.” “This bit of business doesn’t work for me. Can’t you come up with a funnier one?” Basically as I have come to understand it, a BOB (my acronym) is the answer to the observation, “It needs something.” A BOB can be a line of dialogue that is called back a number of times. An interesting visual conveying humor, irony, or meaning. A clever plot machination. Essentially anything that elevates the experience of the moment while servicing the plot. Screenwriter Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio are experts at using BOBs and a great example of that is Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl. Remember the recurring line of dialogue “Parlay”? That is a BOB. Servicing iconic images from the theme park ride such as the prisoners trying to lure the cell door keys from the dog? A BOB. When Jack and Will traverse the ocean floor while holding a row boat over their heads to provide an air pocket? BOB. Ragetti’s eyeball that keeps popping out? BOB. Elizabeth setting fire to all the rum on the island to create a smoke signal to lure a ship to rescue she and Jack? BOB. There’s hardly a scene in the original POTC that goes by where there isn’t a little or big Bit Of Business to spice up the plot. And spice is a good descriptor because BOBs do add flavor to a script.

So while you’re busy digesting this or that screenwriting guru’s story structure paradigm, don’t forget to keep in mind these three key movie concepts: Trailer Moments, Set Pieces and Bits Of Business.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

The Business of Screenwriting: “Qualify the customer”

February 25th, 2016 by

Okay, this week’s post is a blast from the past and only comes about due to a recent revelation from a TV producer I know that she has started dating a dude whose mother’s sister is married to this guy:

This is Larry Thomas who in 2010 was named CEO of Fender, Inc:

Thomas, who was appointed a Fender director last year, previously served as chairman and CEO of Guitar Center Inc., a chain of music stores.

He joined Guitar Center in 1977 as a salesperson, rising to store manager, regional manager, general manager, president and, ultimately, chairman and CEO.

Okay, stick with me and I promise to make a point re screenwriting.

When I left Yale Divinity School armed with my Masters degree, I took what I thought was going to be a year off from academics to pursue my interest in music as a singer-songwriter. I ended up spending two years in Aspen making a living as a musician. Figuring if I stayed in Aspen, I would bliss out and never much amount to anything, I relocated to the Bay Area, somehow finding myself living in the Frederick Apartments in Oakland, California, my window looking out directly onto a highway.

I landed a gig as a salesman at the Guitar Center on Van Ness in San Francisco. The manager of that store was Larry Thomas. Yep, that guy pictured up top.

The store was this huge, funky open space jammed with electric guitars and amps. There was an accessories area along one wall. A tiny enclosed room for acoustic guitars. A keyboard room. A section for drums. Downstairs the P.A. equipment. Upstairs Larry’s office. Doors opened at 10AM. As soon as they did, on went the rock and roll music over the store P.A. – really loud.

I didn’t much care for the gig. But I learned a lot of what I know about business during my brief tenure there. Here’s an example.

Every Saturday morning at 8:30, the troops would straggle in for a weekly sales meeting. Understand that the sales crew was mostly musicians, so you can imagine what that looked like. In other words, some seriously overtired, bleary-eyed, hungover mofos.

For 90 minutes, we would sit on hard back, folding chairs in this musty, dim room in the bowels of the basement as LT (that was Larry’s nickname) would school us on how to sell guitars to pimple-faced, juvenile head-banger wannabes.

Those meetings were brutal. Worse, we had to do role-playing. “Okay, Jim, you’re a customer, Scott, you’re the salesman.”

Like I said, brutal.

LT was relentless. A nice guy, but in order to whip this crew of musical misfits into any sort of shape, he had to ride us and ride us hard.

One thing he preached over and over again was the basic act of The Sale. He broke it down into three parts.

Qualify the customer.
Pitch.
Close.

Which of those three do you think Larry said was the most important aspect of The Sale?

Was it the pitch?

The close?

No, according to LT, the key to sales is the first step: Qualify the customer. Because if you know what the customer wants, that makes it a zillion time easier for you to sell them. Why?

Because you are giving them what they want.

You may have the greatest pitch in the world, but if the customer doesn’t really want to buy it, you’re going to have a tough time making that sale.

You may be in the Closer Hall of Fame, but if the customer doesn’t want what you’re pushing, you are set up to fail.

Qualify the customer. Find out what they want. Then give it to them.

As screenwriters, you intersect with all sorts of people along the way who can influence your career, but in actuality there are only two groups who actually plunk down dollars to buy your product: Studios (or financing entities) and moviegoers.

Studios: What do they want? Obviously they want to buy a script they believe they can produce and turn around for a profit. But they don’t acquire properties in a vacuum. Generally they are looking to augment what they already have on their development slate. And they are always mindful of what is hot — and what is not — in the current and foreseeable entertainment marketplace. So to qualify that customer, you can follow acquisitions to see who’s buying what. If you’ve got an agent or manager, you can largely rely on their advice, but you would still be wise to track what’s going on. For instance, this year thrillers are a hot genre. R-rated comedies seem to be on a roll. You don’t see as many contained thrillers selling as you did a year or so ago. That’s good info to know. Where to find out that info? If you’re a GITS follower, you’ve got at least one good daily resource for information.

Moviegoers: What do they want? The studios think of them as a target audience. You should think of them as a face. Consider that story you are currently writing and imagine a specific visual image of the ideal customer for your movie. I’ve known writers who will go through magazines and cut out a photo of someone they figure represents that person, their target audience. Now ask yourself this question: What is it about your story that will motivate that customer to get off their ass and go to a movie theater to see your movie? Why do you want to see my movie? If the resulting list of reasons you come up with is thin, then perhaps you’re not writing a big or compelling enough story. And from a creative standpoint, if you can identify what specific narrative elements that customer you’ve imagined will resonate with in your story, you can play those up when you write the script. Know what they want. Give them what they want.

Of course, you can pretty much circumvent all of this and guarantee a sale by writing a great script. Which leads to another layer to this question: You have to qualify yourself.

No matter how much you learn about the movie business… movie audiences… movie trends… all of which can be important… there is nothing more important than asking yourself what it is you want to write, you need to write. A story for which you have true passion. If you don’t have that, chances are it won’t be great. Hell, you likely won’t even get to FADE OUT / The End.

What makes a great script? As LT would say, “You’re not selling a guitar, you’re selling a dream.”

Make sure you’re selling them your dream.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted July 14, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: Commencement of principal photography

February 18th, 2016 by

There are several significant days in a screenwriter’s life.

There’s the phone call.

Your first big paycheck.

Your first day on a movie set.

The day your movie premieres.

Yes, those are some mighty fine days. And your own fantasies about breaking in as a screenwriter may well incorporate those moments, sun-dappled and dripping with promise.

Here’s another one to add to your list: Commencement of principal photography.

Doesn’t sound very sexy. Why is it such a big deal for a screenwriter? First let’s discuss what it means.

Commencement of principal photography is a term referring to the day upon which actual production of a movie begins. Sure, there will have been a ton of pre-production, oftentimes second unit work, but it’s not considered principal photography until the film’s director, actors and crew assemble to shoot the bulk of the movie.

Everything in pre-production is geared toward the commencement of principal photography. Think of it as a film production’s equivalent to our FADE IN.

The designation also has a legal implication. When a screenwriter signs a contract, their deal typically is broken down into a set of potential payments. For instance, commencement of first draft, delivery of first draft, commencement of rewrite, delivery of rewrite, polish, and so forth.

Most deals include what is known as a production bonus. That is if the project goes into production, the writer receives the money stipulated in the bonus.

Let’s say our screenwriter Sammy Glick sells a spec script. The deal he gets is a pricey one: $600,000 against $1,000,000. What that means is Sammy is guaranteed that $600K, whether the movie gets produced or not. If, however, the movie goes into production, that means he receives a production bonus on top of his guaranteed fee of $400K.

What triggers the payment of that production bonus? Why, none other than the commencement of principal photography.

Now do you see why this is a special day for a screenwriter?

As with all deals, there are wrinkles. For example, the production bonus is dependent upon the writer receiving writing credit. If Sammy gets sole “written by” credit, he receives 100% of the bonus. If he shares story credit with another writer, his bonus is reduced by half.

But the main point is this: The day your movie begins principal photography is the day you can start looking for a nice, big fat check to arrive from the studio.

Commencement of principal photography. Music to a screenwriter’s ears… and bank account!

The Business of Screenwriting is a weekly series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted November 3, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: The screenwriter as problem-solver

January 28th, 2016 by

What do you see when you think about yourself as a screenwriter? A storyteller? A creative? A professional?

However you see yourself, that’s not necessarily how people in Hollywood see you.

This came up in a conversation with Max Millimeter: Hollywood Movie Producer Extraordinaire. I was trying to make some subtle point about a script we were arguing about discussing when he wagged his finger one way and shook his head the other, body language I’ve come to know means he’s going to drop what he considers to be an essential truth in my lap.

“Kid, you just don’t get it. You think they think like you think, that you’re a writer. That’s not what they think. What a studio executive sees when they look at a screenwriter is one thing and one thing only: problem-solver.

“See, each of them is responsible for a boatload of scripts. 10, 12, 14, whatever. Now a normal person would look at a script that a studio has dropped coins for and say, ‘Hey, look! It’s a movie!’ Beautiful thing, right? Not an exec. They look at that script and all they can see is one royally screwed-up story. And that’s not only a problem, it’s their problem.

“Which is where you come in. You walk in for a meeting, you schmooze a little. Hey, such and such movie really bombed this weekend, hate to be tiptoeing around that studio, eh? You hear about so-and-so, got busted for making out with a St. Bernard at that wedding reception, can you believe it? You know, lighten things up. Then you get to the story. And here nothing matters what you say… nothing… except one thing: Are you gonna solve their problem by fixing their script? They don’t give two titties about your theories, your craft, your art, okay? That script you’re meeting about is a busted toilet filled with yesterday’s beef brisket and you, my fine young friend, are the plumber.”

Of course as Max Millimeter is prone to do, he oversimplifies the situation, but at a very basic level, he’s right. When you go up for an open writing assignment, that by definition means the script needing a rewrite has problems. Your job is to solve those problems.

This is why it is absolutely crucial for you to develop your critical analytical skills, to be able to read a script, identify the issues, then come up with possible solutions. How do you do that?

By reading scripts. Lots of scripts. Lots and lots of scripts. Not just reading them, but breaking them down. Scene by scene. Sequences. Subplots. Characters and their interrelationships. Analyze them.

You can read great scripts which is excellent training for how to craft a solid screenplay. But to hone your critical analytical abilities to identify problems, you should be reading problem scripts.

If you’re not currently part of a writer’s group, where you read each other’s pages and provide feedback, you should do that. Yes, reading scripts and providing feedback is a pain, takes up a lot of time, and sometimes you’ll probably hate it, but again, where else are you going to learn how to prep for an OWA meting unless you have put in the hours actually reading and analyzing problem scripts?

So when you think about yourself as a screenwriter and the images of artist, creative, and professional spring to mind, make sure you also include this: problem-solver. Then do what you can now to develop your critical analytical skills because if you want to have any chance of succeeding in the OWA market… well, let’s hear from Max Millimeter to drive home this point: “You gotta get your shit together.”

The Business of Screenwriting is an ongoing series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted June 7, 2012]

The Business of Screenwriting: The Path of Least Resistance

September 2nd, 2015 by

There is no right way to write. No correct way to approach your career as a writer. No single secret to success. You can take some of the most ingrained supposed pieces of conventional wisdom about how Hollywood operates, invert them one hundred eighty degrees, do precisely that, and bust into the business doing everything not according to Hoyle.

That said…

There are some strategies an aspiring writer can adopt which in effect create a path of least resistance toward getting representation and establishing yourself as a viable writer in Hollywood. Here is one such approach:

  • Write 3 scripts: Not just one. Not two. But three scripts. Written, rewritten, reviewed by pro readers and/or a strong writers group, revised again, and brought to the best level of readability and marketability possible.
    • Rationale: If you have 3 scripts in hand, this demonstrates to someone in the business you are not a one-hit wonder, you are prolific, you are persistent, and you have an effective approach to mapping a story and getting it from FADE IN to FADE OUT. Also 3 scripts triples the chances you can find a set of eyeballs which responds to at least one of your stories.
  • Write 3 scripts in 1 genre: Not 3 scripts in 3 different genres, but 1 genre.
    • Rationale: It is easier to sell you to the town if you are known as an Action writer, a Comedy writer, a Drama writer, and so on. The fact is, people will put you on lists based on whatever script first gets their attention. Like it or not, this is your brand. And having a brand makes the life of managers and agents a whole lot easier to sell you and your writing services.
  • Write 3 scripts in 1 genre which is mainstream: Action, Comedy, Drama, Family, Horror, Science Fiction, Thriller.
    • Rationale: Scripts in mainstream genres as opposed to those that are not (e.g., Western Musical, Animated Horror) are easier sells because they are more likely to represent what studios, production companies, and financiers are actively developing. So much of it is about their comfort level and if you’re up for a writing assignment in a certain genre, and you have credibility in that genre, again path of least resistance.
  • Write 3 scripts in the $5-20M budget range: Write at least one on the low end and no more than two at the upper end.
    • Rationale: If you write a script with a budget of $100M or more, there are only 6 potential buyers. If you write a script with a budget of $50-100M, there are virtually no buyers. However if you write a script in the $5-20M range, there are literally dozens of buyers. Even if they don’t acquire your script, your reps can paper the town with it and get you meetings. With a $100M script and severely limited number of buyers… not so much.
  • Write 3 treatments: In addition to your 3 spec scripts.
    • Rationale: Assuming you go on the bottled water tour, the first thing they’ll say is, “Love your script.” The second thing: “What else you got?” Having 3 stories worked out in your back pocket makes you that much more marketable.
  • Write 3 treatments based on your strongest story concepts: And this goes for your spec scripts, too.
    • Rationale: Along with execution and voice, story concept is one of the most important sales elements of your script. Moreover if you can demonstrate you can generate great story ideas, that makes you all that much more desirable for representation.

Again to be perfectly clear, I am not saying this is the way to approach your craft. It may be anathema to your creative process. Always… always… follow your creative instincts.

However if you can be creative while following these strategies, you can create a path of least resistance for breaking into Hollywood.

So to sum up: 3 scripts. 1 genre. 3 treatments. Strong concepts. Budgets: $5-20M.

This path gives reps and buyers less reasons to say ‘no’ and more reasons to say ‘yes’.

P.S.: The idea of you being a brand may seem entirely antithetical to your creative process. However what if you look at it this way: What types of stories do you most love writing? What types of stories play most to your strengths as a writer? If you can identify that… and focus your attention on generating, developing, and writing scripts in that literary space, you are in effect following your creative bliss. And the reality is, if you break in as an Action writer, Comedy writer, Drama writer, Whatever writer, chances are writing assignments you may be able to land will be in that arena. This is where brand merges with creativity… because in order to write a single genre for 5, 7, or 10 years, you want to be in love with those types of stories. Sure, you can always write specs in other genres to prove to the town you can cover a wider variety of material. But if you think of brand as being tied to your passion — the types of stories you love the most and have the most talent writing — then the decision is as much about your creativity as it is about the pragmatics of the business.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 20]

August 13th, 2015 by

Spec scripts, that is. I’m guessing that perhaps 90% of the people who follow this blog at some point in their lives will write a spec script. And the other 10% are involved in buying and selling them. In light of that fact, last year I interviewed a top manager and some Hollywood screenwriters about the ins and outs of what is involved in bringing a spec script to market. I’ve been waiting for the right opportunity to do something with that inside information, so when Vanity Fair recently came out with this article — When the Spec Script was King — a decent piece, but pretty surface level, I figured this is as good a time as any to dig into the subject in a comprehensive fashion.

In Part 1, we looked at the genesis of the spec script in Hollywood from 1900-1942.

In Part 2, we covered the emergence of the spec script market from 1942-1990.

In Part 3, we analyzed the boom, bust, and back again of 1990-2012.

In Part 4, we surveyed the buyers, both major studios and financiers.

In Part 5, we examined the screenwriter-rep relationship in terms of developing a spec script.

In Part 6, we explored rolling out a new writer’s spec script.

In Part 7, we delved into the subject of attaching producers.

In Part 8, we considered the value of attaching talent.

In Part 9, we learned about reps wanting to “own all the tickets”.

In Part 10, we dug into how reps generate buzz for a spec script.

In Part 11, we scrutinized the practice of slipping a script to someone.

In Part 12, we acknowledged the role that serendipity can play in the process.

In Part 13, we discussed the strategy of targeting specific buyers.

In Part 14, we drilled down into the strategy of going wide.

In Part 15, we indulged in the ultimate fantasy of a bidding war.

In Part 16, we got a first-hand account of a preemptive purchase.

In Part 17, we thought about one creative choice to write what they’re buying.

In Part 18, we pondered another choice to sell them your dream.

In Part 19, we reflected on the value of a spec script even if it does not sell.

Part 20: The value of a spec script… if it does sell

Congratulations! You just sold your spec script. And for big bucks. Or not so big bucks.

If the latter, it’s still probably for six figures which ain’t bad for sitting on one’s arse all day conjuring up stories.

If the former, maybe it’s mid-six figures. Or even seven-figures. Hey, it can happen witness the sale of “Grim Night” for a cool million dollars to a pair of first-time writers.

In either case, you have broken through the protective bubble that surrounds Hollywood, transitioning from outsider to insider.

But remember this: As difficult as it has been for you to get to this point and achieve this goal, it is just the beginning. And no matter how excited you are by the whirlwind of activity surrounding you, how bedazzling it feels to be the flavor-of-the-week in Hollywood is, how much smoke is being blown up your keester, you must remember this:

Movies don’t owe anybody a living.

So be smart.

* Even if you sell a spec script, I would recommend not giving up the day job. Just yet. See how things shake out for a year or two. You get a few paid writing projects lined up, maybe then make your move to L.A..

* Sock away at least 20% of what you earn into savings to give you a buffer when the Hollywood winds starting blowing in your face, not at your back.

* Treat each script as if it’s your first and last chance to tell a great story. Yes, there will be assignments you take where the subject matter doesn’t lend itself to being ‘great,’ but even then you need to bring your A-game to your writing.

* Put in more blood, sweat and tears now than you did before. The competition is fierce. So no matter the amount of hours you have put in to get this far, redouble your effort. You want to play with the players? You gotta be able to stay up with the players.

Depending upon how hard you have worked at learning the craft, how savvy you are at working with your reps, how well you slot into the film development system, and how willing you are to put your nose to the proverbial grindstone, you can make a shit-ton of money in Hollywood.

And that spec script you sold? That is your calling card. Depending on how good it is [Black List?], it can become your springboard to a screenwriting career.

Okay, that’s it. Everything you wanted to know about specs in 20 installments. If you have any further questions about the spec script marketplace or writing a spec script, please post in comments. If not, we’ll move onto another subject starting next week.

The Business of Screenwriting is a series of GITS posts based upon my experiences as a complete Hollywood outsider who sold a spec script for a lot of money, parlayed that into a screenwriting career during which time I’ve made some good choices, some okay decisions, and some really stupid ones. Hopefully you’ll be the wiser for what you learn here.

[Originally posted June 27, 2013]