The Business of Screenwriting: Low-budget filmmaking [Part 1]

September 22nd, 2016 by

After I left Yale with my M.Div. degree in 1978, I spent the next two plus decades as a free-lancer. First as a musician. Then as a stand-up comic. And finally screenwriter.

In 2002, one of my best friends [who I had met as a fellow grad student at Yale] asked me to join him in a new company he had co-founded: Trailblazer Studios.

And so for the first time in my life, I had a ‘real’ job and a title: Executive Producer. With its production facilities in Raleigh, North Carolina, I relocated my family to Chapel Hill.

Trailblazer Studios is primarily a TV production outfit and during my 8 years there, my responsibility was to oversee the company’s development division.

At one point, however, we explored low-budget filmmaking. That led to an interesting journey, something I thought GITS readers would find both interesting and informative, especially those of you who are less interested in writing mainstream commercial movies and more ‘indie’-type fare.

When we set out to explore low-budget filmmaking, one of the first things we did at Trailblazer was meet with the filmmakers of the movie Kaaterskill Falls, a 2001 project that cost about $20K and turned a tidy profit after obtaining a domestic cable and foreign distribution deal. This introduced us to the world of micro-budget movies.

We met with other filmmakers. I did a ton of research as well. As a result, we came up with a business model featuring two guiding principles:

* We would make movies targeting Baby Boomers and Seniors, the largest demographic groups with the most disposable income, the most free time and a generational love-affair with movies. They were being ignored by Hollywood. In our minds, they represented a largely untapped market.

* We would create a set of production guidelines to ensure our movies would cost no more than $500K-1M, enabling us to produce quality entertainment while minimizing financial risk and maximizing our chance for profitability.

Here is that list of production guidelines:

* A 90-page script.

* A 4-5 week shoot.

* A small, but professional ‘guerilla’ crew.

* No more than 10 actors.

* One primary location [to minimize travel costs].

* No special effects.

* Most scenes in the script would involve only a few actors to minimize complicated setups and shots.

* Set the story in a state with an advantageous film rebate system.

There were other considerations, but these are the main points.

Now we needed a script. We reviewed dozens of possibilities. None worked for our criteria. So I figured since I was a screenwriter, why not take a crack at it myself?

Then I did what I had been doing for years: Brainstormed story ideas. Only this time, I did so with our production guidelines and specific target demos in mind.

I came up with what I thought was a solid idea. I pitched it to the company. The response was positive. So I went away and wrote the script. Here is an overview of the story:

Every winter, three couples — each of them senior citizens — drive their recreational vehicles from their homes in different parts of the country to rendezvous in a remote location in northern New Mexico. Not an RV site, but off-road. Beautiful and secluded.

As usual, they gather together. They swap photos of their children and grandchildren. They share meals and stories. And the guys get set to engage in an annual competition: The Geezer Games, a series of events including darts, horseshoes, and such.

This year is different. On their first night together, they see the headlights of an approaching car. Up pull three college students.

The young people are here on a mission to spend time with the youngest member of the group, Abby, a 21 year-old photography student. This particular spot has personal meaning to her, tied to her youth and memories of her family having camped in the location.

So per the setup, on one side there are the Seniors, unhappy to discover these young people interrupting their annual getaway.

On the other side, there are the Juniors, bummed to have a bunch of old farts disrupting their plans to party and have fun.

The wild card: Abby is dying of terminal cancer. This trip is her last wish, a chance to get away from her harsh reality and share some quality time with her best friends before she returns to hospitalization and hospice care.

The story transpires over the course of four days where this disparate group of people transforms into an ad hoc ‘family’ around Abby.

I wrote a 95-page script called “Snowbirds.” Trailblazer acquired the project. And we were on our way to making a low-budget independent feature.

Next week: Part Two of the “Snowbirds” saga and low-budget filmmaking.

The Business of Screenwriting: Hurry up and wait

September 1st, 2016 by

We have worked on the script for months. It’s an assignment. The studio and the project’s producers have made it known emphatically since day one they want to see the draft ASAP. Our agents, well aware of this fact, check in routinely to see how things are going. Contributing to the pressure: a significant talent is circling the project, but their interest is almost entirely dependent upon the draft we deliver.

We have had a little more than two months to write the script. With the passing of each week, the writing process feels more and more like a race. There’s simply no way to avoid the ticking of our internal clock growing louder and more insistent as we knock out pages — first draft, revisions, more revisions, still more revisions.

Now it’s down to the last few days and we have been reminded that everyone is primed to get their hands on our script. One last read-through. Okay, make that another last read-through. Ready to print. Wait, a few more tiny edits. If we lose these two sides of dialogue, we can get the script down to 109 pages… okay, okay, I’ll stop!

It used to be you’d print the script and a courier would pick it up for delivery to The Suits. Now the deliverable is an electronic file sent via email.

Click!

All that focus and energy. All those debates and decisions. All those pages written and rewritten. All that damn hurrying.

And now… we wait.

And wait.

And wait some more.

Anticipation. Every phone call. Every email. Could that be them?

It’s like you’re in a sports car zooming along at 100MPH… then you suddenly slam on the brakes and screech off onto the side of the road. Your body and mind still feel the propulsion forward from the writing. But you’re no longer the driver. They are. Your script’s fate is in their hands. You’re not even in the car. You’re a pedestrian. On a lonely byway. Standing with your thumb stuck out, waiting for their thumb to appear — up or down.

In Hollywood, the phenomenon is known as “hurry up and wait.” It’s utterly maddening.

Tom Petty

For a writer, if it’s a second draft or a polish, that’s one thing. Then you know they’re basically good with the overall story. Chances of them having a freak-out are minimal. It’s the first drafts that eat at your soul. No matter how thoroughly you’ve talked through the story and everyone has signed off on it, there’s no telling how they’ll react — officially — until they get the script in their hands. Pitching a story in a room where people hear what they want to hear is one thing. Reading a script to determine if the story stands on its own merits is quite another.

Sometimes you get a preliminary report back within 48 hours, but that’s rare. A good turnaround is a week. More often than not, you’re looking at 10 days. Even 2 weeks.

That’s. 336. Hours. Of. Waiting.

Why were they in such a bloody hurry only to take this long to respond?

That’s easy. They enjoy torturing writers. At least it feels that way.

In talking with friends and associates, I discovered that screenwriters have three basic ways to handle these lag periods between delivery of script to response. First, you can go away (e.g., Post Ranch Inn in Big Sur, Two Bunch Palms in Palms Springs) to provide some measure of distraction. Second, you can get drunk. A lot. Or third, the most advantageous approach: you can have another project ready to go. If you’re good and lucky, you can stack up studio writing assignments, two or three back to back. Turn in Project 1. Immediately switch focus to Project 2. If you don’t have another writing assignment, it’s a great idea to have a spec script you’ve busted, all ready for you to type FADE IN and go.

Anything except just… sitting… around… waiting… for… the… studio… to… respond…

Tick… tick… tick…

Hurry up and wait. One of the banes of a screenwriter’s existence.

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.

The Business of Screenwriting: They don’t think like you [Part 2]

August 18th, 2016 by

Note: To understand this post, you need to go back and read last week’s entry here.

After we sell the spec script K-9, we are ushered around town for meetings. This is what happens when you are the ‘flavor-of-the-week’ as producers and studio execs want to meet new writers. My sense of that dynamic is that while most are honestly interested to see if there is any creative synergy between themselves and tyro scribes which could translate into a possible project, the bottom line is it’s important for appearance sake to keep up with everyone else in the acquisition and development side of things sniffing out the fresh meat. Oh, yeah, those guys? Met them last week.

So we take countless meetings and there are a few common themes to each one. First, while some get-togethers are in their offices, most are lunches. This, as it turns out, is because our agents have said, “The guys like to eat.” Perhaps I have ‘starving artist’ written all over my up until then starving artist face. Second, they all ask this question: What are you working on next? This underscores the importance of generating several good story concepts to have in reserve for possible pitches once you do sell a spec script (more on that subject down the road).

“Look, Nick, I’m not gonna bull shit you.
I don’t know you. I don’t know your work.
But I think you’re a very, very talented young man.”

The Big Picture (1989)

The third theme is an odd one and takes place almost immediately upon our introductions. “So,” they say with a hint of a smile, “I hear you guys are real Americans.” This is another bit of information our agents have passed along about us. We’re not your typical film school grads. We’re not sons and daughters of established movie people. We didn’t grow up in the 405-10-110-101 bubble. We are outsiders and presumably representative of how people in the flyover states think.

As a result the “they don’t think like you” meme gets turned on its head: Instead of us [writers] thinking it [“they don’t think like you”] about them [studio execs, producers, agents, talent], it’s them thinking it about us. There are plenty of things Hollywood insiders can pull off, many of them remarkable, but unless they have strayed from the boundaries of west L.A., they can only approximate what it’s like to grow up in North Dakota, Alabama, Ohio, Louisiana, Virginia, and the San Joaquin Valley in California, which as it turns out, I did.

Hollywood can make movies to please audiences they understand really well like Los Angeles and New York, but they can’t sustain a business with such a limited marketplace. They need to make movies that will play with ‘real’ Americans. Generally the studios and TV networks do a pretty good job imagining what type of entertainment will appeal to the masses, but they also get blindsided often enough by the success of movies like The Blind Side, written and directed by Texas native John Lee Hancock, to know there are cultural dynamics going on ‘out there’ a writer born and raised in 90210-land will likely never be able to conjure up, let alone nail.

So for all of you who live outside the Hollywood bubble, there is hope. The film and TV business needs writers who have different backgrounds, especially if they can translate them into unique stories and a distinctive voice, to create movies and TV series that connect with the masses of people who do not live in L.A. and work in the entertainment business.

By the way, this is increasingly true about filmmakers who come from international markets because over 70% of a Hollywood movie’s revenues derive from outside the U.S. and Canada.

Takeaway: While it is important for outsiders to understand and track Hollywood business trends, don’t become a generic product. Take what you have and who you are, the sum of your life experiences, and bring that to bear in your writing. Hollywood is looking for writers who don’t think like them.

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: They don’t think like you (Part 1)

August 11th, 2016 by

So we’re sitting in the office of a studio executive. At this point, K-9 has been produced, we’ve sold a pitch to Warner Bros., and have an overall studio deal. All good news, right? Well, somehow we have managed to do something (I forget what) to irk this particular exec, so she calls us in for a chat.

She is shifting back and forth in her chair behind her desk, hands working overtime as she explains why she feels aggrieved. Working herself into a lather, she says the following:

“Look, I like you guys, I really do. I mean, you are the first people I think of to call when one of my lunches cancels.”

Read that comment again… and think about it for a moment.

To this exec, what she said was intended as a compliment. Not only a compliment, but the most direct and meaningful way she could think of to tell us how much she liked us.

That we were her first second choice.

And that in a nutshell conveys one of the most important truths a Hollywood outsider needs to know:

They don’t think like you.

You can be smart like them. As well educated as them. Drive the same car. Have the same politics. But unless you actually work in the entertainment business or grew up inside the bubble that is demarcated by the 405-10-110-101 freeways, there’s every chance in the world that the way you think and the way they think will be utterly different.

I lived and worked in L.A. for many years and I still don’t understand fully how their minds operate. But I do have some clues as to why they think the way they think.

* They are insanely busy. If I say “Southern California,” the first words that may pop into your mind are “laid back.” Nothing could not be further from the truth re people who are employed in the entertainment business because they work all the time. From 6AM when they hit the gym to work out until they finally finish reading the coverage on their latest project after midnight, their days are completely filled. Where you or I may go out for a leisurely meal, they have breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, dinner meetings. They don’t just get on the phone to talk, they roll calls, 100 or more business conversations on the phone per day. If they go to a concert or a movie or watch TV, it’s not a form of relaxation, it’s work. Day after day, week after week, year after year of that definitely contributes to the unique melange of their brain chemistry meets world view.

* They are extremely competitive. Stands to reason because movies, TV, web, music, they are all highly competitive businesses. They are all chasing after The Next Big Thing and that’s pretty much a zero sum game: x-amount of potential projects funnel into the system of which a small percentage are worthy of acquisition. As a result, the challenge to source the right stuff — whether it’s a manuscript, band, writer, story — is a stiff one because everyone else is doing precisely the same thing. On the whole, this requires a competitive impulse that is hard-wired in a person’s DNA. Here’s an example: I went to a Dodger game once with my agents where they basically bet on everything that happened: would the first pitch be a strike or a ball, which team would get the first hit, the first home run, even betting who would be closest to guessing the game’s attendance. As a producer once said to me, “The movie business is one big dick-measuring contest.”

* They all know each other. I was shocked to learn how small ‘Hollywood’ is (I’m referring to the entertainment community, not Hollywood proper which by the way is home to only one major movie studio — Paramount). If something happens over in Culver City, word gets to people working in Burbank instantly. These folks see each other at screenings and concerts, their kids’ soccer games and school functions, The Ivy and Gelson’s. You and I call it ‘networking.’ They know it simply as life. With such a tight-knit community of people, they have their own history, values, and business ethics. It’s a shared, self-reflective life-experience where they pretty much act under the assumption that this is how the world is.

These are just a few of the contributing factors to why they think the way they do. Bottom line: What an outsider is dealing with when interacting with an industry insider is someone who is always under the pressure of time, forever scanning the world around them for a hot new project, and doing their job virtually shoulder-to-shoulder with their competitors.

No wonder they develop their own world view and their own language system. So when you sell your spec script and make the rounds, don’t be surprised to hear things like this [actual comments from our script meetings]:

“I like this scene, but could you make it 30% funnier.”

“I know I told you to make that change, but I didn’t mean it.”

“Can you make the Protagonist more sympathetic, you know… give him a dead wife or something?”

They’re smart, talented, busy, competitive, and in each others’ business all the time. Perhaps the best way for an outsider to look at it is like they’re part of a cult. What they do and how they think makes perfect sense to them, but can be mystifying to us.

Which is why you need to face facts: They don’t think like you.

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: There’s a green light…

August 4th, 2016 by

I’m attending a fundraiser for my son’s elementary school. It’s an alternative private school on the Westside, an institution that prides itself on its “diversity”… which I’ve discovered pretty  much means they have parents who are agents and directors, entertainment lawyers and producers, studio execs and writers.

One of the parents is the President of Production for a major movie studio and the fundraiser just happens to be at his house.

It also just happens that my partner and I recently turned in a draft of a writing assignment at that same studio, our script well received there. So I am feeling rather jaunty as my wife and I enter the lavish home of our hosts.

The studio chief is at the door to greet us. His first words to me are these:

“Congratulations. We just green lit your movie.”

Feeling even jauntier, I bump up the amount of money we had figured we’d give the school. Hell, I have a green lit movie. Why not splash some of that cash around?

Uh, not so fast.

Later that week our agents tell us the studio has hired a well-known screenwriter to do a rewrite on our script. Nothing serious, we’re told. Just some minor character work and a polish to “bring the script home.”

Several months later, the screenwriter’s draft comes in. The studio’s reaction? Not so good. He does another draft. The response is even more tepid. Whatever heat the project had is now dissipated.

And the supposed green lit project? Dies on the vine. A little game that gets played out in Hollywood all the time: Green light. Red light.

I had a similar thing happen two other times. One was a remake of a 50’s comedy. The script we wrote got a major comic actor attached. The news was announced in the trades. Studio green light. The talent and his writing team were going to do a “polish” on the script. When the draft came in, they had completely retooled the story. The studio’s reaction?

Green light. Red light.

On another project we were in active pre-production, busy doing a polish on the script with the film’s director. Budget, casting, locations, schedules, the whole nine yards, all in progress. Then a movie came out with one similar narrative element to our project, much more prominent than anyone had anticipated. Basically blew us out of the water.

Green light. Red light.

Which goes to show you, there’s a green light… and a GREEN light. The regular old green light turns out to be a provisional one. A blinking green light, if you will. A GREEN light means they are actually by God committed to making the movie. How do you know when you get a GREEN light? Honestly you can’t really know until that first day of principal photography, the director yells “Action,” and the cameras roll. Because any number of things can go wrong in pre-production that can turn a green light into a red light.

So a word of advice: When someone says to you, “Congratulations, your movie is green lit,” nod your head, smile, and reply, “From your lips to God’s ears.” Then get your ass back to work on another story. Hopefully they’ll make your movie. But you always want to have something else going on… in case that green light turns red.

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: The Travails of Pitching (Part 2) — The Surprise Visitor

July 28th, 2016 by

After the humbling experience of pitching the latest project to a distracted exec, we actually sell it to another studio. We head out to Palm Springs to hole up and jam out the rest of the first draft of another project we are writing when we get a call: The studio’s offer on the pitch is a low-ball. Our agents and the producer on the project think we can get a better deal at another studio.

So we turn right around and zoom back to that studio for a hastily called meeting. As we show up and swap hellos, the producer says to the exec, “Hey, thanks for squeezing us in.”

We are about to find out exactly how squeezed the exec’s schedule is.

Just as we’re set to launch into the pitch, the door scoots open and this ancient gray-haired guy hobbles into the office, lugging some gear. Turns out he’s there to shine the exec’s shoes! The exec apologizes to us. “You don’t mind, do you? This is his regular time slot.”

With visions of yet another distracted exec before our eyes, suddenly our producer bolts upright, and calls out to the shoe shine guy:

“Jimmy?”

Turns out our producer remembers Jimmy the shoe shine guy from years ago when the producer had a deal on the lot. A regular customer, they’d gotten to know each other pretty well. But they hadn’t seen each other in over a decade. They shake hands, clap shoulders, and catch up a bit, the rest of us startled by this crazy coincidence. Then the producer says:

“You don’t mind listening in while these fellahs do their pitch, do you?”
“No sir, that’d be just fine.”

So while the shoe shine guy goes to work on the exec’s shoes, we get to work with our pitch. It goes great, everybody laughing in the right spots, the exec jumping in with ideas that slot right into where the story is going. At the end of the pitch, the exec turns to the shoe shine guy:

“Jimmy, what’d you think?”

All eyes turn to Jimmy. A big grin spreads across his face and he says:

“That is one helluva funny story.”

We sell the pitch in the room. And end up with double the other studio’s offer.

Next week: There’s a green light…

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: The Travails of Pitching (Part 1) — The Distracted Exec

July 21st, 2016 by

We are seated in a studio executive’s office for a pitch meeting. He’s late. Very late. We’ve been waiting for close to a half-hour. His assistant is apologetic — “He’s hung up in traffic.” More like air traffic. For the last 20 minutes, we’ve been privy to one-half of a phone conversation between the absent exec and his harried assistant as they try to lock down travel details for said executive. Back and forth they’ve gone… this flight is too early, that flight is too late, he hates this airline, what about business class.

Meanwhile we’re left to pick lint off our clothes.

Finally the exec barges in. Pokes his head into the office. “Hey guys, sorry, it’s been a bit crazy.” Then back with his assistant, a several minute — and loud! — harangue.

Now he heads toward his seat. We prepare for the obligatory five minutes of schmoozing before we launch into our pitch. We are no more than two sentences into it when he suddenly buzzes his assistant. More travel issues. “Excuse me.” Off he goes to hassle his assistant again.

By now we’re nearly 45 minutes past our scheduled meeting time. At last he sits down to give us his full undivided attention. We start our pitch. We get approximately two minutes into it when he shoots his hand up into air.

“Is this a frustration comedy? Yeah, I don’t do frustration comedies, sorry.”

Welcome to the travails of pitching. It’s bad enough to bust your hump working up a story, rehearsing the pitch, then actually delivering it. But a pitch is kind of like a space shuttle launch — it’s exciting, however there’s a million things that can go wrong. And sometimes they just do.

There was the exec who was totally loving a pitch, then suddenly turned cold because — as we discovered later — he didn’t like an African-American accent we used for one character.

There was the time my partner’s ink pen leaked all over the brand new couch the exec had just received.

There was the producer whose junior development exec — no lie — fell asleep during our pitch (don’t ever schedule a pitch between 2-3PM when people who are suffering from a post-lunch low).

Pitching is not fun. It’s not easy. Frankly it’s a pain in the ass.

But if you want to go up for OWA’s (Open Writing Assignments)… or try to sell an original idea… you have to learn to deal with the travails of pitching.

The irony is that pitch? The one where the exec treated us like shit while he dealt with his travel plans, then cut us to the quick just barely after we’d gotten started with our spiel?

We went to another studio to pitch it. Sold it in the room. And it got made into a movie.

That story next week: The Travails of Pitching (Part 2) — Expect the unexpected.

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.

The Business of Screenwriting: The Path of Least Resistance

July 14th, 2016 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.

[Originally posted September 2, 2015]

The Business of Screenwriting: Weather vanes

July 7th, 2016 by

There are an awful lot of sharp people who work in Hollywood. Studio executives, producers, agents, managers, lots of them from Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, Northwestern, Stanford, USC, UCLA and top MBA programs from around the country.

Which raises the question: With all these smart folks around, why are there so many weather vanes?

As the moniker suggests, a weather vane is an individual whose attitude shifts depending upon which way the prevailing winds blow.

In my experience, there are three types of WV personalities in Hollywood:

* Trendy Weather Vanes: Heavily influenced by what’s perceived as being hot or cold, trying to align oneself with the mood of the marketplace, Zeitgeist-meisters.

* Extreme Weather Vanes: They love something one day, hate it the next, literally flipping positions just… like… that, less about the marketplace mood than their own personality-driven moods.

* Clever Weather Vanes: They never fully commit to something one way or the other, virtual index finger always moist and stuck in the air, testing social media and inter-office political currents, all the while being inordinately cautious in the opinions they express.

For a screenwriter, this state of affairs represents a minefield. You can sit in meetings, lengthy ones drilling down into the minutiae of a project, trying your best to accommodate suggestion after suggestion with seemingly everyone signing off on a take. You go away for two months and write a draft. You turn in the script. Suddenly there are lots of story problems, many if not most of them arising from the very discussions you had.

You press a CWV, they may say something like, “Well, as you recall, I was never totally comfortable with this take. Remember how I said I was somewhat confident it might work, but we just had to see. In fact, I had strong reservations about it, but being a team player, I went along with the others.”

You talk with an EWV, they might admit, “Okay, we gave it a shot and it doesn’t work. Onto the next thing.”

If you’re dealing with a TWV, the issue may be much more prevalent even before you go to draft, knocking out one treatment after another to “make the story better” (i.e., align with what they perceive buyers or consumers to currently be about), changing course significantly from take to take.

Any of these scenarios can be a head-spinning and deeply frustrating experience for a screenwriter where whatever initial inspiration you had for the story can easily get lost in the maze of changes.

Furthermore whether you’re dealing with a TWV, EWV or CWV, and no matter that the direction of the script was heavily influenced by their opinions, the implication is that the responsibility for what exists on the page lies on the writer’s shoulders, not theirs.

What about that image of a Hollywood power player who goes with their gut, sticks to their guns, lives by the conviction of their unique aesthetic perspective?

There are folks like that. Mixed with actual creative insight, these are the type of allies you hope and pray to find, people who will champion your shared vision, watch your back and help circumnavigate a project through the minefield.

But there are a considerable number of shakers and movers who play a different game, never quite committing themselves to a project until it becomes a hit, then piling on to give the appearance of having been an early supporter.

How do well-educated Ivy League types become prevaricators in chief?

Here is a quote from screenwriter William Goldman that goes a long way to answer things:

“Studio executives are intelligent, brutally overworked men and women who share one thing in common with baseball managers: they wake up every morning of the world with the knowledge that sooner or later they’re going to get fired.”

Fear of losing one’s job can shape a person. It can intensify into an obsession to stay on top of what is going on out there [Trendy Weather Vanes]. It can contribute to wild fluctuations in moods [Extreme Weather Vanes]. It can create the need to become a moving target pulling off the delicate balance of seeming to have opinions, yet difficult to pin down [Crafty Weather Vanes].

Here is a personal example:

We are working on a project at a major studio. In a meeting, an exec presses us to change a key part of our take — I won’t get into the actual specifics, but for our purposes, let’s say it involves turning the Protagonist from a white male heterosexual into a female Eskimo bisexual.

And so, despite our significant reservations, we go away for weeks attempting to work this new take on the character into the story. Frankly it’s a pain in the ass, but eventually we pull it off and turn in the script.

Cut to our next meeting with the same studio executive where we have this conversation:

“And what’s the deal with changing the Protagonist from a white male heterosexual to a female Eskimo bisexual?”

“Uh, that was your suggestion, remember?”

“No-no, I never suggested anything like that.”

“Yes, you–”

“No, that was my girlfriend.”

[The dull silence of your twitching eyes].

“I was reading your treatment to her in the jacuzzi… we were away at Two Bunch Palms for the weekend… and I remember she said, ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be great to make the Protagonist a female Eskimo bisexual? An Eskimo would be cool. Bisexuals are hot’…”

“Your girlfriend?”

“Ex-girlfriend. We broke up the other day. Good thing, coming up with such stupid ideas, right?”

In this case, the exec hit the weather vane trifecta. TWV: Jumping on the girlfriend’s suggestion as possibly tapping into something both cool and hot. EWV: Switching sides from advocate to critic. CWV: Laying off blame onto someone else.

Apart from becoming a raging alcoholic, there are two general ways for a writer to deal with the whole weather vane phenomenon. One is you assume the posture of the Fiery Cocksure Screenwriter. A WV in the face of an FCS can be bowed into compliance with your will, sheer bluster, and presumed understanding of story and its mysterious nuances.

The other option? You guessed it: You become a weather vane, specifically a CWV. In a script notes meeting, you never commit to anything. Rather your stock answers to suggestions are, “Seems like an interesting idea,” “That might work” or “Let me kick that around and see how it plays.”

Never commit. Always leave yourself wiggle room. Maximize your flexibility.

Because if studio executives live with the constant fear of being fired…

Imagine what a writer lives with.

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 November 10, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: “I don’t have to smell it to sell it”

June 30th, 2016 by

We are sitting in a Beverly Hills restaurant. It’s a lunch meeting with our new agent. We haven’t officially signed with the agency — one of the Big Four — still in our mutual testing out ‘hip pocket’ phase. We have just finished what we think is a killer action-comedy spec. This meeting is about getting our agent’s reaction to the script.

We schmooze, then get down to brass tacks.

“Guys, about the script… not sure I get it.”

We argue our case. It’s a buddy picture. Two great leads. Extremely high concept.

Our agent shrugs.

“Hey, opinions are like assholes: everybody has one.”

He laughs. We don’t.

“Look, here’s the thing. I don’t have to smell it to sell it.”

Okay, let’s just stop for a second. Hollywood likes catch phrases. It figures. After all, the movie business is built around loglines and taglines. Indeed when Lew Wasserman was head of the MCA talent agency, they had a saying among the agents: “Dress British, think Yiddish.”

Fine. You can have catch phrases. But when it comes to a writer’s creative output, do you really want a representative who doesn’t get your sensibilities? A writer doesn’t need their agent or manager to be a friend. But shouldn’t you find someone who at least has some grasp of who you are and what you’re trying to be as a writer?

We decide to pursue another agent. And that script the agent could ‘smell’? It lands us at CAA. The script gets optioned several times. And I still get calls, as recently as two months ago, about reviving it.

So what’s the lesson?

Agents and managers are in the business of sales. That’s their gig and God bless ’em for it. But if you have any hope of establishing and keeping a working relationship with a rep for any decent length of time, make sure you’re both on the same page creatively. They may say “I don’t have to smell it to sell it.” But honestly, how much enthusiasm will they really have for the project?

Much better to find a rep who says this: “I believe in you.”

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 December 9, 2010]