The Business of Screenwriting: The crazed life of a studio executive

September 24th, 2014 by

Here’s one thing you have to realize about movie studio executives: Their lives are crazed. Hectic, pressurized, nonstop. Those of you who live outside L.A. may have an image of it as a laid back town. Not true. People in Hollywood work their asses off, perhaps nobody more so than studio execs.

Two anecdotes to illustrate the point, each told to me by executive assistants:

Story #1: Assistant, who has worked all weekend reading scripts, turns in coverage to exec on Monday morning. Exec is just about to go to a meeting to review the weekend read. He’s frantically pawing coverage trying to get a sense of one particular script. Unable to grasp the plot and with no time to spare, he finally blurts out to the assistant, “Can you cover the coverage?”

Story #2: Harried exec fulminating about all the “shit on my plate” starts to fling scripts around on his desk. “I mean what the hell is all this stuff,” he asks scooping up a random script. The assistant takes the script. “That’s one of your projects.” Exec blankly stares at the offensive item. “It is?”

The thing is both of these execs are really smart, one as I recall Ivy League educated. It’s not the execs per se. It’s the effect of their jobs.

As a studio exec, your day begins early. Let’s say, at the gym and even there while working out, you’re networking, handling emails, texts, and so on.

There are breakfast meetings, lunch meetings, dinner meetings, and meetings for drinks.

There is a succession of meetings in your office during the day — pitches, talent, production, script notes.

In between you roll calls, dozens of 1-2 minute high-speed conversations — schmooze, get to the point, then “later” and onto your next call.

You are involved overseeing multiple movie projects, each in a different stage of development, pre-production, production or post, each requiring your attention, a blizzard of responsibilities.

There are screenings and premieres. You think these would be fun. Try having to do these week after week where – again – you network, handle texts, phone calls.

There is the never-ending reading of the tea leaves at your company — who’s up, who’s down in the daily power play — amidst a corporate attitude that if you don’t go into work on Sunday, don’t bother coming in on Saturday. Even if you’re not working your ass off, you have to give the appearance you are.

And always the pursuit of the next hot project, great script, new writer in a town where everybody else is competing with you to find the next hot project, great script, new writer…

Finally when you roll home at night about midnight, there it is — your stack of scripts to read.

Set aside whether you can sympathize with studio execs or not. Yes, they may make a lot of money. They may chill with celebs and power players. They may work in the movie business, fer cryin’ out loud. You may very well think, “How bad can it be?”

That is entirely beside the point. For a screenwriter, the only point of this post is to bring you to that moment when the exec slumps into their place and lays their bloodshot eyes on that stack of scripts.

Imagine this: What are they feeling when they see those scripts? You think after their frenetic day, they’re excited to sit down and read a screenplay?

Uh, no.

In fact, you can pretty much assume reading a script is the very last thing they want to do.

And that, my friend, is the awareness you need to keep in mind with every last word you write. Because when that exec flops into a chair or at their desk or onto their bed, then opens up your script to read, your words need to pull them out of their normative state of exhausted cynicism and into your story universe.

For these people who can literally change your life with the utterance of one word — “Yes!” — you better damn well make sure your story sings, that your plot, your dialogue, your characters make them forget their weariness and remember one of the reasons why they got into the business in the first place…

To read a great story.

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 May 12, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: It’s not just about the script

September 4th, 2014 by

We spend so much time here focusing on writing a great script, as well we should because that is such a critical piece of the Hollywood screenwriting puzzle. The quality of the scripts we write, whether on spec or assignment, is hugely important. They are bottom line, career changing kind of deals.

But there are other dynamics involved in working as a professional screenwriter that have nothing to do with your actual ability at crafting a story and translating said story onto the page. Here are some of key items:

* Know how to talk to Hollywood players: Whether they are studio execs or producers, directors or actors, it behooves you to become comfortable conversing with people you will perceive to be somehow ‘bigger’ than yourself. Of course, if their name is Spielberg, Di Caprio or Bruckheimer, for all intents and purposes they are bigger than you (not existentially, but professionally). Other than conditioning your gag reflex so you do not immediately hurl on their Guccis when you are introduced, the first rule of thumb in these type of meetings is this: God gave you two ears and one mouth… for a reason. Almost every ‘powerful’ person I’ve met in Hollywood seems to have a default operating system set to chatter. They enjoy talking about themselves. Play to their comfort zone: Let them take the lead in the conversation. Combine that with the fact that by listening you can learn much more about the person with whom you are meeting and the project you’re discussing, you can almost never go wrong in going ears first, mouth second.

Note: It’s almost a lock cinch you will have to work on this as your default setting will be to nervously babble on about the first things that pop into your head — Traffic! Coffee! My cat! — in order to fill space, but trust me… don’t do that.

* Know the basics of the business: At the very least, you should have a working understanding of how the movie business works. Acquisition. Development. Production. Post. Marketing. Distribution. Where you plug in. What journey your script has lying ahead of it.

Note: You don’t have to know everything about the business, but the more you understand the world a studio exec, producer or director lives in, the innumerable hassles and issues they have to handle, the less likely you will have a script notes moment like this: “Lemme get this straight: You want to have a scene that involves boats with children, animals, snow, and helicopters?” — eyes bugged out, glaring at your for not having a clue about what it takes to produce a movie.

* Know the players: If you’re smart, you’ll be able to assign names to key development execs at the studios. Also big producers. And while you’re at it, top agents and managers. These are the people who dominate the script world. Everyone you meet with in Hollywood will know these players. If you can do more than stare blankly into space when a name is mentioned, two points for you.

Note: I know what you’re thinking. If I don’t know a name, I can just nod my head as if I do know who they are talking about. This is dangerous territory, my friend, the equivalent of Russian roulette. When a studio exec or producer meets with a writer, they are sizing you up. Would you rather get caught in a lie or simply admit, “Sorry, don’t know the name.” Opt for the latter. Your excuse? Smile sheepishly, shrug, and say, “I pretty much focus on writing stories.” As long as you convey a modicum of what The Biz is about, the “My job is to write stories” card is an ironclad defense.

* Know the deals: You probably think Hollywood is all about scripts and talent, movies and TV shows. Actually on one level what it’s really about is deals. Who bought what. Who signed with whom. Who agreed to do this with that. As confirmation of this fact, check out Variety or The Hollywood Reporter. Peruse the headlines: How many of them are deal announcements? Most of them. And if it makes the headlines in the trades, you can be sure that whoever you are meeting with knows about the litany of that day’s transactions.

Note: You don’t have to know the details of the deal, in fact in some ways it’s better if you don’t. Them: “And what about that spec deal for ‘Slinky: The Movie’”? You: “Yeah, Universal?” Them: “Universal and what were they thinking. Two hundred million on ‘Battleship,’ dump ‘Ouija Board,’ then buy ‘Slinky’? What I hear is going on is…” And off they go with their insider info. It’s one of Hollywood’s favorite dynamics: Someone who knows something someone else doesn’t, then gets to display their knowledge. Allowing them to fill in the details makes them feel good about themselves… which in turn makes them feel good about you.

* Know when to take charge: Here’s the thing: Most of them know about this much about story. You, as a writer, know THIS much about story. Despite all their bravado, intimate knowledge of the business, and ability to network, once the subject turns to the project itself, that’s when the table turns. They want you to handle the problems, they want you to be confident, they want you to know your stuff. Whether it’s a  pitch, OWA or script notes meeting, at some point it’s your baby. Everything else is just preparation for this moment. When it comes, you need to approach it like it’s in your wheelhouse. You swing with confidence and knock that fat fastball out of the ballpark. Power respects power. And if they feel like you know what you’re doing and what you’re saying makes sense to them, chances are you will their comfort level.

Note: Knowing your stuff means really knowing your stuff. In preparation for these type of meetings, you must immerse yourself into the story universe, engage your characters, and work out a coherent take on the project. There are no short-cuts here, you just need to do the hard work to break the story. This is what they are paying you for.

I suppose there’s some sort of algorithm wherein the better the writer you are, the less ancillary details like the above you need to know. If such an algorithm exists, I never figured it out. I do know this: If you consistently write great scripts, you could be a mime who dresses like Sasquatch and farts in their faces… and they would hire you again and again.

So write great scripts? Absolutely. That is the numero uno prime directive. But the way you are perceived as a writer can be heavily influenced by your understanding of The Biz and basic human psychology. In other words, it’s not just about the script.

[Originally posted October 13, 2011]

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 Screenwriter: Get a damn good lawyer!

February 7th, 2014 by

It’s September, 1999. My wife and I are at a party in Pacific Palisades to welcome families who are new to Wildwood School, where our then only son goes to grade school. A typical beautiful southern California night, schmoozing with a bunch of Type A parents dressed in Type B clothes.

A friend elbows me and nods at a guy across the way, telling me I should talk to him. “He’s a screenwriter,” my friend says. I head over to introduce myself.

“Hey, I hear you’re a screenwriter.”
“Yeah, something like that.”
“Me, too. I’m Scott.”
“Gary.”
[shake hands]
“So what’ve you written.”
“Nothing you’ve heard of. I was a playwright in New York, sold a feature, been at it since 1987.”
“Really? I sold my first script in 1987.”
“What was it?”
“K-9.”
“You wrote K-9?”
“Uh-huh.”
“Seriously.”
“Yes, what?”
[beat]
“I’m writing your sequel.”

And that’s how I discovered that K-911 was being made.

You may ask why I wasn’t writing the sequel to K-9. Simple. Siegel & Myers, who wrote the original script for K-9, were no longer a writing team. So the producers moved onto another writer, the aforementioned Gary, as in Gary Scott Thompson, who later went on to write The Fast and the Furious and 88 Minutes, and created and exec produced the NBC TV series “Las Vegas”.

That night as I drove home, I was one happy camper. Per my contract on K-9, Siegel & Myers would receive a bonus on a sequel. My take: $150K. Talk about money for nothing!

Cut to some months later when I’m informed that I will not be receiving said bonus. Why? Because when the original K-9 deal was made, our lawyer neglected to add four little words to the contract re sequels:

“Or any other format.”

Our contract specified only two types of sequels: Theatrical and M.O.W. (Movie of the Week). In our lawyer’s defense back in 1987, those were the only sequels around. The VCR had achieved minimal penetration and no one was thinking about people actually buying videocassette tapes of movies. But by 1999, there was a new format: K-911 would bypass theatrical release and go Direct-To-DVD (DTD). The good folks in business affairs at Universal argued that per our original contract, since K-911 was neither a theatrical release nor an M.O.W., the movie did not qualify as a sequel.

My original lawyer had long since died and in 1999, I was with another law firm. They said nothing could be done. I talked with the WGA legal department. Same answer. I was so righteously affronted by the idea — how they could not consider this a sequel when K-911 used our concept, our characters, hell, even our freaking title within their title — that I spent days working my way through a maze of people on the phone at Universal, and finally reached some anonymous suit in legal. I pleaded my case. I appealed to them as one human being to another. At this point, I knew the money was never going to happen. “Just please acknowledge that K-911 is a sequel. I swear I’m not taping this, I just want to hear someone there say those words: It’s a sequel.”

“Sorry.”

Click.

You probably think there’s nothing worse than having $150K snatched out of your hands. Well, there is. Universal went on to make K-9: P.I., a second DTD ‘sequel.’ That’s right, another $150K I should have gotten, making the grand total I’m out a cool $300K.

All because my lawyer failed to include four little words: “Or any other format.”

So when you sell your script and you get an agent and/or manager, and they talk to you about how you need to get a good entertainment attorney, you smile, and gently correct them:

“No, I want a damn good lawyer.”

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 September 2, 2010]

The Business of Screenwriting: Someday someone WILL beat you to the punch

February 6th, 2014 by

It’s 1988. My writing partner and I are excited. We are just finishing up a new spec script, a comedy with a strong high concept: A couple adopts the child from hell (not literally, just a boy who simply can not help but get into trouble). One last pass on the pages, then it’s off to our agents and out to buyers.

So I’m feeling pretty upbeat as I to get to my office on the old MGM lot and open up the trades like I do everyday to catch up on the news…

Wait. What’s this?

“Universal buys spec comedy ‘Problem Child.'”

No. No…

“The plot described as a married couple who adopts a child from hell…”

NOOOOOOO!!!

And so it goes: The first time one of my ideas — and this one was my concept — gets squashed by the sale of another project.

Sadly it’s not the last time.

For screenwriters who don’t work exclusively on writing assignments, but generate original story ideas, this reality is one that really bites, creating a sense of dread every time we open the trades.

Someday someone will beat you to the punch.

With Hollywood sifting through approximately 30,000 project submissions per year, it’s inevitable. As the saying goes, “There are only so many good ideas.” And with thousands of writers chasing them down, we live with a weird version of Russian roulette — one day a bullet is going to be in the chamber and blow the brains out of one of our projects.

As screenwriters, we can’t escape that reality. So the trick is to learn how to deal with it.

First, when you hit on a great story concept, you want to try to speed the script to market as quickly as possible. Of course, you have to consider equally as much the quality of the writing. It does you absolutely zero good to have a strong concept wrapped in a poorly executed script, something I touched on previously here. But don’t dilly dally around. And certainly don’t sit on a killer concept. I did that with another idea only to see Monster-In-Law crush it.

Second, this is yet another reason why you should come up with as many good story concepts as possible. If one gets axed by a competing project, the sting of that defeat is lessened by the knowledge you have several other stories you can write.

Third, you can go the Charlie Kaufman route. Here are the loglines from a few of Kaufman’s movies:

Being John Malkovich: A puppeteer discovers a portal that leads literally into the head of the movie star, John Malkovich.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: A couple undergo a procedure to erase each other from their memories when their relationship turns sour, but it is only through the process of loss that they discover what they had to begin with.

Synecdoche, New York: A theater director struggles with his work, and the women in his life, as he attempts to create a life-size replica of New York inside a warehouse as part of his new play.

Those are such distinctive, unusual concepts, I doubt seriously whether Kaufman ever goes to bed thinking, “Oh, my God, what if someone else is working on a script about a guy creating a play that takes decades to produce.” Of course, by choosing not to generate mainstream, commercial story concepts, you shrink the number of potential buyers, but at least you worry less about having your ideas scarfed out from you under you.

Then there’s this: The fact someone else sells a project with a concept the same as yours suggests your creative instincts are on the money. Cold comfort, I know, but it’s the truth.

Finally you can do what one screenwriter I know does: He has a special bottle of Scotch. Really expensive stuff. He calls it his “I got screwed” booze. He only cracks it open when something terribly awful happens, such as waking up one morning to read in the trades that a script similar to his just sold. When you get clobbered by an event like that, go ahead. Get a good buzz on. But just for one night. The next day, get back to work. Because the last thing you want is another one of your projects to get whisked out from under you while you have been busy bemoaning your fate and crying in your beer… or expensive Scotch as the case may be.

Besides when you do sell that spec script, if you cup your hand around your ear, and listen real hard, you will be able to hear the anguished screams of some other writers – because this time, you beat them to the punch.

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 March 31, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: Your first big check

February 5th, 2014 by

It is March, 1987. I am here, the Hamburger Hamlet on Sunset Blvd. It’s 1PM. I am meeting one of my agents for lunch. For dessert: My first big check for the sale of the spec script K-9.

Up through mid-February, I continued to do my nightly comedy act. Once my spec script sold, I scrapped the last two weeks of my so-called stand-up ‘career.’ So I have been living pretty much hand to mouth, driving around in my 1978 Ford Fairmont with 145,000 miles on it and crashing at my friend Dennis’ house in Thousand Oaks.

Here comes my agent. He slips me an envelope and smiles.

“Happy payday.”

As we eat lunch and chat, my mind keeps imagining what the check looks like. I know from my contract how much money it is. But I’ve never seen a check for six figures before. Hell, I remember my hand shaking the time I penned a $2500 check for a bill to Yale.

And yet I do not open the envelope. Why? One would think I’d be so excited, I’d rip open the damn thing, kiss the check, and start doing the bump with the waitstaff.

But no, I eat, I talk, I listen.

And I keep one hand on that envelope at all times.

Perhaps I do not believe this is really happening, that if I open the envelope, there will be nothing inside, and the entire world will start laughing at me.

“Fooled ya’!!!”

As fate would have it, I’ve got two meetings that afternoon. So here I am after lunch, wheeling my classic ride (did I mention my Fairmont is rusted out, one window won’t roll up, the clutch is just about gone, and it has a dent the size of Oxnard on the left quarter panel) over to Paramount and then Disney.

Oh, the looks I get as I drive up to security check-in. Sweating (did I mention the car has no air conditioning) in my one good outfit, behind the wheel of Herbie the Deathmobile. The guards check and recheck my info as they wave one $75K sports car after another past me and onto the lot.

And all the while, my hand rests on that envelope.

This is one big fact joke, okay?!!!

What to do with it during my meetings? Why, I take it with me, of course. I stash it in my sports coat pocket and check to make sure it’s still there… oh, about every 10 seconds.

If my life was a comedy, of course I would misplace the check. But I think God has figured that driving that Ford Fairmont (did I mention when I apply the brakes, they screech like the Manson family cats in heat) onto movie studio lots dozens of times in the last few weeks is hysterical enough. Then again, maybe I’m wrong.

This is God speaking. You know maybe I’m in on the joke, too!!!

As I hit the 405 that night and head toward the 101, I’ve got one hand on the steering wheel, and one hand on the envelope.

I make it Thousand Oaks. Stop my car at a Wells Fargo bank. And finally I open the envelope. There illuminated by the light of the moon is my check. There’s my name. There’s MCA Universal’s logo. And there’s the amount: Over $100,000.

The next thing I know I’m standing by the ATM, punching in those figures on the keypad. Checking and rechecking I got the total right. I push a button “OK,” then that hectoring beep to let me know to insert the deposit envelope. And zip – there goes the check.

I take the deposit slip. And just stand there staring at it. At the time I make the deposit, I have precisely $221.82 in my checking account. Now it says I have more than one hundred grand to my name.

It’s surreal. Finding myself in a Wells Fargo bank parking lot in Thousand Oaks, California. Literally in a moment of time going from flat-ass broke to having more money than I’ve ever had in my life.

And all because about six months ago, I typed the words FADE IN on a spec script.

I guess this is not a joke!

As a screenwriter, you get used to deals in the hundreds of thousands of dollars. For some high flying types, even in the millions. But I doubt there is any check as significant as that first big one.

It means you can get rid of your Ford Fairmont.
It means you can buy more than one set of clothes for meetings.
But perhaps most important, it means validation for you as a writer.

My sincerest hope is you get to have that experience someday.

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 June 9, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: The phone call

February 4th, 2014 by

It’s 10:00AM, Monday, January 17, 1987. I pile into my ten-year-old beat-up Ford filled with the gear of my trade: guitar, amplifier, PA system and speakers, suitcase, and most importantly a big trunk in which I have all my props, and a dolly to move said trunk up and down nightclub stairs.

I key the ignition – never sure if the car will start or not. This morning, it does. I have a 6 hour drive ahead of me from Berkeley, where I live with my wife of eighteen months as she completes her B.A. at Cal, and southern California where I will be performing for the next six weeks, four nights a week in Ventura, three nights in Thousand Oaks.

Two year ago, I switched my act from musician to musician-comedian for reasons that still aren’t entirely clear to me. Yes, I’m funny, and I’ve made a living, such as it is, performing in a blur of clubs. But is this really what I want to be doing with my life?

Fortunately there is this other thing I’ve discovered: screenwriting.

For the last year, I have traveled up and down the state performing in clubs all over southern and northern California, but my creative focus has been on learning the craft of screenwriting. I’ve written two bad scripts, but this third one feels like a winner. It’s called K-9. The idea is inspired by the story of a Ventura County policeman whose canine police partner was shot and killed in the line of duty. When I met with the cop, a burly guy with thick muscles, he pulled out some photos of the dog — and started to cry. He was so attached to his deceased partner, he felt he could no longer do police work, opting to become a firefighter instead.

How could a tough cop bond that deeply with a police dog? That question became the heart and soul of the script my partner and I would write — a comedy with some heart.

Our writing process has been this: We’d get together when I was in southern California, talk through the story, then I’d go on the road, working it through further, driving and brainstorming ideas, scenes, and potential dialogue into a cheap hand-held tape recorder. I scheduled breaks from the club circuit so I could take a week off here, a few days there to transcribe notes and pound out pages at home. I’d bring those pages back to SoCal and we’d work through them. Then after another round of gigs, I’d return to Berkeley to do rewrites.

I’ve been writing the script on my wife’s Apple IIc, using four 5 1/4″ floppy discs to store the data. I have to adjust all the margins manually line by line to match up with proper screenplay format. The dot matrix printer is slow, taking a half-hour to spit out 100 or so script pages. At the time, this is considered cutting edge.

As I pull away from the house my wife and I rent in Berkeley, my thoughts are focused on one thing: Over the weekend, the creative group at Twentieth Century Fox was scheduled to read K-9. My partner, who has been an intern at the studio, slipped an early draft to two execs there. They liked the script and kindly gave us some notes. I made their changes, sent off a copy of the final draft to my writing partner with a letter that said, “If Hollywood doesn’t buy this script, they don’t know what they’re doing.”

Yes, that is how little I understand about the movie business.

I had gone out the previous night with my wife for a drink at our local watering hole down the street from our house. There I told her, “I think the script is going to sell. I just have this feeling.” She smiled and nodded like a good mate is supposed to.

Now I’m crawling through Bay Area traffic. My writing partner says we should know something by 11:30 or so after the studio’s creative group Monday morning meeting. I am targeting the Shell gas station off the 101 in King City. There’s a pay phone there. I’ll call to see what the word is.

So I have this 90 minute drive from Berkeley to King City. And as I rattle along in my Ford, I process my thoughts and feelings. I know that in the short time I’ve discovered screenwriting, it is something I love. It encompasses everything I’m about — a lifelong passion for movies, creativity, writing, and telling stories. There is a part of me that wants this screenwriting thing to happen very, very much.

But I also understand my fate is out of my hands. I have done everything I can. I did a ton of research by meeting with and observing the Ventura County K-9 cops as they trained. I worked and reworked the story multiple times. I read and re-read Syd Fields to try and grasp the basic concepts of screenplay structure and the mystery of “plot points.” I analyzed the only three screenplays I could lay my hands on: Witness, Back to the Future, and Breaking Away. I carried K-9 with me as I drove up and down California, as I climbed on stage to perform every night, everywhere I went, the story went with me. And I wrote whenever I could, usually well into the night, one stint for 36 hours without sleep.

Now it is out of my hands. And as much as I want this whole screenwriting thing to happen, I am at peace. Those 90 minutes in the car feel like an almost sacred experience.

Whatever happens will happen. Give it up. Let it go.

And so when I pull into the Shell station in King City, instead of racing to make a phone call, I calmly fill my car with gas, use the restroom, and only then head over to the pay phones.

I drop in a quarter, dial my writing partner’s number, and get his answering machine.

“Hey, this is me. Just checking in to see if you’ve heard anything.”

Click.

I turn away to leave, then a thought occurs to me: If he had found out something, perhaps he would have called my wife. So I plunk another quarter into the pay phone and dial home.

“Hello?”
“Hey, it’s–”
“They want your script.”
“What–”
“Steve called. He said Fox wants to buy your script.”

And that’s the phone call… that changed my life.

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 March 10, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: I can do that!

February 3rd, 2014 by

It’s 1986. About 12:30AM. At Charlie’s nightclub in Ventura, California where I’ve just finished performing my comedy act. As I’m packing up my gear, I get into a conversation with Steve, one of the club owners. He’s in his second year of the USC Peter Stark Producing Program and he’s in a bind. To graduate, he has to do the equivalent of a master thesis, and this involves him taking a screenplay, budgeting it, figuring out a marketing plan, and so on. He had a screenplay for the thesis, one called “Destiny Turns on the Radio,” written by Robert Ramsey & Matthew Stone, but the script has just gotten optioned (and later produced) — good news for the writers, bad news for Steve because he needs to find another screenplay and fast.

As sort of a half-joke, Steve asks me if I could write a screenplay. And these are the words that emerge from my mouth: “I can do that.”

Those four words change my life.

Some background. Both Steve and I love movies and we have talked many times before about the subject, his favorite movies, my favorite movies. I’m sure that isn’t what Steve was thinking when he offhandedly asked if I could write a script. He just knows that I am funny and I write my comedy material.

Some more background. In fact, I do not know how to write a screenplay. I’ve never even seen one when I say “I can do that.” But I have watched thousands of movies. And I can write.

So the next day, Steve gives me four items: “Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting,” by Syd Field and three screenplays — Back to the Future, Witness, and Breaking Away. I go on the road with my act for several days, reading the book and scripts, then call up Steve, and say, “I can write you a screenplay.”

In less than two months, I write “Stand Up,” a drama-comedy about a young stand-up comic (what else!) who goes on the road with a veteran comedian who is going off the deep end psychologically. Steve uses that script for his master’s thesis. We team up to write a second script called “Dream Car.” Then a third one: “K-9.” So within about nine months of me saying, “I can do that,” I have co-written a spec script that Universal Pictures purchases.

What does this have to do with the business of screenwriting? Simply this. When you have the opportunity to write something, seize it. The first few years I worked in Hollywood, I’ll be frank: I wasn’t a very good screenwriter, simply because I hadn’t spent the requisite time studying the craft. As soon as Universal bought K-9, I went on a crash course, immersing myself in every resource I could find — reading screenwriting books, analyzing screenplays, watching movies, attending lectures, talking to writers. And with eeach writing assignment or pitch opportunity, no matter what the specifics, I always answered, “I can do that.” Yes, I wanted to get the gig for the money. But more important to me was the chance to learn by writing.

What I discovered was this: A writer rises to meet the story. Even if they feel like they’re in over their head, if they commit themselves fully to the task, and immerse themselves in that story universe, it’s likely they can find and write that story.

Now I’ll be the first to say that there are times when you do not say yes, times when you walk away from a potential writing assignment. Some stories just aren’t good fits. Some projects are snakebit from the start. Some situations just don’t feel right in terms of the personalities involved. In other words, you also have to have the resolve to say no.

But fundamentally, I believe a writer must have the instinct to take on a challenge, even if they have doubts. Hell, there’s not a story I’ve written where I didn’t go into it with some sort of fear of failure.

As writers, we create. The act of creating is a positive experience. The sheer act of typing FADE IN is a tacit acknowledgment that yes, we can do that, we can write this script.

So when the opportunities to write a story come, whether you’re outside the business and it’s a spec script or you’re working as a writer in Hollywood and it’s a paying gig, always keep these four words at the ready:

“I can do that.”

Because you know what? Chances are, you can.

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 September 9, 2010]

Everything You Wanted to Know About Specs (20 Part Series)

January 3rd, 2014 by

One of the more popular series I ran last year was a 20 part Business of Screenwriting series called “Everything You Wanted to Know About Specs.” Here are links to each post:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Part 20, we muse about what is means to the writer if a spec script does sell.

As you can see, this is a pretty comprehensive treatment of the subject including extensive comments from managers and screenwriters. The reason I did the series is simple: If you write a spec script, you should have at least a basic understanding of what’s involved in the whole acquisition and development process.

The Business of Screenwriting: Learn the craft

August 29th, 2013 by

For about 4 years in this time slot (Thursday, 10AM Eastern), I have posted weekly items about the business side of the craft. This began, like so many of the features on the site, as a response to the requests of readers wanting to know more about the nitty gritty of life as a working screenwriter. I wrote a few items, people liked them, so I continued it as the Business of Screenwriting.

Today will mark the last column in the series, at least for the time being. Why?

First, I’ve covered a lot of territory. You need only go here to see how much. Is there more I could discuss? Probably. But for now, I feel satisfied that as part of the education this site offers to aspiring screenwriters, all those posts provide you a pretty good foundation for understanding the business side of things.

Second, at the urging of many readers, I’ve decided to compile this content, plus additional material, into a book. I’ll most likely self-publish it as a reflection of my commitment to The Spirit of the Spec, so you can look for that sometimes in early 2014.

Finally, there is a whole other aspect of the craft I want to explore in a more systematic fashion: creativity. That interest has been present on this site since Day 1. In fact, if you look up at the very top of the home page, you will see this: Go Into The Story | The Craft of Screenwriting, Movies, Hollywood and the Creative Life.

Creativity fascinates me. How do writers come up with ideas? What is their writing process like? How to engender our creativity? All of that just terribly interesting.

So starting next Thursday in this time slot, a new weekly series: Writing and the Creative Life. It will also be a nice bit of synergy because my wife Rebecca McMillan (@bf4tbrainy) is Senior Editor of The Creativity Post, founder of The Brain Cafe, and doing considerable research on the nexus of the human brain, psychology, creativity and education.

In terms of the business of screenwriting, let me leave you with this final piece of advice: Learn the craft.

What is the craft?

It’s not just writing a screenplay. Obviously that is central, but there is so much more.

It’s knowing how to develop, plot, write and rewrite a script with the pressure of a due date.

It’s knowing how to read and assess a piece of material, determine what doesn’t work, come up with a take on how to make it work, then be able to present your case persuasively to producers, studio execs, and talent.

It’s knowing what a manager and agent’s responsibilities are, and what your responsibilities are in the writer-rep relationship.

It’s knowing how to track business trends.

It’s knowing how to pitch.

It’s knowing how to stack projects.

It’s knowing how to research stories in an efficient manner.

It’s knowing how to manage your time.

It’s knowing how to take script notes and deliver revisions that improve the story and satisfy the buyer.

It’s knowing how to survive successes… and failures.

It’s knowing how to relate to Hollywood types whose life experience may be far different than yours.

It’s knowing that you should always be nice to assistants.

It’s knowing the basics of a deal.

It’s knowing at least some of the basics of movie production.

It’s knowing about writing credits.

It’s knowing to get a damn good lawyer.

And much more.

Some screenwriters may carve out a life whereby they insulate themselves from much of this stuff, indeed, that is the only way they can maintain a home life and protect their creativity.

If you can pull that off, great.

But in my estimation, most screenwriters need to learn many, if not most of the above aspects of the craft.

You can read about it which should be helpful, but much of it you can only learn by trial and error once you’ve broken into the business.

Just be sure to bring the understanding that you need to know a lot more than how to write a script to sustain a career as a writer in Hollywood. You need to know the business of screenwriting, too.

I hope you have enjoyed this series and benefited from it.

Next week: Writing and the Creative Life.

The Business of Screenwriting has been 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: Movie stars

August 22nd, 2013 by

I am staring at a cardboard standup display of an iconic movie character from an Academy Award winning movie, one of the most famous cinematic figures in the last three decades. The cutout figure is positioned just a few feet away from a desk. And behind the desk is the actor who portrayed the iconic character. So I literally only have to flit my eyes mere millimeters to shift my focus: Actor. Iconic figure. Iconic figure. Actor.”So,” the actor says, “What’s the story?”

We are there for a pitch meeting. The actor has an overall deal with the studio. We have an overall deal with the studio. Why don’t you come up with a really big action story for him? It’d be great for you guys to work together. 

It would also help to defray the cost of our respective overall deals.

So we generate dozens of ideas, finally landing on one about a Vietnam vet forced by Bad Guys to steal an eighteen-wheel truck, filled with a mysterious explosive cargo, then drive it hundreds of miles along a treacherous route in a war-torn third world country. Not the greatest concept in the world, but we are confident we have crafted a compelling Protagonist role, one that will appeal to the actor in whose office we are currently sitting.

We are about to be proven wrong.

We start into our pitch. We run through the big opening incident. Lots of action. Gun play. Introduce Bad Guys. Set up mystery: What’s with the explosive cargo? What’s with the truck? What’s their plan? Cut to where we meet the Protagonist.

And this is where our troubles begin.

Thinking like writers, if the Protagonist has got to drive a truck from Point A to Point B fending off rebel soldiers and cargo ready to blow to kingdom come, then let’s invest the saga with a strong emotional plot, a psychological journey to accompany the physical journey. It’s a redemption story. A chance for the Protagonist to make up for a broken past.

So how do we meet the Protagonist? He’s down and out. Drunk. A tortured soul passed out on the stoop of his crappy trailer home dwarfed by his beat-to-hell semi-truck. He’s rousted awake. Opens his bloodshot eyes and peers up at a face he hasn’t seen in decades: His commanding officer from Vietnam.

“Got a job for you.”

Just as we’re about to get rolling with our story, the actor shakes his head.

“No, no. How about this.”

He leans forward, gaze locked on us.

“I’m with you for the opening. Fine. After that, we cut to these two bright lights, growing bigger and bigger. A big rumbling sound underneath, ominous, powerful. The rumbling stops. We hear a door swing open. A shadowy figure descends into view. Fog, mist, the whole nine yards. And now our eyes adjust. It’s a truck. The biggest, baddest truck ever. And I’m the driver climbing out of the cab. I step into frame against the lights, a shadowy figure, walking with a purpose. Step by step, heels on cement — thwack, thwack, thwack — straight toward the camera. Until my face appears filling the screen, eyes filled with fierce determination. And I am ready to… kick some ass.”

By now he’s standing right next to the cardboard standout of the iconic movie figure, which I note is two feel taller than the actor. Literally larger than life. And the truth suddenly dawns on me:

We’re pitching a character. He’s thinking a hero.
We’re pitching to an actor. He’s thinking like a movie star.

If you’re a movie star, you have fans. And fans have certain expectations about the roles you play. The actor to whom we are pitching has zero interest in playing a down-and-out-drunk-living-in-a-dumpy-trailer-tortured-soul-Vietnam Vet. No matter what subtle character arc or compelling redemption story we have in mind, the very idea of him playing a broken soul simply does not compute.

He’s a star. And he need only glance up at the cardboard stand-up he has planted near his desk to be reminded of his iconic place in movie history.

Every script he reads, every pitch he hears, every role he considers, he has to assess from the perspective of his place as a movie star.

So our project? Pass. And lesson learned: There are actors. There are movie stars.

When you go into a meeting with talent, be sure you know who you’re talking to.The actor behind the desk. Or the eight foot tall cardboard standup.

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 July 21, 2011]