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]

The Business of Screenwriting: Chilled white whine

June 23rd, 2016 by

On March 7, 1988, the Writers Guild of America went on strike. It lasted 155 days and is the longest work stoppage in Guild history. Having only joined the Guild one year previous, the experience was an eye-opener for me.

Am I referring to how studios and networks treat writers shabbily? The long and storied history of the Guild? Appropriate picket line etiquette?

Sure, all that. But what I remember most from the experience is this: Writers just bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch, bitch.

Or perhaps more appropriately: Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch, kvetch, kvetch.

Whether it was picketing studios or meetings at the Hollywood Palladium, you never heard such a whining group of people in your life. It seemed like every single writer with whom I spoke had one or more sob stories. Even at the general meetings with like 1,000 members in attendance, where the WGA board was sitting up on stage, and there were two microphones for the membership to voice their concerns about the strike, more often than not what emerged from the lips of writers and boomed across the P.A. system was not some erudite assessment of labor negotiating points, but rather some long-winded saga about how the writer had been screwed by a studio / network / director / producer / agent, take your pick.

Seriously, that is my main memory of those 155 days. Tramping along in a picket line next to all these slump-shouldered, slack-jawed, squinty-eyed writers pissing and moaning about this deal that had gotten screwed up… or that script which had been rewritten… their movie that had been butchered.

It was a weekly dose of chilled white whine.

Then after the picketing was over, these same writers would shuffle off to their BMW’s, Jaguars, or Mercedes-Benz coupes, motoring off to their homes in Beverly Hills, Brentwood, or Pacific Palisades.

[That is supposed to be ironic.]

Why do I bring up this bit of arcane history? Because when you sell a script and move to L.A. to work in the film or TV business, you will rub shoulders with lots of writers. And as sure as there will be stop-and-go traffic on the 405 every day, those writers will whine.

Then check this out: If you have a long enough career, all sorts of professional evils will befall you that will make you whine.

It comes with the territory: Writer = Whiner.

You need to understand there are times when you can safely whine… and times when you really should keep your damn mouth shut. Here are some basic guidelines.

Persons, entities, or objects with whom you can whine at any time: Spouse, pet (dog or cat, although I find dogs to be better listeners), your car, tennis pro, hair stylist, psychiatrist, masseuse, rabbi, minister, yoga instructor, next door neighbor (although that depends upon if they work in the entertainment business or not), clouds, bottle of Scotch, Hector the yard guy, and most of all other writers. Writers are the only group you have a free pass to whine at any time about any subject related to the business. We are an equal bitching opportunity community.

Persons to whom you can whine often but not always: Your agent, manager, lawyer. The commission you pay to them buys you the right to complain… occasionally. However you must be cognizant of their eyes when you get caught up in your whine-fest. If they start to glaze over, wrap it up and bounce. [Kvetching to them over the phone is a total waste of time because you can be assured they are not paying you any attention, instead tracking the CNBC stock market scroll on their TV]. If you whine too much or too frequently to an agent, manager or lawyer, you will get the reputation of being… well… a whiner… and that can lead to your phone not ringing.

Persons to whom you can rarely whine: Producers. Technically this ought not be the case as the producer on a project is supposed to be involved in much weightier matters than listening to you drone on and on about yet another senseless rewrite the studio wants you to do, but producers are used to dealing with so much shit on a daily basis, you can go whine-o on them occasionally without any fear of retribution.

Persons to whom you should never whine: Studio executives, director, actors. As far as all these people are concerned, the writer’s primary function is to solve problems. The script has issues? The writer takes care of them. If you whine to them about the injustice of your fate, that is equivalent to jamming a car into reverse without using the clutch. You are not supposed to whine. You are supposed to listen to them whine.

Here is a short glossary of phrases you can interject into your whining:

“I mean who are they kidding?”

“Rewrite this!”

“How many trees have I killed writing treatments for these bozos.”

“Uh, yeah, I’m serious.”

“And of course, that would change the entire plot!”

“They told me I had that assignment.”

“I hate this city.”

“And they like literally had not even read the coverage.”

“Those were his exact words.”

“Give him a dead wife. That’s what they want.”

“Sometimes I… I… … …”

Armed with this vital information, you should be set up for years and years of meaningless whining.

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 22, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: Withdrawing screen credit and pseudonyms

June 16th, 2016 by

Let’s begin this post with a quote from arguably the dean of contemporary American screenwriters William Goldman:

“Nobody sets out to fuck up your movie. It’s not like the director or the star wake up in the morning and say, ‘Let me screw up this scene. How can I really cause Bill Goldman pain?’ It’s jut that they’re terrified. I wrote a line once that caught on out there in Hollywood: ‘Nobody knows anything.’ And they don’t. If we knew what we were doing, every movie would be wonderful. If actors knew what they were doing, every performance would be just swell. It’s a crapshoot. It just is. There’s no answer. I wish there were.”

Or as a producer once told me, “Making a movie is like a space shuttle launch. There’s a million things that can go wrong.”

So the odds are at some point in your screenwriting career, you will find your name attached to a real stinker movie. Depending upon the circumstances, you have about three choices:

Withdraw your name from screen credit.

Here is what the WGA Screen Credits Manual has to say on the subject:

Prior to the time a credit question has been submitted to arbitration, a writer may withdraw from screen writing credit for personal cause, such as violation of his/her principles or mutilation of material he/she has written. If the other writer-contributors do not agree, the question shall be referred to arbitration. The Arbitration Committee in such cases shall base its determination on whether there is such personal cause.

After screen credits have been determined by arbitration, a writer may not withdraw his/her name from screenplay credit. He/she may, however, by notification to the Guild, withdraw from any other form of credit.

Withdrawal from writing credit will result in loss of any and all rights accruing from receipt of writing credit. Use of a pseudonym rather than withdrawing from credit will not result in such a forfeiture.

Yes, there may very well be times when you look at what’s on the screen, compared to what you wrote, and you feel like your principles have been violated and your material mutilated.

Or perhaps much of the resulting debacle derives from your own writing. You couldn’t see it when you wrote it, but now that it plays out on screen, you realized you screwed the pooch.

Per the details noted above, you may have the right to remove your name from consideration for any screen credit.

Pseudonym.

Again from the Screen Credits Manual:

The Minimum Basic Agreement provides that any writer who is entitled to credit on the screen and who has been paid, or is guaranteed payment of, less than two hundred thousand dollars ($200,000) for writing services or literary materials relating to the particular motion picture shall have the right to be accorded credit on the screen, in advertising or otherwise, in a reasonable pseudonymous name. A writer must exercise this right within five (5) business days after final determination of writing credits. None of the writer’s rights, including but not limited to compensation of any kind, shall be affected by use of such pseudonym.

Before using a pseudonym a writer must register it with the Guild by sending a written notice to the Membership Department with the writer’s Social Security number, if any. A pseudonym may not duplicate the name or pseudonym of another writer or the name of a public figure.

A few things to note. First what’s the deal with the $200K figure? As I understand it, the studios insisted on this detail because there could be some value to having the actual writer’s name listed in the credits. For instance, there is the notable case of the movie Altered States. This from IMDB:

Author Paddy Chayefsky disowned this movie. Even though the dialogue in the screenplay was almost verbatim from his novel he reportedly objected to the general tone of the film and the shouting of his precious words by the actors, this conflicting with director Ken Russell typical style of wanting heightened performances. Paddy Chayefsky had not seen the film before he took his name off the credits, the script being credited to “Sidney Aaron”, a pseudonym for Chayefsky, the two names being Chayefsky’s real first and middle names. Director Ken Russell and Chayefsky fought constantly during production, Russell maintaining that almost nothing was changed from Chayefsky’s script and stating that he was “impossible to please.”

Chayefsky, who had won 3 Academy Awards for Marty, Network and The Hospital, was perhaps the most well-known screenwriter of his era. Warner Bros., who released Altered States, doubtless would have liked to trumpet Chayefsky’s name when marketing the movie. Instead they were stuck with Sidney Aaron.

Now that this $200K cutoff exists [as it has for at least two decades], it basically means most working screenwriters will be unable to use a pseudonym. Of course, if your guaranteed payment is less than $200K, you do have the right to use another moniker.

Another thing: Note the language “reasonable pseudonymous name.” It’s not like you can’t get away with Joe Mama or Richard Lickem. So it’s probably a good idea for you to think of a pseudonym that would be acceptable and appropriate.

Officially I have three screenwriting credits: K-9, Alaska and Trojan War. In actuality, there is a 4th movie in which I received shared credit that was so bad, I did use a pseudonym. And no, I’m not going to tell you that name or the name of the movie.

Keep the credit.

This is a third option: Even if the movie is bad, the fact is a writing credit is a writing credit. And like the old adage goes, “There’s no such thing as bad publicity,” that can pertain to writing credits.

Consider this: What if this is your first writing credit? Would prefer to have a writing credit for a bad movie… or no credit at all? Unless the movie is a complete and utter dog, my guess is your reps would recommend you take the credit. In Hollywood, there’s a difference between being a credited writer and one who has not had a movie produced.

Besides you have an out: Everyone in the business knows bad movies happen [see Goldman’s quote]. And frankly if anyone in the process can shirk responsibility for a bomb, it’s the writer. Chances are your script was rewritten. The actors took liberties with line after line of dialogue. The director didn’t share your vision. There are plenty of excuses you can use in any meeting about said sad-sack film to minimize your culpability for its suckitude.

And you’ll still have your writing credit.

If anyone in the business has some thoughts they’d like to share on this subject, please do in comments.

For more of the WGA, West Screen Credits Manual, go here.

[Originally posted December 6, 2012]

The Business of Screenwriting: Commencement of principal photography

June 10th, 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.

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 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: When you don’t get the gig

June 3rd, 2016 by

We are seated in the expansive bungalow office of a top Hollywood director and we are having a great time. I mean a really great time. We talk about the business, his movies, our movies, sports, politics. We laugh, he laughs. It is as close to a love-fest as there can be without condoms being proffered.

The meeting started at 11AM. We glance at our watches. Holy crap! It’s 12:40PM. The Director shakes his head in disbelief, then smiles at us.

“Wanna stay for lunch?”

So the meeting continues over ginormous sandwiches ordered in from Jerry’s Deli. And as we gnaw on our food, the Director proceeds to tell us about a project. On his last movie, a below-the-line crew member — after weeks of hesitating — summoned up the courage to give a screenplay he’d written to the Director… “ya’ know, to see if anything’s there.” The Director graciously accepted the script, then passed it along to one of his ‘people’ expecting absolutely zero to come of it.

Turns out the script is just okay, but the story concept is a strong one. The Director tells us the idea. We immediately respond to it, a great premise for an entertaining family movie.

For the next hour, we talk it through, one fantastic idea after another magically emerging across our lips. It’s like the script is writing itself and the excitement in the room is palpable.

Maybe we should bust out the Trojans.

Now I should note that at this meeting is the Director’s wife who also happens to be his producing partner. She slips in and out of our confab having to take care of things as our session runs long. In hindsight, if I hadn’t been so caught up in chatting, eating, guffawing at the director’s anecdotes, and now spontaneously working out a rough plot for this family movie, I might have noticed the Wife doesn’t share the same degree of enthusiasm the Director has had during our meeting. Not that she is cold or off-putting, just a bit more reserved.

Anyhow at some point, the Director looks at his Wife and says, “I think the guys are perfect for this project.”

A beat. Another beat.

Then she is nodding her head.

And he is shaking our hands.

And we are walking out the door having just landed the gig!

We call our agents. They’re ecstatic. What had been a simple meet-and-greet turns into a deal! “You guys are awesome!”

I go out that night to celebrate with my wife, reliving the details of the day, jotting down notes, my mind already racing with ideas about the project. I can see the movie in my mind! I’m already at the premiere!

The next day, we are in our office when we get a phone call.

It’s the Wife.

We put her on speakerphone.

“I’m so sorry to have to tell you this, but we’ve decided to go in another direction.”

Blink.

“There was another writer… someone we’d talk to previously about the project… he wasn’t available, but now it turns out he is, so…

The. World’s. Longest. Silence.

She says she called our agents, explained the situation to them [“They fought for you but…”], she apologizes to us once more, and then this:

“Don’t worry, I promise we’ll work together on something!”

Click.

I must confess that at that moment, I felt pretty damn bad.

Later when the movie came out and was a huge hit, I felt bad again.

When they did a sequel to the movie, I felt bad once more.

And another sequel… yes, I felt bad all over again.

Sure, part of it was about lost income, not only money from the first movie, but income we would have seen from both sequels.

But what really ate at me was the simple fact: We didn’t get the gig.

Here is a fact of life for any Hollywood screenwriter: Sometimes you don’t get the gig. Hell, oftentimes you don’t get the gig.

Writing assignments. Pitches. Specs. There will be occasions where the response is just not there. Clearly the wrong story at the wrong place at the wrong time. That’s bad, but when the stars are so obviously out of alignment on something you work up, it pretty easy to shrug and move on.

But other times, there is a good reception, even a great response to your project.

Spec scripts that circulate around town, top producers attached at every studio, buzz building, your phone ringing with people telling you they’re hearing how much heat there is, visions of six-figure deals dancing in your head.

Pitches where you have the buyers in the palm of your hand, every plot point and story dynamic you present received like wisdom from the screenwriting gods, and surely the deal is as good as done.

And yes, meetings where the vibe is so good they invite you to stay for lunch and oh by the way how would you like to write this hit movie?

Then you don’t get the gig.

How to deal with that sense of total deflation?

How to survive that when it happens more than once in your career?

How to handle that emotionally without turning into a clocktower sniper?

I don’t know about other writers, but here is the only method I discovered that worked for me.

Three simple steps.

Step 1: When you find out about the disappointment — the spec didn’t sell, the pitch was a pass, you lost the OWA to another writer — that night give yourself permission to get lit. Now there’s sideways… and there’s sideways. Me? I just get sideways. You? Your choice. But yes, you have the right to feel bad for yourself for one day, and drown your sorrows in the cold comfort libation of your choice.

Step 2: The next morning, drag your sorry ass out of bed, stand in front of the bathroom mirror assaying your blurry face, and say these words out loud: “It just wasn’t meant to be.” This is the mantra that will save your sanity. Repeat it as often as you need. “It just wasn’t meant to be.” Being a writer, feel free to embellish. “You know if I had landed the gig, I’m sure one day when I was driving to the studio for a meeting about it, my car would have been crushed by a fifty ton boulder rolling down Laurel Canyon Blvd.” Hey, do what you need to do. But the key is the mantra: “It just wasn’t meant to be.”

Step 3: Start writing a new story. I suppose this is a bit like a guy who gets dumped by a girl, then immediately dates someone else. Whatever. You are in survival mode and the creative process can be a lifesaver. So immediately immerse yourself in writing a new script. You can’t control fate, but you can control your writing.

I sincerely hope you never lose a deal like I did. But it’s a lock cinch there will be times when you don’t get the gig. When that happens, you can try my approach. Or work out your own. But the bottom line in Hollywood about gigs…

Sometimes it’s just not meant to be.

Oh, by the way. The Wife’s promise that we would “work together on something”?

Never happened.

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 8, 2012]

The Business of Screenwriting: Selling Scripts and Shooting Scripts

May 27th, 2016 by

There are broad stages in the life of a screenplay: There is the selling script and the shooting script.

A selling script can be a beautiful thing to behold, every word precise, the balance of black ink to white space pleasing to the eye, the flow of dialogue to action crafted just so, all a reflection of a screenwriter’s incessant drive to create an entertaining story that makes for a good read. Something like this:

               Evelyn is trembling.

                                     EVELYN
                         I'll tell you the truth...

               Gittes smiles.

                                     GITTES
                         That's good. Now what's her name?

                                     EVELYN
                         Katherine.

                                     GITTES
                         Katherine?... Katherine who?

                                     EVELYN
                         She's my daughter.

               Gittes stares at her. He's been charged with anger and when 
               Evelyn says this it explodes. He hits her full in the face. 
               Evelyn stares back at him. The blow has forced tears from 
               her eyes, but she makes no move, not even to defend herself.

                                     GITTES
                         I said the truth!

                                     EVELYN
                         She's my sister.

               Gittes slaps her again.

                                     EVELYN
                         She's my daughter.

               Gittes slaps her again.

                                     EVELYN
                         My sister.

               He hits her again.

                                     EVELYN
                         My daughter, my sister.

               He belts her finally, knocking her into a cheap Chinese vase 
               which shatters and she collapses on the sofa, sobbing.

                                     GITTES
                         I said I want the truth.

                                     EVELYN
                              (almost screaming it)
                         She's my sister and my daughter!

Then there is the shooting script which can look like this:

Scene numbers. Omitted scenes. Multiple colored pages. Shit crossed out. Which can lead to this:

Honestly that can be a thing of beauty, too, because it means your movie is getting produced. But once it reaches this stage, your beautiful words can be reduced by production necessities to one big to-do list.

So the first takeaway is this: As you read scripts, which is something you should be doing, you will inevitably run across shooting scripts (also known as production drafts). Do not look to them for style tips. At that stage, style points don’t count.

The other takeaway is this. You may think of a selling script as being a spec script. Certainly that is true, you write a spec with the hopes of selling it. Therefore you put in endless hours to ensure it is a great read, every page, every line fine tuned.

But let’s say you do, in fact, sell that script. Your selling does not end there. In fact, every draft of the script you may write up to the point it goes into production is in effect a selling script.

Even after a studio, financier or production company has bought it? Yes.

Why?

Because you still have to do the following:

* Attract a director.

* Attract actors.

* Sometimes attract financing.

* Excite everyone who reads the script.

Your script, no matter how much you revise it, should continue to be as entertaining as possible all the way along to sustain people’s passion for it.

So as you go about fixing story issues raised by the Powers That Be such as trimming scenes to fit budgetary considerations, retooling characters to match with possible casting, shifting scenes to fit with potential selected locations, always remember: You are writing a selling script.

Continue to write pages that sell your cinematic dream.

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 4, 2013]

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]