The Business of Screenwriting: 24/7/365

October 20th, 2016 by

I can’t speak for most jobs nor for everyone, but I do know this: When I broke into the business as a screenwriter, it became an all consuming activity. For the better part of twenty-five years since I’ve been doing this, there is hardly any minute of any day where at least some part of who I am isn’t engaged in screenwriting.

Of course, there are the obvious times. Brainstorming, research, character development, plotting, and all the rest that comes with prepping a story. Writing the script, line by line, scene by scene, day after day. Rewriting the script — again — line by line, scene by scene, day after day.

That’s butt-on-chair, what we typically think of as ‘writing.’ But when you are a screenwriter, it’s much more than that.

When you go out to eat, any stray conversation of diners at a nearby table becomes an opportunity to snatch a potential line of dialogue.

When you stand at the end of the line in a grocery store, those ten minutes spent shuffling toward check-out allow you to glance at the tabloid headlines and see if there’s a story concept waiting to be found.

In fact any time you read a magazine, newspaper, website, book — anything! — part of your brain invariably thinks, “Is this a story? A scene? A theme? A character I can use?”

Same with TV, radio, web videos, any sort of electronic media has the potential at any given moment to present to you the Greatest Idea Ever.

Writing infuses your life. If you are working on a story about a cop, everywhere you drive, you see police cars. If you are writing a story about a pregnant woman, suddenly your world seems to be filled with waddling mamas-to-be. If you are pounding out a story about aliens from outer space, you start to study the night sky a little more closely.

Even your dreams become a tableau in which your stories play out. When I’m deep into a project, I oftentimes dream in screenplay form. Seriously. I see the characters in my dream on one side, a script on the other. And as the characters talk, their dialogue magically appears on the other side of my dreamscape. They move and the scene description appears. Sometimes I even edit the script in my dreams.

Conversation with your friends, your family, your lover… your mind drifts and you are back with your story’s characters… until your friends, your family, your lover call you on it… then you listen to them, nodding your head… until your mind drifts away to your story universe again…

The story universe. That is the secret to all this. When you write a story, you create a fictional realm. But because it is not bound by the laws of physics that this universe is, the story universe has the power to appear anywhere and anyhow it damn well pleases.

Which is to say that our story universe exists 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year over there. But even as we go on with our lives over here in this the ‘real’ universe, the story universe seeps into our consciousness, unconsciousness, and subconsciousness.

So in a way, a screenwriter is never not writing. We are always at work creating at some level of our being.

And that’s the way it should be. Because perhaps the most fundamental responsibility we have as writers is to immerse ourselves in our story universe. Become a part of that place. Know those characters. Dig into what’s happening there. All the better to craft a script that is compelling, vibrant, and authentic.

Perhaps we should think about it this way: In the ‘real’ universe, we are just visitors, guests for the relative nanosecond of our Earthly existence.

With our story universe, we are its creators. That’s an awesome responsibility… and a wondrous adventure.

And whether we know it or not, we are creating that story universe… 24/7/365.

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: Weather vanes

October 13th, 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 begs 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 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: Low-budget filmmaking [Part 3]

October 6th, 2016 by

Two weeks ago, I shared the story of a low-budget indie film script I wrote called “Snowbirds”. You can read that post here. Using a set of production guidelines (e.g., 90 page script, 4-5 week shoot, no more than 10 actors, 1 primary location), I wrote a script which Trailblazer Studios acquired to produce.

Last week I recounted how we moved into pre-production and locked in some excellent talent including Academy Award winning actress Brenda Fricker, actor Bernard Hill, and other notable actors, but due to a variety of reasons, the company halted production. You can read that post here.

Today’s post: Let’s start with the concept of turnaround. Simply put, when a studio or producing entity puts a project they have acquired into turnaround, it means that the project can be picked up another entity. Typically the second party has to pay costs incurred by the first party.

Long story short: Recently I obtained the rights to “Snowbirds” in turnaround which means I own it free and clear.

Why? Because I believe in the story, now more than ever.

Here’s why:

* The target audience — mothers, 40s-50s, parents of teen-adult children, children of senior citizen parents — is a huge demographic group.

* I have tested the script with dozens of women in this target demo. The response to the story has been universally strong.

* “Snowbirds” slots into the same arena as Little Miss Sunshine, The Kids Are All Right, and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, drama with comedy aimed at the indie adult crowd.

* There are 35 million RV enthusiasts in North America, representing an ideal viral community, literally moving from one shared destination to another.

* I’m having the script budgeted and it looks like it will come in at $500K. That translates into about $1.5-2M B.O. to reach break-even, a doable figure.

* As a multigenerational story, “Snowbirds” could reach beyond the target demo to younger audiences.

* The script has already attracted serious acting talent, so we know the story has merit.

* Shoot it in New Mexico and benefit from the state’s film tax credits.

Making a low-budget indie movie is a risk. I believe “Snowbirds” is worth it.

The larger point is this: Getting any movie produced is a long shot. Getting a low-budget indie film is even longer.

If you are intent on writing one, you have to put on your producer’s hat and think about everything that way, from budget to marketing, production to distribution.

Final observation: Just because you may be writing an indie feature does not mean you can ignore the importance of working with strong story concepts. The world has changed. Consumers are assaulted by thousands of entertainment opportunities nowadays. In order to cut through the noise, a low-budget film with a clear, clean high concept can make the difference between a movie that gets produced, and one that doesn’t.

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: Low-budget filmmaking [Part 2]

September 29th, 2016 by

Last week, I shared the story of a low-budget indie film script I wrote called “Snowbirds”. You can read that post here. Using a set of production guidelines (e.g., 90 page script, 4-5 week shoot, no more than 10 actors, 1 primary location), I wrote a script which Trailblazer Studios acquired to produce. Here is what happened next.

We went into pre-production. Director. Location scouts. Budgets. Production schedule. And for me the most exciting part: auditions.

As screenwriters, we spend so much time alone, just us and our words. We may hear dialogue in our mind, our version of the characters ‘speaking,’ but there is nothing quite like hearing actual actors give their interpretation of your words.

We did auditions in LA and NY. Even though “Snowbirds” was a low-budget movie with actors being paid scale plus ten, we had some terrific talent read for roles. Indeed a bit of buzz generated about the project and some surprising names surfaced to audition. It was especially gratifying to hear comments from the young actors who read, how they loved the script and the idea of being involved in such a different kind of story.

So the project gained steam landing some excellent actors including Academy Award winner Brenda Fricker (My Left Foot) and Bernard Hill who played King Theoden in The Lord of the Rings. There was a start date and things seemed to be moving forward…

Until they stopped. For a variety of reasons.

For one thing, the budget kept creeping up. Originally around $600K, it hit $750K, and with some desired production choices would likely go even higher.

Additionally there were schedule, then medical issues with some of the talent.

So the project was put on hold. Temporarily. But here is something I discovered about trying to make an independent movie: If you aren’t making progress, that doesn’t mean you are standing still. Rather it means you are moving backward.

Making an indie movie, even a low-budget one, is a risky venture. There are a thousand reasons why you should not make one. Sound reasons, good reasons, almost all tied to one simple fact: It’s hard to turn a profit. Anybody can make a movie. Getting distribution? Another thing entirely. And that is a daunting challenge.

Once there is a break in a project’s momentum, that gives all those reasons against making the movie air to breathe.

Now if the project is funded by a major studio, a mini-major or even an independent production company, since they have fixed overhead costs, they find themselves in a situation where they have to make movies, even if they, too, know how challenging it is to hit profits. They may want to say ‘No,’ the safe route, but the way their business is structured, at some point, they have to say ‘Yes’ and greenlight some movies. It’s a simple equation involving creating product to sell to consumers to generate revenues.

If, however, you are a truly independent filmmaker or small stand-alone producer, there is really no compelling business reason why you must make a movie. Indeed all evidence points in the other direction: You are crazy to make a movie.

So the temporary hold on “Snowbirds” stretched into months. Then years. To date, that movie has not been produced.

My guess is it has a lot of company. The Sundance Film Festival may receives thousands of film submissions each year. Beyond that there are thousands more indie movies produced annually. But there must be tens of thousands projects that start to get made, but don’t. Multiple reasons why that’s the case. The biggest one has got to be the financial risk factor.

That’s why if you are a screenwriter or writer-director interested in making a low-budget indie film, when you sort through potential story concepts, my advice would be to do everything you can to keep your budget down. For example, Paranormal Activity used one location, two actors and the found footage device to make a movie for around $20K. Think strategically to slash your budget and minimize your financial risk.

Regarding “Snowbirds,” it would seem to be one of those projects that almost made it into being, but died on the vine. Maybe. Maybe not. There’s a new wrinkle in that saga. I’ll get into that in next week’s TBOS post.

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

September 22nd, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here is that list of production guidelines:

* A 90-page script.

* A 4-5 week shoot.

* A small, but professional ‘guerilla’ crew.

* No more than 10 actors.

* One primary location [to minimize travel costs].

* No special effects.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Business of Screenwriting: Hurry up and wait

September 1st, 2016 by

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

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

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

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


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

And now… we wait.

And wait.

And wait some more.

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

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

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

Tom Petty

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

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

That’s. 336. Hours. Of. Waiting.

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

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

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

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

Tick… tick… tick…

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

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

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

August 18th, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

The Big Picture (1989)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Business of Screenwriting: They don’t think like you (Part 1)

August 11th, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

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

That we were her first second choice.

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

They don’t think like you.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Business of Screenwriting: There’s a green light…

August 4th, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

“Congratulations. We just green lit your movie.”

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

Uh, not so fast.

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

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

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

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

Green light. Red light.

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

Green light. Red light.

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

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

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

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

July 28th, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

“Jimmy, what’d you think?”

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

“That is one helluva funny story.”

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

Next week: There’s a green light…

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