The Business of Screenwriting: OWA

April 14th, 2016 by

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

Owen Wilson’s Assistant?

Afraid screenwriter Mike Le has that covered already.

Okay, maybe Overworked Wretched Assistants.

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

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

Open Writing Assignment.

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

* Sell a spec script.

* Sell a pitch.

* Land an open writing assignment.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not to mention a large reserve of Chivas 18.

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

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

[Originally posted March 1, 2012]

The Business of Screenwriting: Hip pocket representation

April 7th, 2016 by

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

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

By 8PM that night, we did.

Yes, getting representation can happen that quickly.

More frequently, it takes time and an additional step.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What business have they done?”

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

Done deal. They signed us as clients.

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

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

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

That’s a subject for another TBOS column.

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

[Originally posted July 28, 2011]

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

March 3rd, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Business of Screenwriting: “Qualify the customer”

February 25th, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Like I said, brutal.

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

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

Qualify the customer.
Pitch.
Close.

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

Was it the pitch?

The close?

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

Because you are giving them what they want.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Make sure you’re selling them your dream.

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

[Originally posted July 14, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: Commencement of principal photography

February 18th, 2016 by

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

There’s the phone call.

Your first big paycheck.

Your first day on a movie set.

The day your movie premieres.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Originally posted November 3, 2011]

The Business of Screenwriting: The screenwriter as problem-solver

January 28th, 2016 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Originally posted June 7, 2012]

The Business of Screenwriting: The Path of Least Resistance

September 2nd, 2015 by

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

That said…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 13th, 2015 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Movies don’t owe anybody a living.

So be smart.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Originally posted June 27, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 19]

August 6th, 2015 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 19: The value of a spec script… even if it doesn’t sell

Obviously your goal is to write an original screenplay that sells. That’s the fantasy, right? Seven figure deal. Big splashy item in the trades with great quotes from the buyer: “An incredible script with a fresh, distinctive voice.” Buy a house in the Hollywood Hills. Trade in the Chevy Vega for a Porsche. You know, the whole La La Land nine yards.

The fact is, however, most spec scripts do not sell. And yet they can have real value to you as a writer in many other ways.

* They can get you representation: If you are outside the business, a quality spec script with a strong story concept that is well-executed can get the attention of a manager who could take you on as a client. Depending upon who you are, what type of script you’ve written, what genre you specialize in, and how strong your writing is, you may end up with an agent as well.

* They can create access to buyers: Once you are represented, you are officially in the game because all the buyers who do not look at unsolicited material will now consider your scripts because you are represented.

* They can serve as a writing sample: Because everyone in Hollywood knows how hard it is to sell a spec script, they understand there is a lot of good material floating around that is not set up. So it’s possible for your reps to use an unsold spec script as a writing sample to send around town.

* They can create meetings: Whoever responds to your writing sample becomes a target for your reps to set up a meeting. Getting face time with producers, talent and studio execs is critical, to put your mug, your personality, and your creativity into their consciousness. Plus you never know where a meeting may lead, now or in the future.

* They can put you in the OWA game: Your writing sample can open doors for you to go up for Open Writing Assignments.

* They can be optioned: An option offers significantly less money to a writer than a sale, but a deal is a deal, and beyond the cash, the PR value of landing a deal can be considerable as it adds to the perception you are a hot commodity.

* They can be an asset: Just because a spec script doesn’t sell now doesn’t mean it won’t sell down the road. For example, the spec script “The Chung Factor” sold in November 2011. It made the Black List in 2005. That’s 6 years! Times change, tastes change, business cycles change. Your horror zombie psycho dude musical may not fit a niche now, but in 2015, it could slot right into that future Zeitgeist.

And then there is this intangible: The experience you gain as a writer by writing spec scripts.

I’m reminded of screenwriter John Swetnam who said in this interview he wrote 16 specs before making his first sale “Evidence.” That script has been produced and the movie comes out in theaters in a month. If we asked John did he have to write all of those 16 scripts in order to acquire the knowledge and experience he needed to write “Evidence,” I’m sure he would say yes.

There’s every reason for you to have a goal of writing a spec script and selling it. Take that dream, make it your own and use it to fuel your creative aspirations.

But also know this: Even if that spec does not sell, it still has value to you as a writer.

Next week: The value of a spec script… if it does sell.

If you have additional questions or areas you want addressed related to spec scripts, please post in comments, and I will be happy to consider adding however many more posts to respond to your inquiries and concerns.

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 20, 2013]

The Business of Screenwriting: Everything you wanted to know about specs [Part 18]

July 30th, 2015 by

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Part 18: Sell Them Your Dream

For the first 16 weeks of this series, we have taken a comprehensive look at the spec script market. Okay. Now what do you do with that information and insight?

Let’s consider this a response to a reader question because I get this type of inquiry pretty regularly from aspiring screenwriters. It takes different forms:

What type of stories should I focus on writing for my spec script?

I have a lot of story ideas: How do I know which one to write as a spec?

What’s the best approach to take to maximize my chance of selling a spec script to Hollywood?

There is no one right answer. Even if there was and I gave it to you, you can be certain you would open the trades tomorrow to read a story about some writer who came along and did precisely the opposite, and just sold a spec for six figures.

That said broadly speaking, there are two basic paths an aspiring screenwriter can take when writing a spec script.

The most obvious approach is this: Write what they’re buying. We explored that last week. If you haven’t read it here, you should before continuing.

But what if your interests run to independent type movies. Or you just don’t want to track the marketplace and would rather just write your own stuff precisely the way you want to write.

In that case, you’re choosing an alternate path, one I call: Sell Them Your Dream.

At its core, this is about believing passionately in yourself as a writer and specifically your own unique vision of the world in combination with your ability to translate that perspective into a story. You watch movies, you analyze scripts, you read books, the same basic practices any aspiring screenwriter should follow, but it’s all about providing fodder for your creative instincts.

It’s Tarantino writing Reservoir Dogs. It’s Soderbergh writing Sex, Lies and Videotape. It’s Kaufman writing Being John Malkovich. It’s Joel and Ethan Coen writing The Big Lebowski.

Think of these two approaches in terms of Hollywood’s mantra re acquisitions, how the studios want something ‘similar but different.’

The Write What They’re Buying path is more about being similar.

The Sell Them Your Dream path is more about being different.

If you do go this latter route, two pieces of advice: (1) Write a script with budget in mind. A $5M project is easier to get made than a $50M movie. Better yet, why not aim for a $1M movie? Funding is a big goddammed deal when it comes to getting an indie movie made with any chance of recouping the investment, so think smart and write low. Budget, that is. (2) Write key characters who name actors would kill to play. Many top actors like to vary their work: Take a big picture to pay the bills, then do a small indie feature to sink their teeth into a fascinating character and story.

As to which path to take, my advice? Go off by yourself for a day. Take a good honest look at your skills, what you bring to the table as a writer. Consider your creativity, how it works. Pay special attention to what types of movies inspire you, what kind of stories for which you have passion.

Then look at your story concepts, the entire list. If you don’t have a list, put one together. Sit with each of your ideas. Which ones bubble up to the top as being the most interesting ones? Which ones feel the most like a movie?

Finally imagine you are standing at a fork-in-the-road: One path has a sign that reads Write What They’re Buying, the other path has a sign that says Sell Them Your Dream.

Which path feels right to you? Which path pulls you in its direction?

You’re not looking for the right choice or a wrong choice, rather you are looking for an honest choice: Which best reflects your instincts as a writer?

Hopefully one or the other path will speak to you. If not, don’t worry. Follow Yogi Berra’s advice: “When you come to a fork-in-the-road, take it.”

Go down one or the other, and write something. That way, you will end up with something that has the potential to sell. Perhaps more importantly, you will learn about yourself as a writer.

How about you? Which type of writer are you? Which path will you take?

Next week: The value of a spec script… even if it doesn’t sell.

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

If you have additional questions or areas you want addressed related to spec scripts, please post in comments, and I will be happy to consider adding however many more posts to respond to your inquiries and concerns.

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 13, 2013]