Reader Question: What is life really like for a beginning screenwriter who has just broken into the business?

May 5th, 2016 by

Reader question from Eric Harris:

What is life really like for the beginning screenwriter who breaks in with a manager/agent, maybe sells a spec? Do they start taking meetings, competing for open writing assignments? Are they chewing their nails because it’s an unstable profession? No one ever gives a detailed explanation of what it’s really like and what to expect. Are they writing for free with producers in hopes that it will get set up?

Eric, let me take this opportunity to frame the conversation by offering this reminder I post regularly just so everyone understands this fundamental reality about breaking into the business as a screenwriter or TV writer: It is really, really hard to do. The odds are long, so the chances of anybody being in the position your question suggests are slim.

There may be others out there in the online screenwriting universe who claim otherwise. Learn the keys to selling a million dollar spec script! My advice: Run away from those people as they are not dealing with you honestly and almost assuredly out to take your money, and little else.

Okay, now that we’ve established that, there is another fact: Every year hundreds of writers do manage to sell a script, obtain representation, land a gig on a TV series and the like. It is not impossible, a sentiment worth the double negative.

What happens when a writer breaks in? Well, that depends on the writer… what they wrote… and what you mean by “breaks in”.

If you hit a grand slam and sell a movie spec script — not an option, but an actual sale in the six figure range — here are a few things you may expect to happen:

* If you sold the script via your manager, you will meet with agents for additional representation. Screenwriters from the Old School often only have an agent or in some rare cases, just an entertainment lawyer to handle them. I don’t know what the percentage is with Young Turks, but my guess is perhaps half of them have dual reps: manager and agent. Yes, it’s 20% commission as opposed to 10%, but having an agent as well as a manager can offer certain benefits. For more background on the roles of managers and agents, go here.

Note: You’ll also meet with lawyers as you will need one to handle your contracts. That’s another 5%, but trust me, do everything you can to get a damn good lawyer.

* That spec script of yours that sold is not just of value to the company that bought it to develop into a movie. It is also valuable to you as a writing sample. Depending upon the splash your deal made, you could find your reps sending it out to a lot of studios, financiers, and producers. This will result in the vaunted “bottled water tour” wherein you do a ton of ‘meet and greets’. This is a crucial part in establishing the foundation of your career as a writer. How you do in those meetings — how comfortable you are, how knowledgeable you are about the craft, how well you mesh with people in the industry — is a big deal. This is Networking with a capital “N”.

Rule of thumb I’ve discovered about Hollywood: People like to work with the people they like to work with. So apart from your talent, voice and ability to translate a story onto the page, if you come across as someone who will be enjoyable to work with, a problem-solver, not a problem-creator, that can go a long way in helping you secure gigs.

* You will be invited to premieres, industry screenings and other social events related to the business. This is also time for Networking with a capital “N”. And let me say, at some point, if you do not know names and faces of the players in the business, you will want to start doing that ASAP. This is not only important in understanding the ebb and flow of who is where and who is doing what relative to project acquisition and movie development, the fact is Hollywood is a small community. You will almost invariably be out shopping, jogging or wherever, and bump into these people. Yet again Networking opportunities.

* Assuming you are a flavor-of-the-week, you may also expect to meet industry types at lunch meetings. For some thoughts on how to handle yourself and what to expect, read my post Let’s do lunch.

* The sale of your spec script would almost certainly qualify you for membership in the Writers’ Guild of America, so at some point you’ll have to pony up a $2,500 initiation fee plus 1.5% of applicable gross earnings. Once you are official, you will be invited to a WGA new members meeting. I’m actually still in touch with a couple of writers I met when I had my welcome to the Guild meeting back in 1987. Oh, be sure to sign up for the WGA movie series, a great deal to see movies at the WGA Theater in Beverly Hills.

* You will meet with your reps to strategize. You may go after Open Writing Assignments which will require you to be able to read a piece of material, analyze it and come up with a take you can pitch. You may go out with an original pitch. In either case, you will need to work on your ability not only to pitch, but work a room. You and your reps may determine it’s best for you to write a new spec script. There’s no etched-in-stone plan, everything is malleable and dependent on you and current business opportunities. But bottom line, you will be expected to be creative and productive.

So no matter what happens in terms of the whirling dervish of Hollywood life of someone who sells a spec script, you need to keep your eye on the ball: Writing. That’s one great reason for you to develop solid writing practices now so they are in place once you do break into the business. Even after you break in, you will want to continue to write at least one spec script per year to maximize your chances of widening your connections and setting up projects, while continuing to get better at the craft.

That’s just a few things you can expect if you sell a spec script. It is much more common to break in by getting representation alone, no spec deal, in which case you will likely find yourself writing multiple drafts of one spec script (or more) your reps can take out to market. But that’s a whole other subject.

GITS readers who have been there, what can you add to the subject for Eric? Please head to comments for your thoughts.

[Originally posted August 4, 2014]

Reader Question: Do screenwriters get a percentage of profit participation?

April 27th, 2016 by

An reader question via email from tcsp:

Hi Scott, love the site. If I managed to sell my spec script, would I possibly get a percentage on the back end, or are those days over? What can we expect, realistically? Cheers.

It’s standard practice for a screenwriter to get some sort of profit participation arrangement in their contract, either on the sale of original material, such as a spec script, or on a writing assignment. However “realistically,” that translates into zero dollars. Nada. Bupkis.

Why? Because the type of profit participation most screenwriters get is net points. And as everyone in Hwood says, “A percentage of the net is a percentage of nothing.”

Why? Because the studios have elaborate accounting methods, honed and used for decades, that ensure virtually no movie they produce actually makes a profit.

How? By including overhead costs for production, distribution, and marketing. Here’s an example: When a studio agrees to produce a movie, they will set up a legal business entity for that project. They then ‘loan’ money for the production to that entity to pay for the movie. But since it’s a ‘loan,’ they charge interest on it which goes as a cost of overhead for the movie’s production. Do you see how slippery that is? The studio is in effect making interest on a loan it makes to itself, then charging that interest to the production, increasing its cost and reducing the ability of the movie to make a profit.

Perhaps the most famous example is the case of “Buchwald vs. Paramount” in which Paramount claimed that the movie Coming to America, based on a Buchwald story, failed to reach profitability:

Art Buchwald received a settlement after his lawsuit Buchwald v. Paramount over Paramount’s use of Hollywood accounting. The court found Paramount’s actions “unconscionable,” noting that it was impossible to believe that a movie (1988‘s Eddie Murphy comedy Coming to America) which grossed US$350 million failed to make a profit, especially since the actual production costs were less than a tenth of that. Paramount settled for an undisclosed sum, rather than have its accounting methods closely scrutinized.

Note the key point: “Paramount settled for an undisclosed sum, rather than have its accounting methods closely scrutinized.

So a screenwriter will typically get 5% net profit points (that’s what I’ve gotten in all my deals). But unless the movie costs $5M and grosses $240M as My Big Fat Greek Wedding did, there is virtually no way for a movie to make a profit per the studios. [Note: In fact, Gold Circle Films, the original producers of the movie claimed it had lost $20M.]

Now there are established writers with enough clout a la Ron Bass who get gross points. And while there are many different definitions of “gross,” if you can negotiate that in your contract, you do have a chance of seeing additional dollars from a film project.

But don’t take my word for it: Here is something from an actual entertainment lawyer Robert L. Siegel:

A writer also can receive a profit participation anywhere from two to five percent of the producer’s share of the net profits. Sometimes the profit participation is called “net proceeds,” “adjusted gross proceeds,” or “modified gross proceeds.” The label of the profit participation is not as important as how such profit participation is defined, calculated and paid to a writer as a profit participant. The best that most profit participants such as writers can achieve is to tie how the writer’s profit participation is defined, calculated and paid to that of any other person’s or entity’s profit participant’s definition and manner of payment including that of the producer. This provision helps to keep the playing field level concerning profit participation.

A writer’s agreement should state that there shall be accounting statements which shall be received by the writer which are issued on the same basis as any other profit participant in terms of form and frequency (e.g., quarterly for the first two years after the initial commercial exploitation of the film, twice a year for another two years and annually thereafter). A writer’s agreement should include a right to examine or formally audit the producer’s books, records and other documents pertaining to how a motion picture feature’s revenues are calculated and received by a producer. This examination or audit right is usually exercisable by a potential profit participant once per year. In some cases, if the right is not exercised within a certain period of time (usually twenty four months or more from when the potential profit participant receives a statement), the potential profit participant is barred from examining the producer’s books and records pertaining to that statement. Please bear in mind that such examinations and audits can cost from five thousand to ten thousand to more. The potential profit participant has to assume the cost of the examination or audit; however, a provision could be included in an agreement which states that if one is underpaid by a certain percentage (e.g., 5%-10%), then the producer is required to pay the underpayment immediately and to assume the cost of the examination or inspection.

Finally, many distributors and producers do not need to falsify or “cook” the books since the profit definitions are so inclusive that every expense (including interest) is taken before there would be any profits. In addition, there are certain parties such as “star” directors, producers and performers who may receive their contingent compensation earlier in the economic “food chain” than the net profit participants, thereby eliminating or lessening the possibility of net profit participants receiving any monies. That is why such films as “Fatal Attraction” and “Coming To America” can generate large revenues but minimal to no profits and even losses.

There are actually quite a few questions answered by Siegel here, so a good resource to bookmark.

UPDATE: Okay, just to make things completely clear. If you write a spec script and it gets produced into a movie, you get the following forms of income:

* Money for purchase of script
* Money for any rewrites
* Production bonus upon commencement of principal photography
* Residuals for a combination of DVD sales, TV airings, foreign, etc

If the movie gets made into a sequel, depending upon your writing credit (shared or sole), you get money for that.

Plus the studios pay a percentage, based upon your writing fees, into a WGA pension program which if you achieve, I believe, 7 qualifying years, upon retirement you get a monthly payment based upon your total lifetime earnings.

So while net points are essentially meaningless on almost every project, a screenwriter can see some meaningful income from other sources noted above.

UPDATE #2: In comments, itstartedwithawindmill asked:

If you could give a quick answer, what are residuals paid for? and why are they quarterly?

For background, go here for info from But the key definition is this:

What Are Residuals?

Residuals are compensation paid for the reuse of a credited writer’s work. When you receive credit on produced Guild covered material, you are entitled to compensation if the material is reused. It is important to understand that the compensation is for reuse, and not the original use. For example, if you are hired to write an episode of a network prime time television series, the compensation you are paid for writing services includes the episode’s initial broadcast. However, when that episode reruns on a network, in syndication, or in any other market, the Company must pay you for that reuse.

Similarly, for theatrical motion pictures, the compensation you are paid for your script, either as a purchase or employment, covers the exhibition of the film theatrically, including all foreign theatrical releases. However, when your movie is released to other markets, such as videocassette or pay television, you are due residuals.

Residuals are no small matter. I’ve got three movie credits as a writer (K-9, Alaska, Trojan War), and while K-9 was the #1 movie at the box office in the U.S. for one weekend, none of the movies was a huge hit. Yet I’ve received hundreds of thousands of dollars in residual payments. Imagine what Jonathan Nolan, co-writer of The Dark Knight, gets with his little green envelope every quarter!

The importance of residuals was at the center of the most recent work stoppage in 2007-2008. Per the Wikipedia page covering the strike, note this:


In 1985 the Writers Guild went on strike over the home video market, which was then small and primarily consisted of distribution via video tape. At that time, the entertainment companies argued home video was an “unproven” market, with an expensive delivery channel (manufacturing VHS and Betamax tapes, and to a much smaller extent, Laserdisc). Movies were selling in the range of between $40–$100 per tape, and the Guild accepted a formula in which a writer would receive a small percentage (0.3%) of the first million of reportable gross (and 0.36% after) of each tape sold as a residual. As manufacturing costs for video tapes dropped dramatically and the home video market exploded, writers came to feel they had been shortchanged by this deal.[18] DVDs debuted in 1996 and rapidly replaced the more-expensive VHS format, becoming the dominant format around 2001. The previous VHS residual formula continued to apply to DVDs.

At present, the home video market is the major source of revenue for the movie studios. In April 2004, the New York Times reported the companies made $4.8 billion in home video sales versus $1.78 billion at the box office between January and March.[19]


WGA members argued that a writer’s residuals are a necessary part of a writer’s income that is typically relied upon during periods of unemployment common in the writing industry. The WGA requested a doubling of the residual rate for DVD sales, which would result in a residual of 0.6% (up from 0.3%) per DVD sold.

The AMPTP maintained that studios’ DVD income was necessary to offset rising production and marketing costs. They further insisted that the current DVD formula (0.3%) be applied to residuals in other digital media — an area which was also contested by the Writers Guild.

The WGA provisionally removed the increased DVD residual request from the table, in an effort to avert a strike and on the understanding of certain concessions by the AMPTP, the night before the strike began. However, after the strike began, WGAW President Patric M. Verrone wrote that the membership exhibited “significant disappointment and even anger” when they learned of the proposed removal of the request; and Verrone also wrote that, since the removal of the increased DVD residual request was contingent on concessions by the AMPTP which did not happen, the writers would and should continue to “fight to get our fair share of the residuals of the future.”

New media

One of the critical issues for the negotiations was residuals for “new media“, or compensation for delivery channels such as Internet downloads, IPTV, streaming, smart phone programming, straight-to-Internet content, and other “on-demand” online distribution methods, along with video on demand on cable and satellite television.

So probably more information than you ever wanted to know about residuals.

As to why we get paid quarterly, probably something to do with corporate quarterly financial. Whatever it is, I’m always damn happy to see those green envelopes in the mail!

[Originally posted February 15, 2010]

Reader Question: Do I HAVE to use INT/EXT – LOCATION – DAY/NIGHT in scene headings?

April 19th, 2016 by

To answer this question, let’s distinguish between a selling script and a shooting script. The latter, also known as a production draft, needs INT. and EXT. and LOCATION and DAY and NIGHT. Why? Because the team of people involved in producing the movie require that information to do their jobs.

They need it for location scouting.
They need it for budgeting.
They need it for scheduling.
They need it for the production designer.
They need it for the art department.

They just need it, okay?

But a shooting script is a different creature than a selling script. When you write a spec script or a script on assignment, your most fundamental goal is this: Entertain the reader.

That reader can be a studio executive, producer, director, actor, or even a lowly intern or assistant. Whoever it is, you want to grab their attention and keep it from FADE IN to FADE OUT.

While your plot, characters, dialogue, scenes, themes, and so on are all important, there’s another aspect you need to pay attention to and that is this: READABILITY.

You want your spec / selling script to be a good read.

What has evolved with screenplays over the last half-century, as the spec script market has grown into its own and scripts have become more than just blueprints to make a movie, is a transformation of style and form away from directing lingo and ‘scripty’ language to a more literary approach to telling a story.

Again we are talking about selling scripts.

So with that as my preamble, the answer to your question is this: No, you do not need to use the nomenclature of primary slug lines / scene headings.

Consider the script “Great Falls” written by Andy Friedhof, the subject of my interview with him which led to your question, Caliann. Here is what Andy said about his stylistic approach:

What I really want to do with my scripts is take people through the experience of watching the movie. You might have noticed that I often start scenes with close ups on objects or specific details in the scene. That’s how films are shot, basically. When a film is edited together they generally don’t start scenes with wide shots of the interior of a room. So it doesn’t really make much sense to start every scene with some variation on INT. ROOM – DAY. For me, it’s really important to capture the energy, movement and spirit of film.

There are quite a few screenwriters who do that already. Those are the screenwriters I admire and those are the screenwriters I’m always excited to read. I want people to look forward to reading the scripts I write.

And here is P. 1 of “Great Falls”:


A black vein of road.

Weaving through the autumnal flesh of the Montana countryside.

Moving along this vein is a solitary WHITE BLOOD CELL.

We PUSH IN SLOWLY and eventually see it’s a SHERIFF’S CAR.

As the CAR ROARS by. GREASY SPOON DINER The Sheriff’s car is parked in the unsealed parking lot out front. A sign tells us the name of the place: SNAKE BITE DINER. STAN (V.O.) Way I see it: a dog bites you, you put him down. A COFFEE MAKER Dribbling into a pot. A woman’s hand reaches into frame and picks it up. Coffee sloshes over the edge. We follow the pot as it moves through an unusual mix of patrons-- GRIZZLED RANCHERS. OFF-DUTY AIR FORCE PERSONNEL. HUNGOVER TEENS. STAN (V.O.) Far as I know, there ain’t never been a killer that got killed that killed again. The coffee is poured into a cup. A large hairy hand enters the frame and picks it up. STAN (V.O.) Thanks, Emma.

Nary a primary slug line / scene heading on this page. Nor any other page of Andy’s script. I can hear the Script Literalists out there gnashing their teeth. But here’s the thing…

Andy’s script won him a 2015 Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Award.

What’s more, Andy’s pages are imminently clear as to their intent. Indeed I would argue they create more of a visual tapestry in the mind of the reader than the more formulaic and staid INT. DINER – DAY.

So who are we going to listen to: Some supposed format and style ‘guru’ insisting we stick to some supposed ‘rule’ which derives from a time when screenplays were the bastard child of shot lists, stage plays, and production drafts or a talented award winning writer who is embracing the trend to evolve screenplays into a more literary READABLE form?

Look, you can write however and whatever you want. You are free to do that. Whatever you do, do it in service of your story. As long as what you write presents what you see in your head as efficiently and effectively as possible — and let’s throw in another E word: Entertaining — then tell your story the way you SEE it.

When you sell it and start working with a director, then you can worry about slug lines.

But when you write a spec script, do what best conveys your story.

Readers, what do you think? Hit Reply and head to comments where we can talk about this more.

Reader Question: What are three good ‘how to’ scripts to read?

April 12th, 2016 by

Lee, I assume by “how to” scripts, you mean screenplays which are not only great stories, but also examples of strong screenwriting practices.

I am tempted to name the very first three I ever read because in addition to Syd Field’s book “Screenplay: The Foundation of Screenwriting”, they were the full extent of my ‘formal’ education in the craft when I wrote and sold the spec script K-9. Well, that and watching thousands of movies throughout my life. Those three scripts are:

  • Back to the Future
  • Breaking Away
  • Witness

At the time (1986), those scripts were relatively contemporaneous. While all three are excellent reads, since screenplay format and style has changed significantly during the last three decades, I think it would be wiser to recommend scripts from the last 5-10 years to reflect current screenwriting sensibilities. Although Back to the Future is a master class in the use of subplots, so if you want to zero in on that subject, read and break down BTTF.

If I knew your specific interests in terms of genre, that would help, but short of that, my instinct would be to focus on scripts which are strong in three areas: Character, Plot, Theme. So many other areas to learn such as dialogue, scene construction, transitions, pace, visual writing, psychological writing, subtext, subplots, cross-cutting, all of which punches a gaping hole in the very idea that there are three scripts which can teach a writer “how to” write a screenplay. Really you have to read hundreds of scripts as part of immersing yourself in cinema, along with watching, breaking down, and analyzing movies, writing pages, taking in interview with professional writers, and so on.

That said, I’ll give it a shot. Three movie script recommendations from the last 10 years:

Michael Clayton. Little Miss Sunshine. Up. Each is a masterful script, a great read, and they get 10s across the board in terms of Character, Plot, and Theme. You cannot do wrong by reading each of these screenplays.

But Lee, I believe you have opened up a Pandora’s Box with this question, as I suspect people will have lots of opinions on the subject. To wit:

What three scripts
would you recommend
as essential reading
for someone
learning the craft of screenwriting.

I’d love to see what GITS readers have to say on the subject. Click Reply and head to comments to share your three script recommendations.

UPDATE: Here are some recommendations via Twitter:

Reader Question: How would you define “inner motivation” and “outer motivation”

April 11th, 2016 by

From my email:

Subject: inner motivation / outer motivation

Message: brief definition please.

A short email requiring a long answer.

Inner motivation. Outer motivation. This sounds like the jargon of a screenwriting ‘guru’. Let me try to put a human face on these concepts.

You are a person. You have a conscious aspect to your being, that is you are aware of things and do a good bit of mental activity actively involved with your thoughts, impressions, memories, and so forth.

In that conscious realm, you make determinations from time to time, large and small, to aim to accomplish things. Goals, if you will. You know what those goals are and you are intentional in attempting to reach them.

Let’s call this your outer motivation. Or what some call your Want.

But that’s not the entirety of who you are. You also have an unconscious part of your psyche more tethered to your feelings, emotions, passions, etc.

In this unconscious realm, there are dynamics at work which you may struggle to control, impulses and instincts, desires and fears.

Underneath this cacophony of energetic push-and-pulls, there lies something uniquely authentic to who you are, whether you know it or not. Your True Self. Authentic Nature. Core Essence. Whatever you call it, it’s there. To date, unrealized. Maybe you suppress it. Perhaps you ignore it. It’s altogether possible you’re not even aware of it.

But it’s there. What Ovid calls the “seeds of change”. Joseph Campbell named it your “bliss”.

Your instinct to tap into your Core Essence and “become who you are” as per Carl Jung is what we can refer to as your inner motivation. Or what some call your Need.

Not to be too simplistic about it, but in terms of screenwriting, we have something like this:

The story’s Plotline is primarily the domain of the Protagonist’s Want, their outer motivation, their conscious goal.

The story’s Themeline is primarily the domain of the Protagonist’s Need, their inner motivation, their unconscious goal.

This Outer Motivation / Want exhibits itself in the story universe’s External World, what in a movie we can see and hear — Action and Dialogue.

This Inner Motivation / Need exhibits itself in the story universe’s Internal World, what in a movie we can intuit and interpret — Intention and Subtext.

So in movie terms:

  • In The Wizard of Oz, Dorothy’s outer motivation is to get away from her unsatisfying home life by going ‘somewhere over the rainbow’ and her inner motivation is to realize her home in Kansas really is her home.
  • In Casablanca, Rick’s outer motivation is to run away with Ilsa with whom he has reconnected and his inner motivation is to reject his cynicism and embrace his idealism, thereby sacrificing his love for Ilsa for the greater good.
  • In The Apartment, Baxter’s outer motivation is to land a promotion and succeed in business, while his inner motivation is get in touch with his mensch nature and quit his job.
  • In The Silence of the Lambs, Clarice’s outer motivation is to save kidnap victim Catherine Martin and her inner motivation is to kill Buffalo Bill and thereby silence the crying of the lambs in her nightmares.
  • In Juno, Juno’s outer motivation is to have her baby and give it up for adoption while her inner motivation is to stop avoiding her youth and embrace innocence before bolting to adulthood.

We have wants. We have needs. Every single one of us. As writers, we can use this fact to explore the outer and inner lives of our characters, particularly our Protagonists as they inform story structure and provide access points for a script reader to connect with the character’s journey.

Thoughts anyone? What do you think about outer motivation and inner motivation? Head to comments and let’s see what you’ve got.

Reader Question: How to handle the passage of time in a script?

April 5th, 2016 by

A question from Dan:

I’ve got a screenwriting question if you wouldn’t mind having a look. I’m an 18 year old kid writing my first script, a biopic, and trying to learn the trade while also piecing together my script I run into problems quite a bit…

One thing at the moment which I’d love to hear your knowledge on, is how to believably convey time passing without the use of title cards, and without a montage, but in a relatively small frame of time. The entertainer my script is about moves to LA at the age of 18, and has some success doing gigs there, he even lands a part on a pilot which doesn’t get picked up, but he decides within two years to return home to readjust his outlook. I’m still drawing an exact outline of where I want events to fit into place, but I’m pretty sure that his entire experience in LA (which really is only the tip of the iceberg for his career) will be almost introductory and within the first 5-10 pages.
I have some brief character stuff going on and I don’t want to cut this out because I feel it is an important part of his early career, although it may end up being so brief that it is almost useless. I’ll have to work on it.

So sorry, if you want to skip that, my question is how would I show the time passing for this character? Or in general, what are some non-hack ways of presenting a move forward in time so that it doesn’t feel like he’s performing in one instance and then we fade to black and suddenly he has a beard and is talking about leaving?

That’s a good question. As any GITS reader knows who’s had to deal with time shifts in a script, it’s a tricky business because you are requiring the reader to jump from this time period to that time period. That may not seem like a big deal, but if you’ve worked super hard to lure a reader into your story universe, any time jump can cause them to blink – Wait a sec, what’s happening – and if they blink long enough, they can fall out of the story.

The actual pragmatics of it are easy enough. Let’s say you start your script with this establishing scene:


Then you set up your character where they begin the story. After that sequence, you shift the action to L.A. some years later. All you would have to do is this:


And there you go – you’ve made your time-jump.

But it’s not enough to simply make the time-jump, you need to handle it for what it really is: a transition. And as I say, it’s tricky to do that in a “non hack way.”

One approach is to use a narrator. For example, that’s how writer-director Frank Darabont handled the many time-jumps he had to make in The Shawshank Redemption. Here is the first big one in the script:

46	INT -- BACK ROOMS/STOCK AREA -- DAY (1947) 46

	-- a dark, tangled maze of rooms and corridors, boilers and
	furnaces, sump pumps, old washing machines, pallets of 
	cleaning supplies and detergents, you name it. Andy hefts a 
	cardboard drum of Hexlite off the stack, turns around -- 

	-- and finds Bogs Diamond in the aisle. blocking his way.
	Rooster looms from the shadows to his right, Pete Verness
	on the left. A frozen beat. Andy slams the Hexlite to the
	floor, rips off the top, and scoops out a double handful.

		You get this in your eyes, it 
		blinds you. 

		Honey, hush. 

	Andy backs up, holding them at bay, trying to maneuver through 
	the maze. The Sisters keep coming, tense and guarded, eyes 
	riveted and gauging his every move, trying to outflank him. 
	Andy trips on some old gaint sugglies. That's all it takes. 
	They're on him in an instant, kicking and stomping. 

	Andy gets yanked to his feet. Bogs applies a chokehold from 
	behind. They propel him across the room and slam him against 
	an old four-pocket machine, bending him over it. Rooster jams 
	a rag into Andy's mouth and secures it with a steel pipe, like 
	a horse bit. Andy kicks and struggles, but Rooster and Pete 
	have his arms firmly pinned. Bogs whispers in Andy's ear: 

		That's it, fight. Better that way. 

	Andy starts screaming, muffled by the rag. CAMERA PULLS BACK, 
	SLOWLY WIDENING. The big Washex blocks our view. All we see 
	is Andy's screaming face and the men holding him down... 

	...and CAMERA DRIFTS FROM THE ROOM, leaving the dark place 
	and the dingy act behind...MOVING up empty corridors, past 
	concrete walls and steel pipes... 

				RED (V.O.) 
		I wish I could tell you that Andy 
		fought the good fight, and the 
		Sisters let him be. I wish I could 
		tell you that, but prison is no 
		fairy-tale world. 

	WE EMERGE into the prison laundry past a guard, WIDENING for 
	a final view of the line. The giant steel "mangler" is 
	slapping down in brutal rhythm. The sound is deafening. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		He never said who did it...but we 
		all knew. 

	PRISON MONTAGE: (1947 through 1949) 

	shaping his rocks after lights-out... 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Things went on like that for a 
		while. Prison life consists of 
		routine, and then more routine. 


				RED (V.O.) 
		Every so often, Andy would show up 
		with fresh bruises. 


				RED (V.O.) 
		The Sisters kept at him. Sometimes 
		he was able to fight them off... 
		sometimes not. 

	wildly swinging a rake at his tormentors. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		He always fought, that's what I 
		remember. He fought because he knew 
		if he didn't fight, it would make 
		it that much easier not to fight 
		the next time. 

	The rake connects, snapping off over somebody's skull. They 
	beat the hell out of him. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Half the time it landed him in the 


	A stone closet. No bed, sink, or lights. Just a toilet with no 
	seat. Andy sits on bare concrete, bruised face lit by a faint 
	ray of light falling through the tiny slit in the steel door. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		...the other half, it landed him in 
		solitary. Warden Norton's "grain & 
		drain" vacation. Bread, water, and 
		all the privacy you could want. 

Two things. First, voice-over narration is frowned upon in Hollywood. I think it’s because there is a belief that using a narrator is somehow an example of sloppy writing. Certainly that can be the case, but as movies like Shawshank, Forrest Gump, and Sunset Blvd. prove, narrator V.O. can also be used to excellent effect.

Second, you’ll notice that Darabont uses a montage. That’s another time-jumping device that can be used poorly – probably the reason you included it in your question as an example of something you would prefer not using. But as this excerpt from Shawshank demonstrates, a montage can also be used quite effectively as an approach to transitions. If we look at this excerpt closely, I’d say there are at least three keys to a good montage:

* The entire montage has its own Beginning, Middle, and End (that is, it tells its own ‘little’ story).

* Each of the beats not only suggests a passage of time, but also communicates something of interest, both substantively re the plot and visually as a form of entertainment.

* The Beginning pulls the reader into the montage and the Ending pushes the reader into the following scene. In the excerpt above, the Beginning takes off from Andy getting raped, certainly a gripping event which will naturally elicit a reader’s curiosity to see what happens next. As for the Ending of the montage, here it is:

52	INT -- PRISON LAUNDRY -- DAY (1949) 52

	Andy is working the line. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		And that's how it went for Andy. That 
		was his routine. I do believe those 
		first two years were the worst for 
		him. And I also believe if things 
		had gone on that way, this place 
		would have got the best of him. 
		But then, in the spring of 1949, 
		the powers-that-be decided that... 

53	EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949) 53

	Warden Norton addresses the assembled cons via bullhorn: 

		...the roof of the license-plate 
		factory needs resurfacing. I need a 
		dozen volunteers for a week's work. 
		We're gonna be taking names in this 
		steel bucket here... 

	Red glances around at his friends. Andy also catches his eye.

				RED (V.O.) 
		It was outdoor detail, and May is 
		one damn fine month to be workin' 

54	EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949) 54

	Cons shuffle past, dropping slips of paper into a bucket. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		More than a hundred men volunteered 
		for the job. 

	Red saunters to a guard named TIM YOUNGBLOOD, mutters 
	discreetly in his ear. 

55	EXT -- PRISON YARD -- DAY (1949) 55

	Youngblood is pulling names and reading them off. Red 
	exchanges grins with Andy and the others. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Wouldn't you know it? Me and some 
		fellas I know were among the names 

56	INT -- PRISON CORRIDOR -- NIGHT (1949) 56

	Red slips Youngblood six packs of cigarettes. 

				RED (V.O.) 
		Only cost us a pack of smokes per 
		man. I made my usual twenty 
		percent, of course. 


	A tar-cooker bubbles and smokes. TWO CONS dip up a bucket of
	tar and tie a rope to the handle. The rope goes taught. CAMERA
	FOLLOWS the bucket of tar up the side of the building to -- 

58 	THE ROOF 58

	-- where it is relayed to the work detail. the men are dipping
	big Padd brushes and spreading the tar. ANGLZ OVER to Byron 
	Hadley bitching sourly to his fellow guards: 

				HADLEY this shithead lawyer calls 
		long distance from Texas, and he 
		says, Byron Hadley? I say, yeah. He 
		says, sorry to inform you, but your 
		brother just died.

The montage offers a seamless transition into the next scene — the famous “Suds on the Roof” business where Andy helps out Hadley with his financial dilemma, which turns out to be a huge turning point in Andy – and Red’s – life in Shawshank.

Another way to handle time-jumps is to position the story in such a way that a key character is looking back on their life. Forrest Gump does this as well as movies like Little Big Man. This allows you the possibility of telling a story in a linear fashion (like Gump and Big Man), or you can jump around and tell the story in a non-linear fashion. But by approaching the story like this, you’ll be using flashbacks and that is another narrative device that is looked upon with disfavor per Hwood’s conventional wisdom.

But if you’re just looking for ways to smooth over transitions, here are a couple of tricks.

* Visual-to-visual transition: Use a visual image to link the preceding and following sequence. For example, consider this transition from the Elliot & Rossio script for Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl, from the opening sequence where Elizabeth, as a young girl, first meets a young Will Turner:

Elizabeth looks from it to the medallion -- the skull on the
flag is the same as the one on the medallion.

Fog surrounds and closes in on the black ship -- except for 
the black flag. As Elizabeth watches, the skull appears to 
TURN and GRIN at her --

Elizabeth shuts her eyes tight --



-- and then snap open again, startled wide with fear.

But this is no longer twelve-year-old Elizabeth standing on
the stern of the Dauntless; this is twenty-year-old Elizabeth,
lying in bed in the dark.

The visual link is Elizabeth’s eyes.

* Audio-to-audio transition: In the same way, you can use a sound to provide a link between a preceding and following sequence. The classic example, which I’m sure you’ve seen 10,000 times in TV shows and movies is an airplane:


Teenager WILL kicks at the chafed soil. Then he hears a sound - 
an airplane FLYING overhead. He squints up at the jet --

Someday I'm gonna fly away from here...

The sound of the airplane grows LOUDER --

INT. JET - DAY (1978)

-- and LOUDER as WILL, now a handsome young man (21), presses 
against the airplane window as it lands with a jolt --

Welcome to Los Angeles.

While those can help smooth transitions, they really are filigree. The keys are as noted above. And I would say the single most important thing is to pull the reader into the ending of the preceding sequence, making them curious about what’s going to happen next, then push them into the beginning of the following sequence, depositing them smack in the middle of the action so that they don’t have time to dawdle or think — just keep them moving.

I’m sure GITS readers will have lots of ideas for you – so please everyone, chime in with your suggestions for Dan.

[Originally posted February 2, 2010]

Reader Question: Are there differences between seeking representation with a manager versus an agent?

February 18th, 2016 by

An email from Dave M:

Hey Scott,

There’s a lot of talk about getting an agent and all that but what about managers? To me, they seem to be especially important for newbies.

What are your thoughts on this and are the rules of pursuit the same or different, easier or harder on getting a manager?


“Especially important” is right for one big fat reason: Managers are more accessible to aspiring screenwriters than agents. Caveat: Every management company and agency is different, so you have to check their policy regarding unsolicited submissions, but I have heard more than my share of stories about writers who have queried managers with a strict “No” policy who got through that barricade. Moreover many managers actually welcome queries. This is in contrast with agencies who generally have moat-like defenses against unsolicited contact.

There are legal differences between the two that speak to why managers tend to be more open to unsolicited submissions: Under California law, agents are licensed, and per state regulations, agents cannot produce a client’s project. By contrast, managers are not regulated and, therefore, can produce a client’s project.

And therein lies the secret: Managers are more motivated to find and develop fresh talent because they can get two bites at the revenue apple: Their management fee (typically 10%) plus whatever producing fees they negotiate.

As long as we’re on the subject, let me re-post an item from earlier this year titled “How to land representation? Write a great script!”

In the current GITS interview with screenwriter Marc Maurino, he was kind enough to respond to a question in comments from Marc Teichmann:

Q: What tips do you have for getting scripts into the right hands? My partner and I are almost ready to start sending our first script out and I’m searching everywhere to find managers and agents emails, but it’s tough.

A: Marc Teichmann, I know it’s tough, and good luck to you–this is a rocky part of the journey!

The Hollywood Creative Directory, ImdB Pro, and several other pay-sites offer contact information for managers (when first querying, agents are not the destination; managers are.) The discussion boards at have LOTS of insight into the querying process and how to find managers’ e-mails. Check out DDP, and you don’t even need to go ask HOW…just check the archives and you will find DOZENS of posts on this very subject.

Also, check out the Black List for the last several years, and get a feel for who the managers are that are selling things and getting scripts out there, especially if you are writing in a genre similar to what they are repping.

Then find e-mail (resources as listed above, plus Google–it’s all out there); craft a killer query/log line/cover letter (tons of ink spilled around the internet on this as well); and carpet bomb the town. Lots of folks I know will send upwards of fifty, a hundred, a hundred and fifty query letters requesting a read from a management company–and get maybe a 10% read request rate. Those are loose numbers, but just a caveat that it’s a TON of papering the town, but it only takes one rep to love your stuff to push you forward.

FINALLY, please make sure your script is REALLY ready…have you had professionals read it? has someone other than you and your partner proofread it? Have you had a table read with actors to hear the words up on their feet? Have you had five or ten people who will not BS you give you their responses? If and when “yes” to all of these–GOOD LUCK!

Marc is right. There is no secret to getting your script read. You simply contact a shitload of managers with email queries. That’s what Seth Lochhead did with “Hanna”. He reportedly sent out 400 email inquiries: “A lot were one-sentence emails. A girl is trained to be an assassin; would you like to read my script.”

But before you send out anything, do what Marc says: (1) Make sure you’ve crafted a great logline. (2) Make sure you’ve written a great script.

Here’s what Lochhead had to say in an interview about how he approached writing “Hanna”: “It’s always about the script for me. Do I socialize and build my career that way or do I write a really f—king great script and build my career on that?”

If you think you’ve written a great script, but you are getting passes all over town, then it’s likely you have not written a great script.

Go back to square one. Come up with a great story concept. I mean a total, stone-cold killer of an idea for a movie. Do not settle for mediocre. Or fair. Or maybe it’s good. Or even it’s probably pretty good.

No, you want to work with an unbelievably fantastic idea for a movie.

Then write the hell out of it.

Carpet bomb Hollywood with email queries.

If, indeed, you have written a great script, you will land a manager. And an agent. And almost assuredly someone will buy your script. Next comes the Porsche.

But it always… ALWAYS comes down to what’s on the page. That is the bottom line and end of the subject. Nothing else matters except writing a great script.

Now, you can look at that and get really depressed. So much pressure, right?

On the other hand, that is the most freeing realization of all. Why? Because you do not have to worry about anything else. Your sole focus should be on learning the craft and writing a great script.

That’s it. Simplifies things, doesn’t it?

How to land representation? Do what Marc says. Do what Lochhead says. But most of all, do what every buyer, every agent, every manager, every ANYBODY who is ANYBODY in Hollywood says on the subject: WRITE A GREAT SCRIPT!

Everything else will take care of itself.

UPDATE: Ben in comments offers this nifty piece of advice:

To find my first manager I signed up for a two-week free trial at imdb pro because I couldn’t afford a subscription.

If you make good use of that 2 weeks, you can find tons of contact information.

There you have it: Not only an answer to your original question, but solid insight into the subtext of your question — how to land a rep.

If anybody has other ideas or tactics in this regard, please share in comments.

[Originally posted July 9, 2012]

Reader Question: How to approach writing a story with multiple main characters?

February 9th, 2016 by

From an anonymous GITS reader:

I was curious about stories which follow multiple characters, each with their own plight to overcome in the overlapping storyline. I suppose my question is more than one… which films are good examples of this and the second being what are tips to remember when assuming this format? What are issues that a writer should be concerned with, i.e. things to avoid when writing multiple main characters? I also assume this is suitable for both Drama and other genres.

A good starting point for your research might be this post [originally posted 10/26/08] re the movie Traffic, which is a great example of the type of movie you’re talking about. An excerpt:

Recently an English film critic Alissa Court used the phrase hyperlink cinema to describe this type of filmmaking:

Hyperlink movies are films following multiple story lines and multiple characters. These story lines and characters intersect obliquely and subtly. Events in one story line affect other story lines or characters, often in ways that the characters are unaware of or do not fully understand. Hyperlink cinema is often characterized by globe-spanning locations, multiple languages, multiple characters, strict parameters in art direction and cinematography, and frequent and drastic use of flashback and flashforward. Mise en scene are used in each story line, to create an abrupt visual break when cutting between characters and story lines.

Think movies like Crash (2004), Babel (2006), and Happy Endings (2005).

My students prefer the moniker multilinear.

Re advice how to approach writing a multilinear script, another excerpt from my OP:

If you have any aspirations to write a multiple-storyline script,Traffic is a great script to analyze. Gaghan excels in this type of storytelling, witness another excellent ‘multilinear’ script Syriana (2005). On the surface, these type of projects may be seem to be really difficult to write, however it’s mostly a matter of working out each subplot’s story arc — beginning, middle, end — then interweaving them, hopefully so that thematic elements in one subplot embellish the theme in another subplot. It’s not terribly different than what numerous 1-hour TV cop / legal / medical dramas do, stretching all the way from “Hill Street Blues” to “ER” to “C.S.I.”, each of which features (typically) three different subplots, cross cutting between each. Interesting to note that Gaghan wrote one episode of “NYPD Blue”, a show created by Stephen Bocho who has created several TV series that use multiple storylines.

Other key advice:

* Think of the lead characters in each of your subplots as their own Protagonist. Ask fundamental questions about each Protagonist: What do they want (their conscious External World goal); What do they need (their hidden Internal World goal); Who is trying to stop them from their goal (Nemesis); Who is most connected to their emotional development (Attractor); Who is most connected to their intellectual development (Mentor); Who tests them by shifting back and forth from ally to enemy (Trickster). Each of your subplots may not have a full retinue of primary character archetypes, but even so it’s good to understand the relative narrative function of each of that subplot’s characters.

* Be mindful of how, where, when, and why your subplots intersect. As the movie Crash demonstrated so well, those points of interconnection between disparate characters is one of the distinctive strengths of multi-linear stories. You would be wise to spend a good deal of time brainstorming possibilities in this regard, looking for surprising ways to cross various characters’ paths.

* In my experience, the best multilinear movies are those which revolve around one central theme because that theme can pull together the contrasting characters and their respective storylines into a coherent whole. So that’s another area to work on as you prep and write your script.

On a practical level, Stephen Bochco (noted above) came up with a simple system in cracking plots on shows like “N.Y.P.D. Blue”: Color coded 3×5 inch index cards. That is you designate one color for each subplot, work through each of that subplots major beats, then cross-cut between each subplot. I read about Bochco’s approach years ago and to my knowledge, TV writers still approach structuring scripts with multiple storylines in pretty much the same way.

One final piece of advice: While you should watch several multilinear movies and read their scripts as well, you’d be well-advised to do a scene-by-scene breakdown. You can even reverse engineer per the 3×5 inch index card approach, assigning one color per each subplot, then physically tack each scene card up onto the wall to see the story’s structure laid out before your eyes. Great way to grok how multilinear movies work.

GITS readers, any other suggestions on how to handle multilinear stories?

Here are some trailers of notable multilinear movies:

[Originally posted July 11, 2010]

Reader Question: Should I write a science fiction script on spec or not?

February 2nd, 2016 by

I get this question occasionally, something like this:

I hear science fiction is hot, but it’s hard to sell a spec script in that genre. Should I write a science fiction script on spec or not?

This came up the other day in a discussion. Here was my response:

I could give you the conventional wisdom advice — which is not to write a science fiction spec script — but then we’d probably wake up tomorrow to discover one had just sold! That’s the way things can work in Hollywood where, as William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything.”

That said, there is logic in advising against writing a specific kind of science fiction movie and that is a huge spectacle which involves world-building and a budget of $100M+. There are only 6 buyers who can finance and distribute these type of movies, so you have limited players. Plus there is an attitude among the major studios that the only type of writers they feel comfortable with handling those kinds of big budget projects and in this specific type of genre are established sci-fi writers.

However if you have a science fiction story like Moon, which if I recall correctly had a production budget of about $5M, that’s a different story. A small story with a big idea, those kind of sci-fi projects I have no problem saying, “Go for it.” You can show those to any buyer, literally dozens of them. Even if you don’t sell it, your reps can use it to expose you to prod cos and financiers who, if you hit it off, may bring you in on another project. Plus you always have this script in your personal library, an asset which may someday get produced.

Case in point, a science fiction project called Passengers:

Here is the plot summary via IMDb: “A spacecraft traveling to a distant colony planet and transporting thousands of people has a malfunction in its sleep chambers. As a result, two passengers are awakened 60 years early.”

Starring Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt, obviously this is much more than a $5M budget, but like Moon, it is a big idea in a contained environment. And now after a decade, it’s getting produced. It’s a great script and Jon Spaihts deserves a world of credit for it.

What if your science fiction story is a big budget project? I’d still suggest you come up with a low-budget story concept and write that, however if you feel super passionate about the big ticket item, like if you don’t write it, you feel like you will have missed out on giving expression to something important to you, better to write it than not. Maybe you don’t sell it now, perhaps it’s something you bring out after you’ve established yourself, but at least you will have responded to your creativity.

Who knows? Maybe you’ll write something as compelling as Passengers.

Readers, what are your thoughts: Write a big budget science fiction spec or not? Love to see your comments.

Reader Question: Are screenplay contests any good or not?

January 13th, 2016 by

Nicholas, I re-framed the question to get at what I suspect is the heart of your inquiry. I tend to have a pretty jaundiced view of most screenplay contests. In my view, there are really only a handful which carry much weight in the real world of Hollywood, the most notable one being the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting which is sponsored by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Science. That is by far the most prestigious and important competition. Winners almost always get representation, even finalists and semifinalists get attention. I have interviewed 15 Nicholl winning writers including all of the fellowship recipients from 2012, 2013, and 2014, and if you read myconversations with them, they all talk about how being selected changed their lives.

The next most influential one is the Austin Film Festival Screenplay Competition. My sense is this is not as influential as the Nicholl, but it does seem to have grown in significance over the last five years or so.

There are a few others worth exploring, but strictly in terms of serving as a legitimate entry point into Hollywood – and that means obtaining representation and potential option or sale of the material – a vast majority of these contests are largely meaningless.

Think about the underlying logic why the dozens and dozens of these contests exist: To make money for the sponsoring entities. That’s a big reason why they charge the entry fees they do.

There are a few reasons why entering contests may make sense for some writers:

  • Having a deadline for a contest can serve as motivation to complete a script. Hey, whatever it takes to finish a writing project!
  • Some outfits provide written feedback and notes which can be helpful, however you have to do your research because anybody can claim to have experience as a Hollywood reader, and if what you pay for is in effect the impressions of an intern, probably not worth the expenditure.
  • Finally for some writers, the experience of being a semifinalist in this contest or a top 10% of that contest can be a psychological boost, perhaps even a sign of getting better from script to script.

Bottom line, you are wise to check out any screenwriting contest before entering. It’s not hard to do with Google and various online writing forums.

I will say this: The ultimate contest is with Hollywood buyers. If you want a direct line to them via a reputable organization approved by both the WGA East and WGA West, check out the Black List service. I don’t know specific numbers, but the last time I spoke with Franklin Leonard about this subject, he told me well over 100 writers had gotten representation, had scripts optioned or sold, even had movies made from scripts which were uploaded to their website. The script readers are all vetted and have experience working in Hollywood. And in my view, the fees are quite reasonable. The main thing: It provides direct transparent access to people who have the power to do something with your stories.

Note: I do not make a dime from my association with the Black List, so my comments aren’t biased by any profit-making motivation. They are biased by my knowledge of who Franklin is, my personal interactions with the entire Black List team, and my embrace of the Black List vision: To create alternate avenues into Hollywood for writers outside the system.

I’m curious to read what other people have to say on the subject. Please head to comments and let me hear your thoughts. Give us all a chance to get a snapshot of the whole screenwriting contest universe.

UPDATE: I forwarded some comments to this post re the Black List website and script hosting service to Franklin Leonard. Here is his response:

The simple reality is that industry professionals are interested in reading screenplays that they will respond to. Writers who host scripts on the website can indicate that likelihood in a few ways. Loglines and tags are two, but far, far more important are the opinions of others who have previously read their script. In Black List website terms, that means paid evaluation scores and the ratings of other industry professionals.

Though we considered requiring everyone to purchase an evaluation when they uploaded a script (and receive one month of hosting for $75), we designed the website as we did in order to give writers maximum flexibility in using the platform. If you can get industry professionals to download and rate your script without purchasing evaluations, you can do so. If you wish to use purchased evaluations to encourage interest in your script, you can do that too.

The claim that you need an 8/10 or better on a paid evaluation in order to receive any notice for your script on the site is simply false. Off the top of my head, I can say, for example, that the average number of unique industry downloads for scripts whose highest ever paid evaluation is a 7 is 2.8.

Let me add my understanding of the script notes provided by Black List readers is they provide about 2 pages of comments with numeric values attached to key narrative categories (character, plot, etc) to give the writer a broad sense of whether the story is working or not and highlight largest areas of concern. If you want more extensive notes, there are professional readers I can recommend who will do that for you, but for more money than what the Black List service charges.