Reader Question: Could you provide some insight into the script development process?

October 21st, 2014 by

A question from Point Break:

I have a few questions. As rewriting is an art and not a science, when should an agent/manager/prod-co get involved in the process?

We all get scripts to a stage where we think it is ready for people to read them.

It’s difficult for unproduced writers to know when to submit, so a little insight into the development process of great scripts would be very helpful.

PB, I’m sure you’ve heard the adage, “Writing is rewriting.” I suspect that is nowhere more true than with screenwriting. For example, in the recent Creative Screenwriting feature on Pixar’s process developing Toy Story 3, screenwriter Michael Arndt talks about multiple drafts he wrote (if memory serves, I believe the number was 60). And that’s with an animated movie where the script is locked up front so the actors can record the dialogue, then the animators create the characters, scenery, and all the rest. In a live-action film, rewriting can and often does go on throughout the entire production period. And then they can test the movie and determine they need to do reshoots or an alternate ending, which requires more rewriting. So if you include the original screenwriter typing FADE IN:, then INT., then deleting that to put in EXT., it’s possible to say that the revising of a screenplay never stops, not from the first instant of a story’s creation to the final cut is done in post.

Which is to say it’s a fallacy to believe that when you type FADE OUT / The End on the final draft of your spec script, it’s a finished product. In some respects, that’s only the beginning of it.

Let’s focus here on script development in terms of the writer-representative relationship. That varies from writer to writer and rep to rep. Some agents and managers are primarily involved at the front end and back end of a spec project. Per the former, that means they will sit with a writer and go through the writer’s list of original ideas to spec or develop as a pitch, giving advice about which one to focus on based upon current market conditions, goals for the writer’s career, and just generally their gut sense of which story concept works or not. Per the latter, once the writer has a draft of the script done, they’ll send it to their reps for their read and notes. Almost always, the rep will have the script covered to get the benefit of that feedback, then provide additional comments based upon their own take on the material. This process can go back and forth for several drafts.

Other reps take a much more hands-on approach, so that the writer works up drafts of a treatment, then an outline — all for review — before beginning to write a script. And then the writer may provide the rep 30 pages of the script at a time until there’s a finished draft. Then more notes and rewrites. I don’t think this is the nature of a majority of writer-rep relationships, but I do know several writers (early in their careers) who do work this way with their reps.

At some point, it’s common for a rep to ‘slip’ the script to someone to read, generally a producer or perhaps even a studio exec to get an ‘unofficial’ read. This is not only important to get a buyer’s opinion of the material; if the script is good, it can start the buzz-building process.

Now mind you, this is all writing and rewriting before the script officially goes out to buyers. Certainly there are scripts that come across an agent or manager’s desk which end up going to market with little or no rewriting, but you have to figure that’s rare. Most of the time, a writer will shape and reshape the script per their own internal editorial process and whatever approach they’ve worked out with their reps. As I say, that varies from writer to rep.

Here’s the rub: At what point and how do the writer and rep determine when the script is ready to go to market? In theory, the rep is in the employ of the writer (after all, the writer is paying the rep anywhere from 10-15% of their earnings). However script development is one of those tricky areas where that dynamic can get blurred and it can feel like the writer is working for the rep, i.e., the rep becomes the final arbiter of the script’s development.

While that may seem wrongheaded, bear in mind that in almost all cases, the rep knows the buying marketplace better than the writer. The rep is the one with the most active relationships with producers, talent, execs, etc. So basically their information is stronger. Moreover because the rep reads a lot more scripted material than a writer, especially current specs, drafts of scripts in development at studios, and so on, it’s generally safe to assume that the rep’s knowledge in this regard is broader.

On the other hand, nobody can know the particular story world of a script more intimately than the writer. And in a good writer-rep relationship, both parties have to be mindful of the writer’s passion for the project during the development process as it’s critical that the writer stay connected to and inspired by what they’re writing. In other words, a rep can not just insist on a writer slaving over rewrite after rewrite to the detriment of the writer’s emotional state.

And then there’s the bottom line: Do you think the script works as is or not? A writer may believe this last draft is pure gold. The rep may think it needs more work. Who’s to say who’s right? Maybe the writer’s correct and the rep is just nervous about going out with the script because they’re not sure they believe in it. Maybe the rep is right because the writer’s opinion is based more on the fact that they’re sick and tired of rewriting the script, not on the quality of what’s on the page.

At some point, it comes down to trust. Does the writer trust their rep’s creative judgment? Does the rep trust the writer’s creative judgment? In a perfect world, their sensibilities are in sync. Even if they’re not, my sense is that most reps will go out with a script, whether they have doubts about it or not. First, if what William Goldman says about Hollywood is true — “Nobody knows anything” — then what’s to stop an imperfect script from selling? [And by the way, are there any perfect scripts?] Second, a rep only makes money when a script sells… and it ain’t gonna sell if it ain’t out in the marketplace. And third, as one of my agents once said, “I don’t gotta smell it to sell it.”

Now again mind you, this is all before the script goes to market. So as important as it is to have an agent and/or manager, it’s even more important to have a good manager and/or agent. As a writer, you want to believe that they have your best interest in mind, that they understand story, they aren’t afraid to be honest with you, and they are willing to work with you to find some common ground approach to script development.

Then you get lucky and sell the script. Now you enter into another level of development. But that’s a whole other level of mishegas, better saved for another time.

[Originally posted July 23, 2010]

Reader Question: What are some ways to visualize the inner world of a character?

October 2nd, 2014 by

From Anton:

I would be really interested in hearing from you on methods of how to show the inner world of a protagonist, in pictures rather than using a voice over. For example, in the french film ”A Prophet”, the protagonist speaks to the ghost of the man he killed, wich I understand is a way of showing how the protagonist copes with the pressure of being locked up in prison and learning from that experience. Or, why not, in Black Swan, where the protagonist’s inner conflicts are shown in hallucinative visions of seeing her self… I guess there are a million other ways, and I would love a discussion of that.

Best regards from Sweden and a struggling writer.

First off Anton, I think it’s safe to say that all writers are struggling writers, at least in the sense that tasked with wrangling a story into being, that process is almost assuredly a challenging one. So from one struggling writer to another — I greet you in the name of Creativity!

I applaud your instinct to push to find a visual way to communicate what is transpiring in a story’s Internal World. One of the most common errors I see when teaching college students is they tend to rely on dialogue to carry the story. I remind them often: Movies are primarily a visual medium. They are known as motion pictures. Both words spotlight film’s visual essence.

The two examples you note are instances where something the character was experiencing inside is projected into the External World in the form of visions, one of them to the point where the Protagonist is able to communicate with the ‘ghost.’ Other examples of that: Bogart in Woody Allen’s Play It Again, Sam and Parcher in A Beautiful Mind.

You can also take the reader inside a character’s mind. A great example of that occurs in American Beauty where Lester has recurring fantasies about Angela:

Something similar are flashbacks where the reader – again – goes inside the mind of a character to remember a specific event in the character’s past. There’s a notable moment like that in the movie Ordinary People in which Conrad has a breakthrough as he remembers the drowning death of his brother:

Of course one obvious way characters convey what is going on inside is through their actions, sometimes in direct opposition to their words. There’s a famous example of this in It’s a Wonderful Life:

George Bailey says he doesn’t want any plastics, he doesn’t want any ground floors, he doesn’t want to get married ever. But then, his actions show otherwise as he and Mary end up in a major clinch.

Those are some examples. How about it, GITS readers: What other ways can a writer expose what is going on in a character’s inner world besides through dialogue?

[Originally posted Mar 18, 2011]

Reader Question: What does a “bidding war” mean and how does that happen?

September 26th, 2014 by

[Originally posted April 2, 2012]

From Anonymous:

I read about spec scripts, or screen rights “going to auction” or acquired in a “bidding war.” Although I am familiar with the concept of an auction, I am wondering if you may explain what exactly this means in a Hollywood setting. What is the process? What are the formalities, if any? Who manages the auction? How are offers submitted? Fax? Email? Phone call? Where, and to whom, exactly are they submitted to? Where does the auction even take place? How much time can the auction take?

As fate would have it, I’ve received a few inquiries on the broader subject of how a spec script goes out to buyers, and I’ve forwarded a series of questions on the matter to several screenwriters I know who have sold specs in the last 2 years to get their additional insights into the matter. But for now, let me zero in on one facet: bidding war.

Simply put, a bidding war is when a literary property [spec script, pitch, book rights, etc] is being pursued by two or more buyers. Of course, this is a rep and writer’s dream scenario because the competition drives up the purchase price.

We have seen a couple of these in the last few weeks. For instance, the movie rights to the book “Fifty Shades of Grey” recently sold to Universal for $5M:

Hollywood interest erupted in the past two weeks, no doubt spurred by a New York Times article that detailed the passionate readership. When the author and her agent, Valerie Hoskins, came to L.A. last week, studio heads and producers came to them hat in hand at Soho House meetings. New Regency put in an early bid of $3 million, and Sony late last week bid $5 million, according to sources.

This was clearly an orchestrated operation with the author and agent making the rounds of all the potential buyers, then working through the various bids [they supposedly turned down an $8M offer to go with Universal].

Then last week, there was the spec script “White House Down” which sold to Sony for $3M. From what I’ve heard there were multiple offers on the script, coming down in the end to Paramount and Sony [although with Vanderbilt doing so much work for Sony, there was probably no way the studio would allow itself to be outbid by a rival]. Again this was a scenario orchestrated by the writer’s reps.

Sometimes bidding wars can break out in a less systematic fashion. For instance, there have been cases where a spec script was ‘slipped’ to a producer or studio exec, then the script filtered out to others, and suddenly offers started to emerge. While the reps may have hoped for something like that to happen, this is less a case of a planned auction than serendipity.

There have even been cases where there was a bidding war… when there was only one buyer. As rumor has it, that happened with the 1990 spec script “Texas Lead and Gold” in which the property went out for the back-then well-established practice of the ‘weekend read.’ A lot of heat generated about the script over the weekend. The agent started fielding calls on Monday. All passes. But when the eventual buyer called, the agent inferred there were other offers happening. The buyer hung up, then called back with a million dollar offer, in essence bidding against himself.

Admittedly bidding wars do not happen often because they require certain elements:

* A hot script: This is the most obvious thing, the script has to generate a lot of buzz around town.

* Buyers flush with cash: Like all businesses, studios have their own fiscal years and their own development funds. Sometimes they have a lot of money, other times they do not.

* Buyers who have a need: If a script goes out and it’s in a genre that several studios need to fill, that’s a good thing. If the studios are all filled up in that genre, not so much.

* A meaningful attachment: This seemed to be a requirement as recently as 2010, spec scripts needing to go out with a desirable actor and/or director attached. But during this recent upswing in spec sale activity, I’ve been noticing a lot more scripts selling free and clear of attachments. That said depending upon the name, attachments can help give a project juice.

* Magic: You can go out at just the right time and generate a lot of buzz, and not end up selling the project, which demonstrates that sometimes the project needs to have magic to make a deal happen.

As I said, we will be getting into this whole area of discussion as I get feedback from the screenwriters I approached.

As usual, if anyone in the GITS community has other insights into the question, please feel free to post in comments. But in sum, as you fantasize about breaking into the business by selling a spec script, you most definitely want to include in your dreams the idea of a bidding war breaking out over your story.

If you want to read a comprehensive take on the wider subject of spec scripts, go here for my 20 part series: “Everything You Wanted to Know About Specs”.

UPDATE: A nice bit of synchronicity as there was a bidding war yesterday in Hollywood. Stay tuned for details in the next post.

Reader Question: Should writers be concerned about projects that have similar concepts to theirs?

September 24th, 2014 by

Question from Eric Harris:

Should writers be concerned about projects that have slightly similar concepts to theirs though the plots, characters, theme, etc are completely different? You’ve worked on a script for months, maybe even longer and then you hear something in development that has a slightly similar concept.

First, unless you are writing a quadrasexual snuff musical in Norwegian, you know… something really obscure… you should always be prepared to be blown out of the water by another project that gets set up before yours. I have had this happen more than once and wrote about a particularly painful experience here in which we were literally days away from going out with a spec when another one quite like it sold.

The saving grace is this idea of ‘similar but different’. I have posted about this many times and will include a bunch of links below for those who want to escape down the rabbit hole of one of Hollywood’s most longstanding business philosophy, but let’s just distill it here.

Hollywood likes similar projects for two primary reasons:

* It is easier to market a movie if it can ‘draft’ off the success of a predecessor film that has done well. If a consumer can see a trailer and go, “Oh, this is like Groundhog Day only it’s science fiction movie,” the studio will feel more confident they can sell the movie… unless you are Warner Bros. and blow the campaign for Edge of Tomorrow. And since marketing costs have skyrocketed over the last decade, getting a movie lodged into the consciousness of moviegoers is a big damn deal. Similar but different can help.

* The business is built on fear of failure. So perhaps the best Cover Your Ass excuse is to green light a project that is similar but different because the execs can always say, “But it was like Avatar which did two billion dollars!” In other words, it’s safer to go with something more similar than it is to commit dollars to something that more different.

So with that as a frame, let’s look at your question, Eric. Two things:

* The word “slightly”. If that’s an accurate appraisal, your project only slightly similar to one already set up, you’re probably on safe ground. Indeed, depending upon the status of the competing project, specifically if it is generating good buzz, has quality talent attached, slotted to be released in a valuable spot on the calendar, the fact your project is similar but different can actually be a plus for your project. Why? Because if the expectation is the other project is going to do well, then that suggests there is fertile ground in that genre and subject area, so another buyer may see an opportunity to pick up your script, produce it and get it out to moviegoers in a time frame where it can draft off the first movie.

* “You’ve worked on a script for months.” If by that you mean you are at least halfway through the final writing process, unless the other project is exactly like yours, I’d say finish your script. You’ve already committed all that time and effort to it, plus you will never know if it could have sold or not unless you do complete it. Besides even if it doesn’t sell, you can hope that it would benefit you as a writing sample.

But know this: If you traffic in writing mainstream movies, you automatically increase the chances someone will beat you to the punch. And you just have to flat-out learn to live with that reality.

Which is why sometimes this writing mantra, even though a harsh one, can be the best one to get your ass onto a chair and start working:

“If you’re not writing… someone else is.”

And speaking of ‘similar but different’:

Related Links:

Similar but different

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 1: Remakes)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 2: Retro)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 3: Playing the Game)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 4: Archetypes)

‘Similar But Different’ (Part 5: Psychological Journey)

Question: How far can a writer go with the “similar but different” approach?

Readers, if you have any thoughts about Eric’s question or the subject of ‘similar but different,’ please head to comments and share them with us. And if you’ve been beaten to the punch by a competing project, it might be a cathartic experience for you to recount this tragic state of affairs.

Reader Question: Given the odds against success, how do you keep motivated?

September 15th, 2014 by

Question from 14shari:

The road from unpaid screenwriter to paid screenwriter is long, winding and unpredictable. It’s not certain that you’ll ever be one. How can one keep yourself motivated?

Shari, what you say is true. The odds against success as a screenwriter or TV writer are long. Plus it may take many years before achieving even a modicum of financial success.

In the face of that, how to keep motivated? Let me propose three perspectives, each with a different tone. The first positive reinforcement. The second negative reinforcement. The third a plain simple truth.

Positive Reinforcement: Every year, writers break into the business. That’s a fact. Whether they write a spec script or original TV pilot, or make a short or feature-length film, they create a story that lands in front of the right people, and now they find themselves on the inside, not outside looking in. The numbers might not be huge, but at least several hundred writers per year manage to do it. If you want living proof, you need look no further than me: A complete Hollywood outsider with no formal training who wrote a spec script, sold it for a bunch of money, and saw it produced as a major studio motion picture along with a TV pilot and two sequels. The possibility of breaking in should be a strong motivational reminder.

Negative Reinforcement: If you aren’t writing, someone else is. Let’s face it: Being a screenwriter or TV writer is a competition. When we are not researching story, developing characters, generating concepts, reading scripts, watching movies, writing pages, and all the rest involved with honing our craft… other writers out there who are. That thought alone has been motivation enough to get my ass onto chair to write many, many times. Not a pleasant thought, but a persuasive image nonetheless.

Plain Simple Truth: I’m reminded of a story told to me that involves musician David Grisman, whose claim to fame is creating what is known as “Dawg” music, a mixture of bluegress (Grisman plays mandolin) and jazz. I should note for context, “Dawg” is Grisman’s nickname given to him by none other than Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead. As the story goes, a friend is talking with Grisman backstage at a music festival. Grisman patiently listens to his friend who is having some sort of life crisis. Should he do this, should he do that. On and on the friend goes until Grisman plants his hands firmly on the guy’s shoulders, looks him square in the face, then says this: “Do it. Or don’t do it. But you know. You… know.” Then walks away, happily strumming his mandolin.

The plain simple truth is you are either going to do this thing called ‘writing’… or not. Only the deepest part of your Creative Self and time will determine how that plays out. Every time you commit yourself to writing another story, another feature script, another original TV pilot, you are doing it.

You may choose not to do it. There is no shame in that. Chasing creative ambitions given the competition and odds against success is a crazy passion, and for some people, it’s just not worth it. In that case, I would choose to believe there is some other path for them to pursue.

So should you take up this new writing project or not? Should you do that scene-by-scene breakdown of the next movie you have on your list to watch or not? Should you do that sit-down session with the character in your story who has been so hard to get to know or not? Should you take yet another pass at revising this script or not?

Do it. Or don’t do it. But you know. You… know.

There you go, Shari. Three perspectives. Hopefully one to fit any mood you find yourself in. And for a little musical inspiration, here is David Grisman on “The Tonight Show” in 1979 with the David Grisman Quintet and the great jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli. Check out Johnny Carson’s reaction at the end of their song.

How about you, readers? How do you keep yourself motivated to write? I welcome your thoughts in comments!

Reader Question: How long should an outline / treatment be before starting a first draft?

September 11th, 2014 by

Question from MichaelSWaters:

I was interested in how long you (or others) think an outline (or treatment) should be before starting a first draft?

Michael, the fact you are asking that question is a good sign about your instincts as a writer. While some writers may not need to do much in the way of prep work, preferring to find the story after they type FADE IN or the first line of their novel, most professional screenwriters I know personally, have interviewed, or have read or heard talking about the craft embrace the idea of ‘breaking the story’ in advance of the actual page-writing part of the process. In fact, working up an outline before going to script is as innate to TV writing as is the snack table.

As to your specific question, there are no rules about minimum page count for an outline or treatment. Every writer is different. Every story is different. If it’s a writing assignment, the needs of the studio or production company will vary. I’ve never had to submit a treatment, beat sheet or outline, always gone in with a detailed take on the material, a pitch-conversation, then gone to draft. That said, I think it’s increasingly common for writers on assignment to work up something on paper and that can often involve multiple drafts going back and forth for comments and revisions.

However I think your question is aimed more at a writer working on a spec project, essentially asking, How can we tell we know our story well enough to type FADE IN?

There’s no set answer to that. For example, screenwriter Ron Bass (Rain Man) says this:

Everything I write is in three acts, and I actually start with three pieces of paper. I have some notion of where each act begins and ends before I get to this stage. I know my people and I know roughly about how many scenes each act should be. I start from the beginning and end of an act, working forwards and backwards toward the middle. I know that somewhere there’s going to be a moment of this, a moment of that, and it’s like a matrix. I don’t work with cards, just one page per act. When I finish three acts, I page budget. I want to know I can tell the story in a distance that’s appropriate. And I’m rarely more than ten pages off.

That sounds more like a beat sheet approach. Compare to Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver):

I know exactly where I’m going beforehand. I know to the half page if I’m on or off target. I draw up charts before I do a script. I endlessly chart and re-chart a movie. Before I sit down to write, I have all the scenes listed, what happens in each scene, how many pages I anticipate each scene will take. I have a running log on the film. I can look down and see what happens by page thirty, what happens by page forty, fifty, sixty and so forth. I have the whole thing timed out to a hundred and five, a hundred and ten pages.

That looks more like an extensive scene-by-scene outline. In fact, here is an image of one outline page from a script Schrader wrote, Raging Bull:

Raging Bull outline

Some writers, like Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs), prefer a more literary approach to prep, working up a treatment:

It [a treatment] is about twenty-five or thirty single-spaced pages normally, in paragraph outline, and it has a very conventional three-act structure and it’s my attempt to describe the movie scene-by-scene. If it’s an important movie, I’ll go into some detail about what happens and why. There’s virtually no dialogue in it unless it’s really important to the scene–it’s suggested but I don’t want anybody to pin me down on that. And if it’s a small scene or a sequence of them I might just say “And now there’s a montage” without going into too much detail. But it’s pretty specific; act one, scene one, two, three…

There are even scriptments, long treatments with some script elements, primarily dialogue. You can go here to download the James Cameron scriptment for Avatar.

If you want a ballpark number, Tally’s take on a treatment, “twenty-five or thirty single-spaced pages,” is generally where my outlines land: 25-35 pages. Unlike Schrader, I put everything I think is important for each scene into that document: B-M-E (Beginning, Middle, End), Point (What’s the point of the scene, how does it tie into the Plotline and Themeline, moving the story forward), Type (What type of scene it is), Characters (Who are the characters, why are they in that scene, what are their respective goals in that scene), even bits of scene description and dialogue that may have emerged in my prep work, then often a Notes section to remind me of the scene’s function within the broader arc of the narrative, theme, and so forth.

But again, there are no rules. You may be a writer who only needs a beat sheet. Or you may be someone who prefers to work out a scriptment. Find what works for you… and do that.

Two final thoughts.

First, while there may be no specific page count etched in stone to determine when your outline or treatment is ready to take you to draft, you do have this: Your gut. If you check in with your instincts and you can honestly say you are pumped to write the story, not just weary of the prep phase, but really feel like you know it enough to see that story universe and hear those characters, then go for it no matter what you’ve come up with in terms of a prep document.

Second, no matter how much prep work you do, once you type FADE IN, you have to be willing to follow the story where it goes. I call the first draft a ‘journey of discovery’ because even with as much as you have learned about your story through prep, there are things that can only emerge in the actual page-writing part of the process.

That is why it is critical when you finally do type FADE IN, commit yourself to one goal: Get the damn thing done! No stopping. No turning back. Just pound out those pages and get to FADE OUT. Even if what you’re writing feels like utter crap, heed the words of screenwriter Chris Sparling:

No matter what you write, good or bad, it’s an improvement to a blank page.

Readers, how about you? How do you know you’ve developed your story enough to type FADE IN? What type of prep work do you do: Beat sheet, treatment, outline, scriptment?

BTW, I created a 1-week Craft class called Story Summaries which covers Logline, Synopsis, Breakdown, Treatment, Scriptment, and Beat Sheet, not only what they are and how to write them, but also how each can be a valuable tool in your story development process. I’ll be teaching that again sometime 2015. You can access that content immediately as part of the Craft Package.

Reader Question: Do reps (agents & managers) hate it when writers have directing and producing ambitions?

September 10th, 2014 by

Question from Eric Harris:

Do reps (agents & managers) hate it when writers have directing and producing ambitions?

Is this something you’ve read or heard, Eric, because generally I don’t think this is the case. I suppose there could be a concern the writer might get distracted trying to stretch into producing and/or directing, which might lead to fewer writing gigs. And, indeed, because directing requires full-time dedication to a go-project, that is time the [now] writer-director can’t be chasing writing gigs, let alone focusing on their writing. Potentially that could result in lower income, at least initially.

On the other hand, if successful, a writer-director can make more money per project which is good both for the creative and her/his reps. Meanwhile producing allows a writer to be involved in multiple projects at any given time, maximizing their chances of actually getting something greenlit.

But the bottom line here would be this: A good rep will listen to their client about what they [the client] want to do creatively with their career. If they are passionate to direct or produce, that should be a consideration in the discussions between the rep and writer. Obviously the rep will be important in strategizing how to get the writer into a position become a hyphenate, and they would, I think, be motivated to do that. After all, a happy client is a good client… assuming they’re making money!

It just so happens that Part 2 of the Screenwriters Roundtable which ran today features a discussion in which the writers lay out some of the reasons why they want to direct, and in fact, some of them are directing their own projects.  Presumably their reps were actively involved in helping to make that happen.

That said, given how hot TV is right now, I would think the default Big Pitch a rep would make to a screenwriter is, “Why don’t we explore getting you into television.” There’s a lot of money on that side of the table, at least at present, and employment numbers suggest more gigs there, too [still super competitive].

I’m curious if any writers out there have ever had resistance from their reps about moving into writing-directing or writing-producing. My guess is the answer would be few and far between.

Reader Question: What’s the fastest way to speed up the learning curve to write at the next level?

September 3rd, 2014 by

Question from Eric Harris:

What’s the fastest way to speed up the learning curve on writing at the next level?

I’m tempted to say that’s not the right question.

Oh, hell, I’ll just say it:

THAT’S NOT THE RIGHT QUESTION!

It shouldn’t be about the fastest way. It should be about the best way to get your writing to the next level!

‘Fast’ suggests a cursory degree of understanding, skimming through the learning process. Seriously, what kind of writer can you expect to be if that’s the approach.

A surface level writer! And there are thousands of those whose scripts get rejected by Hollywood every year.

No, I advise you to immerse yourself in the craft. Deep immersion. Read every script. Watch every movie. Listen to every podcast. Write pages. Then more pages. Even more pages.

Give yourself over fully to learning the craft.

The more scripts you read, the more you will pick up on structure, characters, themes, subplots, how to write scenes, how to handle transitions, the writer’s voice as expressed through scene description and dialogue, and on and on. Some of this learning will be conscious. But some of it will seep down into your subconscious. And as you feel your way through writing pages, it will be that part of your psyche which will instinctively guide you into and through those scenes.

The more movies you watch, the more you will increase you knowledge about the language of cinema. This is important not only for your writing, it’s also critical in your ability to carry on coherent conversations with studio executives, producers, talent, and reps, all of whom constantly reference movies in conversations. If you’ve seen those movies, you won’t just be nodding your head with the stunned gaze of a deer in a car’s approaching headlights, you’ll actually have something to contribute, which will enhance your chances of landing the writing gig.

The more pages you write, the more comfortable you will get with the medium. To a novice writer, writing a FULL LENGTH FEATURE FILM SCRIPT is a daunting task in part because it seems so damn impossible to accomplish. If you write 1, 2, 3, or more screenplays, you demystify the process. That script is not this monster waiting to devour your psyche, rather it’s simply a series of scenes and sequences, small components of a larger whole.

Then there’s the whole matter of living life. While I can’t say it’s impossible for a young person to write a great script, there is something to be said about getting experience in the real world, then bringing that experience to bear on your script pages.

That said, if you want to expedite the learning process, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that as long as you are willing to put in the time and effort to do it right. Deep immersion! If you’re in a hurry, then immerse yourself as quickly as possible.

But don’t do a half-assed job by living on the surface. Rather go deep into the world of movies and learn as much as you can to support and stimulate your creative process.

How about you, readers? Any thoughts or suggestions for Eric? I’ll see you in comments to continue the conversation.

Reader Question: How do you determine if a script is good?

August 27th, 2014 by

Question from 14Shari:

In one of your posts you advice to have at least three scripts in your portfolio. how do you decide which ones are good examples? Are there any measurements or standards one can use?

This is a great question, Shari. At a basic level, you’d like to have a strong belief in the material yourself. In December 1986, I mailed a letter along with the final draft of the spec script K-9 I had just edited. In that letter, I wrote to my writing partner something to the effect that if somebody didn’t buy the script, everyone in Hollywood was crazy. I said that based on two things. First, an utter lack of understanding about how unfathomably hard it is to sell a spec script in Hollywood (in that respect, I was the one who was crazy). Second, my absolute belief in the story.

But I would not recommend putting material out to Hollywood reps and buyers based solely on one’s belief. All writers can be blind to a story’s quality – or lack thereof – getting swept up by the material and the writing process.

[Piece of advice: After you finish a draft, set it aside for at least 2 weeks. You may think you've written the Great American Screenplay, perfect in every way. When you read it again after a break with a 'fresh' set of eyes, you'll likely be amazed at how imperfect the script is.]

As a matter of course, I would recommend you have any script you write evaluated by professional readers. In point of fact, one of the reasons I believed so fully in K-9 was because the previous draft had been reviewed by two studio executives, who provided some extremely helpful feedback which ended up being incorporated into that final draft.

So who constitutes “professional readers”? Not your spouse. Your parents. Your children. Your siblings. Your next-door neighbor. If they are friends or family, especially if they don’t know much about what constitutes a solid script, their opinions don’t really matter all that much, and in fact their praise for your material can lead you to a cloudy assessment of your story.

Fortunately there are professional script readers, many of them available online. A relatively cost-effective way just to get a sense if your script is in the ballpark or not are the Black List readers. [NOTE: I do not make any money from my association with the Black List.] I know many people who have used this service and praise it. Indeed, I’ve tried it on a script project to get impartial feedback. I found the comments on-point and helpful.

Another route to determining if a script is good is the big screenwriting contests, the Nicholl Fellowship and the Austin Screenwriting Competition probably the most prestigious of the bunch. If you do well in either or both, you not only know your script is a strong one, you’re likely to be contacted by Hollywood reps.

The thing is no two readers are alike. You may pay to have several pro readers provide feedback on your script and each may have a differing take on it. This could end up confusing you, providing no clear path through the rewrite. So there are dangers in getting too many assessments.

Frankly, some stories are just going to create widely divergent views. I co-wrote a script featuring a hard-to-like protagonist. My agents at CAA had it covered by two in-house script readers. One thought it was really good. The other utterly loathed it.

So we circle back to your belief. Before you send out a script or query a rep, you should be able to give an honest appraisal of it, and truly believe that you have written a good story. But in my opinion, you should only get to that point after you’ve had the script reviewed by pro readers, and you’ve rewritten the script to address the issues that you feel are worth fixing.

Hey, just as I was wrapping up this response, I remembered an interview I did with writer-director Declan O’Dwyer who sold his spec script “Broken Cove” to Hollywood while living over in the U.K. by submitting it on the Black List website He had this to say on the subject:

That was one of the best things about putting it on the Black List. It’s one of the first times that I’d ever exposed myself to such criticism. I don’t agree with paying £500, $600 and often more, whatever, to one of those industry script reading services to get a generic script editor, ONE script editor, to go through my script and tell me what was wrong with it structurally and thematically and dialogue‑wise? I don’t agree with that – smacks to me as a fucking rip-off – preying on peoples hopes and aspirations. Many (not all) are just looking to tick certain boxes, to hand it to certain people who would like certain things. That’s not what I want.

The Black List is different. I put it up there and I paid for a couple ‘reads’. It’s a very small fee – especially when you think you’re getting people that do this for a living, reading your script, breaking it down, analyzing it, and putting up a review. Whether you like the feedback or not, that’s irrelevant – you learn much more from criticism that you do from praise.

I had some great, great reads for “Broken Cove.” First, a couple of 8’s and then I had a couple 9’s for dialogue n’stuff. Then I had a 4, man, from the dialogue. I was just like, “What? What kinda drugs are you on?”

Yeah man, I used the Black List as my script editor. I found when I got bad feedback and things, I was really honest with myself, really brutally honest, after having that initial, “What the fuck are they talking about?” moment. It was the, “Oh right, yeah, that’s what they’re talking about.” If I agree, I change it. If I didn’t, I didn’t. You’ve got to have faith in your story. I wouldn’t have written it if I didn’t have faith in it because my attention spans’ too short.

Declan used the Black List as his “script editor.” Whether it’s the Black List or some other readers, this is my point: You can use pro readers to give you feedback, consider the critiques honestly, make the changes you think are necessary, and see where that takes you with the next draft. You may need to go through the process several times, like Declan did. But look where it got him!

You can read my interview with Declan here.

But wait! There’s more! Just as I was about to schedule this sucker, a Twitter conversation broke out about script readers. To provide a counter position, here is what Craig Mazin (The Hangover II, Identity Thief) tweeted:

So like everything else with regard to this crazy craft, each writer has to figure out their own process. Some, like Declan, will benefit from getting pro reads. Others may not. At the very least, however, using readers like the Black List is a cost efficient way to determine if your script is on the right track and identify potential areas to work on.

Readers, what are your thoughts? How do you determine if your script is ready to submit somewhere or not? Please head to comments and share your thoughts.

Reader Question: Are movies featuring LGBT leads destined to be relegated to indie film permanently?

August 26th, 2014 by

Question from j_midtown:

While we mourn Robin Williams’ untimely passing [last] week, among the more frequently mentioned of his credits was The Birdcage. Released way back in 1996, The Birdcage ranks as the highest-ever grossing LGBT-themed movie at $124M domestic and was released by MGM. Paramount had a couple of gay-themed releases in the years closely following, but since then no major studio has dipped their toes into those waters, despite the dramatic swing in societal and cultural acceptance of LGBT people over the same period.

Certainly, part of this can be attributed to the swing to franchise-driven, tent-pole releases at the majors and the death of the mid-budget drama and comedy productions generally, but are there other factors at work? Are studios afraid of the subject matter? Are specs with major gay characters or themes complete non-starters? Is there any hope for change or will gay cinema be relegated to low-budget, independent film permanently?

Indiewire came out with a recent article (August 5) on precisely this point: Why Don’t LGBT Movies Make Money At The Box Office Anymore. Check out these charts:

Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (1990-1999)
1. The Birdcage (1996) – $124,060,553
2. The Talented Mr. Ripley (1999) – $81,298,265
3. Philadelphia (1993) -  $77,446,440
4. In & Out (1996) – $63,856,929
5. To Wong Foo (1995) – $36,474,193
6. The Object of My Affection (1998) – $29,187,243
7. Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil (1997) – $25,105,255

Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (2000-2009)
1. Brokeback Mountain (2005) – $83,043,761
2. Bruno (2009) – $60,054,530
3. The Hours (2002) – $41,675,994
4. Monster (2003) – $34,469,210
5. Milk (2008) – $31,841,299
6. Rent (2005) - $29,077,547
7. Capote (2005) - $28,750,530

Top Grossing Films With Lead LGBT Character (2010-present)
1. The Kids Are All Right (2010) – $20,811,365
2. Blue is the Warmest Color (2013) – $2,199,787
3. I Love You, Phillip Morris (2010) – $2,037,459
4. Farewell My Queen (2012) – $1,347,990
5. I’m So Excited (2013) – $$1,368,119
6. La Mission (2010) – $1,062,940
7. Kill Your Darlings (2014) - $1,030,064

As the article notes, the numbers are a bit skewed in that we are only five-and-a-half years into this decade. Maybe there’s a Birdcage or Brokeback Mountain yet to come in the next four years that could significantly alter box office results.

[Note: Even though Dallas Buyers Club did not feature a gay lead character, the subject matter as well as some other characters did tie into the LGBT community, and that movie has grossed $55M worldwide.]

If I were a conspiracy theorist, I might be tempted to compare these downward numeric trendlines of LGBT movies to those of recent Christian theme films like God’s Not Dead [$62M], Son of God [$68M], and Heaven is for Real [$100M], which have been generating solid numbers at the box office. Do Hollywood studios and financiers perceive there is more money to be made in religious films now rather than movies featuring LGBT characters? Of course, they do not have to be mutually exclusive, however if movie companies are actively seeking religious audiences, might they be hedging their bets on LGBT projects as not to offend more conservative church-going movie fans?

I doubt very seriously if the two are connected, however the reality is the primary focus of any Hollywood film company is one thing: Profits. In this regard, a more telling fact about the chart above is that none of the movies released since 2010 has been distributed by a major studio, whereas The Birdcage [United Artists], The Talented Mr. Ripley [Paramount/Miramax], Philadelphia [TriStar], and In & Out [Paramount] all were.

Is Hollywood afraid of dealing with LGBT subject matter? That seems unlikely as there is a significant paradigm shift going on in the U.S. over the last several years. There are 19 states now where it is legal for gays to get married, a number that is sure to continue growing. Support for same-sex marriage has jumped 21% since 2003, including 61% of young Republicans. So it’s not like movies with LGBT themes would be more controversial nowadays. On the contrary from a cultural standpoint, it seems like this topic of conversation is becoming normalized.

Perhaps that’s a contributing factor to the decline in box office. In the 90s, when the subject matter in a movie would have been more controversial, the studios could generate buzz simply with the casting: Robin Williams as a gay character! Matt Damon as a gay character! Tom Hanks as a gay character! Would that generate as much noise in today’s marketplace?

Part of this shift, too, has to be tied to the studios’ bifurcated approach to business, where they spend a lot of time and money on franchise movies, heavy with CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) and little in the way of A-list actors, and low budget genre movies on the other end of the slate. In other words, they’re just not making many mid-budget dramas or comedies which is what all of those successful LGBT movies from the 90s and 2010s were.

Re spec scripts: If a writer has a fantastic story to tell featuring an LGBT lead character and they passionate to write it, my advice would be to set aside market considerations and go for it. Remember, specs are not just about sales, they are first and foremost a way to convey talent and voice to the Hollywood development community. Yes, a spec can sell. It can also get you representation. Meetings with producers and development execs. Your name put onto lists for writing assignments. A great story executed wonderfully in a screenplay can do all of that for you.

Bottom line, perhaps we are in a period where movies featuring LGBT lead characters have been ‘relegated’ to the indie world. But as soon as a gay version of The Heat or Bridesmaids comes out and does great box office, Hollywood will be all over that, to test those waters for potential revenues. If a company thinks they can get such a movie produced and make money on it, they’ll buy it… and try it.

Readers, what do you think? What sort of trend do you see for LGBT theme movies?

UPDATE: In the meantime, Love Is Strange, starring John Lithgow and Alfred Molina as a longtime couple whose lives are changed when they decide to get married, gets a wide expansion in theaters this weekend.