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.

Reader Question: How to write about a historical figure, but not basing it off previous material?

August 20th, 2014 by

Question from Bretton Zinger:

I’m wondering about how you go about writing about a historical figure but not base it off of previous material. For example, let’s say I want to make a movie about George Washington. (He’s not the subject of my idea.) Numerous books have been written about him. If I’ve read many of those books, I have a reasonable understanding of his life. Is it possible to write an original script about him or would I have to secure rights to one or more of the books I have read that created my interest? Of course, I could do my own research by looking at his original correspondence, records, etc., but I would have still read the biographies of him and the material would obviously greatly overlap. Does that make sense?

Related question from Eric Harris:

How do you deal with stories that are partly based on real life people that are famous or infamous? Can you quote them verbatim for stuff they actually said? or should you make up dialogue for them? Can you make up stuff, change up timelines, make composite characters to tighten up the start and drama…and streamline it? Real life often does not fit the Hollywood 2 hour 3 act formula….so some finessing needs to be done.

I am not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on TV. And even if I did, I would not suggest you rely on me for any concrete legal advice.

That said, I think I’m pretty safe in stating this: If a person is in the public eye, they are pretty much fair game to do whatever you would do with them. I mean, for God’s sake, Hollywood produced a movie called Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter. I think I just summed up my argument right there.

Seriously, our 16th President. Emancipation Proclamation. Face on Mt. Rushmore. Saved the Union. And this is how Hollywood treated a real life historical figure.

As far compositing characters, changing timelines, making up stuff… there’s an old saying in Hollwyood: “Never let the facts get in the way of the story.”

In other words, Scott Myers, Non-Esquire says: “Go for it!”

Okay, let’s be serious for a second. Some of your choices would depend on the type of story you are writing and how historically careful you feel you need to be. If, for example, you are doing a drama that can best work by hewing close to historical facts, then you would need to do research to support that goal and shape the narrative accordingly.

But there is historical truth and there is aesthetic truth. And in almost every case, Hollywood is much more concerned with the latter than the former. Top Priority: Tell a good story.

Which brings us back to Abraham Lincoln, who as Bill and Ted discovered, has the last word on the subject with this advice to writers:

Any lawyers out there, please step in and steer Bretton and Eric onto the path of righteousness… and no culpability from a legal standpoint, if my expert analysis falls short of the truth.

Reader Question: What is a good number of scripts to have in my portfolio?

August 14th, 2014 by

Question from patchieg23:

I know there has been a lot of content generated surrounding breaking into the business, how to gain attention/notoriety (Black List, Screenplay Competitions, etc), how to get agents, etc…I guess my question is a bit of a variation on that theme: I’m wondering, as someone who is currently working on generating a large slush fund in order to quit their job and move to L.A. in the next few months, what is a good number of scripts to have in my “portfolio”? I know traditional wisdom says “Write a great script and you will be found” and “Write every day to get better” but I guess if there exists an agreed upon cache of developed pieces that a new-to-town aspiring writer should arm himself with, how many should be in that cache? And should they be a mix of feature and TV to show versatility? Or just whichever format you are passionate about? (Personally this writer would love to do either/or). Thanks in advance for your insights!

I actually addressed this subject before in a Business of Screenwriting entry [originally posted April 19, 2012]. I just read through it and think it’s worth reprinting in its entirety:

This is advice for the front end of your life as a screenwriter. Advice you may not want to hear… but advice you need to hear.

Three scripts. Don’t even contemplate working in Hollywood as a writer until you’ve completed at least three scripts.

You may think you know your way around a screenplay after you’ve written your first one.

Trust me, you don’t.

After finishing your second script, you are amazed at how much further along you have come in your understanding of the craft.

You’re still not where you need to be yet.

In my experience working with writers, It’s not until at least your third script that you can distinguish between your metaphorical ass and metaphorical hole-in-the-ground.

You can study the craft, you can read books, you can take classes, you can watch movies, and all that you should be doing. But there is a kind of knowledge you can only get by writing and completing scripts, a conscious and intuitive understanding of the craft you must have to succeed as a working writer.

Why three? Why not five? Ten?

In all honesty, after you’ve written five scripts, you will look back at the You Who Wrote Three Scripts and say, “What the hell was I thinking?” And when you’ve written ten scripts, you’ll reflect back on You Who Wrote Five Scripts and say, “Gawd, what I didn’t know.”

You will always be learning.

So why three? Oh, I could give you all sorts of theories… how after 1 and 2, three is the first number to signify a pattern… how there may be a synergistic connection to a story’s three acts… but in truth I choose three because K-9 was my third script, and I sold that as a spec. Hey, if it worked for me, maybe it can work for you!

Now let me share something important. I deal with this all the time: A writer who is finishing their very first screenplay. And they are consumed with the idea about how they are going to use it to get representation.

Fine. I get their enthusiasm. Finishing that first script is important, perhaps the single biggest step in a writer’s career path because it proves you can do it. The first script separates you from all the people out there who simply talk about writing a script, but never do.

So please understand, I grasp the significance of that first script.

But imagine for a moment it’s you who has just finished that first script. We are talking about it and you utter these words: “How do I get an agent or a manager?”

This is a scenario I want you to consider.

Let’s say you blind query 500 managers.

You get that script to a manager who reads it, contacts you, and agrees to take you on.

Then that script goes around town and you start to take meetings.

One of the meetings goes great. They hit you up with a story they have in development. It needs a fresh take. You throw out a few ideas off the top of your head.

Lo and behold, they love your ideas! And the next thing you know, you have landed your first professional writing gig.

You get an agent! You get a lawyer! You get a hangover from a celebratory night on the town!

Cut to your lawyer’s office. You’re sitting at a table. In front of you is a contract. For this vaunted writing gig. And right there in black and white is a date: 10 weeks from today.

That is the day you will be contractually obligated to deliver the draft of the script.

Your script.

Now I ask you these questions: “Are you ready to deliver the goods? Do you have a set of practices you have developed to get you through that writing process? Do you have the confidence to believe you can nail that story?”

Because when you sign that contract, that’s it. Play time is over. Your butt is on the line.

I say this not to scare you, rather to inject a sense of reality into the situation. Ultimately your competition is not with some hypothetical aspiring writers or writers in screenplay competitions, but actual professional writers. And you need to be able to match up to their level of creativity, proficiency, and understanding of the craft and the business.

Will one script get you there? Almost assuredly not.

Two scripts? Maybe.

Three? If you write and complete three screenplays, at least you will have a foundation of experience and understanding. You will have faced the peaks and valleys of the entire scripting process multiple times. You will have started to develop your own approach to the craft, your own writer’s voice.

This is not to say you will know everything. See my comments above about five scripts and ten scripts. And no matter how good you become as a writer, it is almost a lock at some point you will fuck up. In a business where, as William Goldman famously said, “Nobody knows anything,” that is a given.

But at the front end of your career, you want to do everything you can to give you the best chance at succeeding as a professional screenwriter. And a certain amount of that can only come by knocking out scripts.

So you’ve finished one script. Great. Congratulations. Go write another one.

You finish a second script. Excellent. Congrats, again. Go write another one.

After you do that three times, maybe… just maybe you’ll be ready for Hollywood.

UPDATE: On Twitter, @alxhuls agreed about three scripts and made another good point:

It’s mostly because I know how amateur it would be to have an agent see one script & say “What else you got?” & have nothing

True. I made the exact same point here.

It may take you five, seven, ten, fifteen or more scripts to break into the business. Your mileage may vary. All I’m saying is bare minimum, you should have three completed scripts under your belt.

As to writing TV or movies: There’s so much crossover nowadays, you don’t hurt yourself by writing specs in either area. Yes, TV is hot right now. Upside: People are actively looking for TV writers. Downside: The market is being flooded with TV spec pilots.

patchieg23, I’d recommend setting aside market considerations and go with your instinct about writing what you are “passionate about” if for no other reason you are more likely to create something that conveys your enthusiasm for it and do a better job writing it.

Readers, how many scripts do you think a writer should have in hand before trying to break into the movie or TV business? If you have any thoughts on these matters, please head to comments and weigh in.

UPDATE: You should check out @JohnGary on Twitter and find the thread of tweets he’s doing as a follow-up to my post. He’s providing more important insight and information on this very subject.

Your questions?

August 13th, 2014 by

If you have a question about screenwriting or the movie business, and you don’t see it answered here, feel free to post it in comments. I do my best to get to all questions. And even if I don’t have deep insight into it, often members of the GITS community do.

Screenwriting theory. Style. Trends. Movie business. Whatever is on your mind. I’m happy to provide my virtual two cents.

Also any suggestions for the blog, I’m all virtual ears.

While I’m here, let me take this opportunity to thank each of you for following the blog. 6+ years and approaching 10,000,000 unique visits. Never ceases to amaze me what this community has become.

Go Into The Story is all about understanding the craft in a deeper way. Writing great stories. Making more and better movies.

As the noted screenwriting guru Martha Stewart would say, “That’s a good thing.”

Thanks for joining me in this collective effort.

As always…

Onward!

Reader Question: Do any screenplay competitions take comedies seriously?

August 5th, 2014 by

Question via email from Joey (jmclarke22):

1. What, if any, major screenwriting competitions take comedies seriously? It seems to most comedies are at a disadvantage in screenwriting comps.
2. Secondly, does the Black List take them seriously? I do not believe I’ve seen one of the featured scripts be a comedy yet. Am I right on that?

I think there’s some truth to your observation, Joey. For example, I just perused the 2013 annual Black List and only found these comedy scripts:

Fully Wrecked, written by Jake Morse and Scott Wolman: “A talking car with a foul mouth is resurrected from the 1980s and teams up with his former partner’s son.”

The Politician, written by Matthew Bass and Theodore Bressman: “A disgraced politician goes on the lam from the FBI and gets kidnapped by a crazy constituent.”

Make A Wish, written by Zach Frankel: “A 14-year-old boy with terminal cancer has one last wish — to lose his virginity — and convinces his reluctant football star Make-A-Wish partner to help him score.”

Beauty Queen, written by Anniel Neal: “An unhappy wife embarks on a Las Vegas road trip with her best friend to compete in a beauty pageant.”

Dude, written by Olivia Milch: “Four female best friends try to get through the last semester of high school before going their separate ways.”

Last Minute Maids, written by Leo Nichols: “Two pals form a company for people who want to hide indiscretions from their loved ones after they’ve died.”

I may have missed some, but even if there are a couple more, since there were 78 scripts on the annual Black List for 2013, comedy as a genre clocking in around 10% is not a resoundingly strong number by any stretch of the imagination.

Of the 2013 Nicholl winning scripts, one out of 5 was a comedy:

Joe Banks, written by Patti Jones: “The son of a Nobel Prize–winning novelist via a genius sperm bank is determined to follow in his father’s footsteps, but suddenly finds himself on a wild odyssey with his real father, a drinking, man’s-man, lothario author of airport novels who was stripped of his own Nobel after a sex scandal.”

That comes out to 20%.

So looking at two of the top ‘competitions’ — Black List and Nicholl — comedy does seem to have some trouble gaining traction. Of course, to provide a more definitive analysis, someone would have to go through, say, the last 5 years or so of both winner lists. Any takers?

The fact is, at least in terms of awards – and I guess you could say both the Black List and Nicholl fall into that category – comedy has had a tough time gaining respect, especially the Oscars. I believe the last comedy to win Best Picture was Annie Hall way back in 1977.

Why is this the case? There are a bunch of theories floating around, but I suspect it’s a combination of (A) comedies by definition don’t take things seriously, (B) people who don’t write or produce comedies don’t typically understand how hard it is to do comedy, and (C) comedies typically don’t have the sort of aesthetic or narrative ‘heft’ of a drama, thriller, science fiction, etc.

That said, comedy is still a major player among genres when it comes to project acquisitions, development and movie production. For decades, it was the #1 genre in terms of spec script sales, only in the last 2 years dethroned by action and thriller. Plus physical comedy as featured in movies like The Heat and Neighbors continue to demonstrate strong ROI based on low to low-mid production budgets and strong box office.

So if you write comedy great. There is always room for a great comedy spec script. If you’re concerned about submitting the script to a comedy-friendly competition, there is the Austin Screenplay competition — which has a special comedy category — Tracking-b, and the Black List website. But the ultimate contest is with reps and buyers. And for that, you need a killer story concept, strong logline and even stronger script.

GITS readers, what are your thoughts? Other avenues for comedy spec scripts? If you have any suggestions, please head to comments.