Recently we asked our newsletter subscribers to email us any questions, and I’d do our best to answer them. So here please find a selection of some of the more interesting or universal ones along with my replies. Hopefully some of these might speak to you and your own experience.
As always, feel free to fire anything at us at [email protected].
Jay asks: In trying to find an agent manager via unsolicited query letters, it is harmful or helpful to include comics as writing samples (in addition to full scripts)? I have a couple pitches based off short 4-page comics. I am having trouble in getting any kind of meaningful response, but i do understand I am currently working with the “shot in the dark” method.
Jim C. replies: Anything you can do to stand out or be different, do it. Artwork is great because you can “get it” quickly. That said, there is a certain negativity attached to attachments — some people view anything other than words on page as “amateur.” But here’s the truth — if it’s great, it can help. But here’s the catch: it MUST be awesome. Any sort of amateurishness and it will create a negative impression. So if your comics rock, then by all means, include them. But they absolutely need to be at a professional level.
Do remember that these people generally do not respond to queries. The only ones who are actually looking for new clients are junior agents and managers who have recently been (or are soon to be) promoted and are building their lists. Established agents and managers generally find their clients via referral only (there are exceptions of course, such as you win Sundance or your YouTube video gets 10,000,000 views.)
By far the best way to get a representative is to earn it. That means you need to have a passionate advocate vouch for you, someone whose opinion is trusted. I would say don’t waste your time querying agents. If you can find a producer willing to develop some material with you, and you foster a good relationship with that person, then he or she may be able/willing to open doors for you. Alternatively, get some contest wins under your belt to prove your merit (again, third party validation.) Which means developing your craft to the point where your writing is bulletproof. Once you rock, others will be clamoring to help you. Going in cold is tough.
But a great comic might just create a wonderful first impression and open the door. Good luck!
NL asks: 1) I hear that writers shouldn’t submit a screenplay to agencies/production companies unless it’s absolutely ready, because if they don’t like it they will essentially never read anything else you offer. Is there much truth to this? Also, what are the qualifications to read for Coverage Ink?
Jim C. replies: Regarding your first question, pretty much every company does keep records (and coverage) on file, so when a script comes in, it is logged in to their system. If they find old coverage on file, they will likely not read it again (unless your agent or manager has told them this is a new draft and made special arrangements.) They will simply say “we read this already” and pass. Now I am not certain if they cross-reference by writer name. My understanding is no, but this may have changed in recent years. However, I do know that a lot of people make judgments based on memory. For example, managers and development types tend to remember how close to the target a writer is based on their previous submission(s,) so if you’ve got it going on they’ll be more receptive. If you made a negative impression then they may well not be interested in reading anything else.
If the script goes out in any substantial way, then it is often discussed on the tracking boards, which means the whole town may share opinions on your material. Generally, an agent or manager will not send out a piece of material unless it’s really tight, because they’re putting their reputation on the line every time. But you’d be surprised at how many writers are repped by the big 3-letter agencies who are really not that great, but maybe got in via connex or one strong sample or a great idea, but the execution is not there. Thus when that writer’s material goes out, the whole town knows who that person is and whether it’s Emperor’s new clothes or not. The town also knows the agent or manager’s reputation and whether they have a good eye or not, if they even read or not, and so forth, and raise or lower expectations accordingly.
You can check out our reader qualifications on our website. In general, a reader must have a degree in film or screenwriting from a reputable university, a minimum of one year experience working for a well-known production company, and a demonstrated ability to write clear, concise and helpful coverage. They must know structure and have mythological storytelling down cold. They must have superior English and grammar skills and lastly, must pass our test and deliver a sample screenplay analysis, which is vetted by one of our senior readers.
Adam asks: My biggest question is in regards to markets… are there more markets to sell a feature spec, or more markets to set up or sell a series/series pilot?
Jim C. replies: Hi Adam, to answer this question, let me quote Mitch Solomon from Magnet Management. I asked him at a panel we hosted a few years back what he tells clients if they ask him if they should be writing pilots. His response:
“I ask them, ‘Do you like money?'”
The feature marketplace is a pale shadow of what it used to be. Feature specs mostly act as writing samples now, which the rep hopes to use to land the client work on a rewrite or series, etc. That’s the key thing people tend to forget — even if the script doesn’t sell, that’s okay. You always hope for a sale, but the main goal with an agent or manager sending out a spec nowadays is often to just introduce that person to the town.
That said, there are still feature deals being made, but with the studios now only in the established IP/sequels/remakes business, that means most scripts that sell are to newer/upstart and indie companies who are paying less money. $100 grand is a nice sale nowadays.
However, it’s also important to keep in mind that while there is much more opportunity on the TV side, agents and managers generally still prefer features as writing samples. They show that you can tell an entire story from beginning to end, and they display the writer’s story and character chops more fully than a pilot might.
Now a great pilot will open doors, but even though there is a f*ck-ton of money being shelled out by Amazon and Netflix etc., competition is fierce. So many feature creators have moved into TV/streaming that you’re now competing against A-list feature writers and creators. As well, TV is quite specific — your material may only have a few places its right for. For example, your half-hour broad comedy spec will go to certain places, but a 1-hr police procedural will go to very different places, and so on. In both those cases, maybe that is 5-8 companies. As well, certain shows are AMC shows while others are very Showtime. And on and on. It’s all very targeted. So while there’s a ton of opportunity, everyone is fighting over those same crumbs, and the deluge has created a problem with even well-known reps competing against 30 other TV projects that might hit the town that same week.
However, this has created something of a vacuum in the world of features, in that it’s actually slightly easier to get read on the feature side because of the migration to TV. In other words… now is a great time to write a feature. Hope that helps!
John asks: I’m concerned about “stakes” in a script. I presume one should try to raise the stakes progressively in a story, but are there designated times [e.g. end on Act 1, midpoint, etc.] that the writer should aim for to raise the stakes?
If I’m allowed a second question: I’m a little confused about a problem flagged by Coverage Ink as “competing objectives” in my script. Can’t my two main characters have different objectives? Or is the issue that there should be one dominant objective only and one main protagonist?
Jim C. replies: Of course you can have two characters with separate agendas, but contemporary movie specs sometimes work best when following the classic paradigm, as detailed in Save the Cat!, The Writer’s Journey, and many other places. To wit: a single, crucial, high-stakes throughline, with the plot driven by the protagonist, and the price of failure is dire.
Now you can find many movies that have multiple protagonists, but they can be tricky to get right and are generally not advisable to attempt as a spec unless you are a super brainiac genius and your dad’s last name is Spielberg.
Now take the buddy movie for example: co-protagonists; same objective. Rom/com? Pretty much the same thing. Now where competing objectives can be of benefit story-wise is when it creates conflict. For example, two characters who agree to a temporary truce in order to intercept of $20 printing plates from a truck bound for the US Mint. But once they complete the job, Protagonist B backstabs Protagonist A, steals the plates and leaves him for dead. Protagonist B , consumed with guilt, then rides to the rescue in Act 3 and saves Protagonist A in the nick of time from the big bad guy. In other words, it’s still one throughline for most of the movie, until a crucial point, which is probably the end of Act 2, AKA the “all is lost” moment.
As for raising the stakes throughout, yes, but this should happen fairly organically. Generally it goes something like this:
- Act 1: Hero is assigned crucial, high-stakes mission. If he or she fails, a very bad thing will happen.
- Act 2, first half: The bad guy doesn’t like that the protagonist is trying to stop his or her plan and thus takes some sort of action to stop him/her.
- Act 2, midpoint: the protagonist learns a new piece of information — for example, something he or she was counting on is now no longer applicable, necessitating they course-correct. A monkey-wrench. This makes things more difficult and ratchets things up a notch.
- Act 2, black moment or ‘whiff of death’ or ‘all is lost’: this is generally where the mentor character dies (note I’ve referenced STAR WARS a few times here) which again turns the screws for the protagonist.
- Act 3: Often this is where the ticking clock really kicks in. The bad guy accelerates the plan. Or someone gets kidnapped and there’s now a finite of time. Again, this dials things up for the protagonist.
Now of course, stakes can be raised in various ways depending on the type of movie. For more on all this, check out the books I mentioned above. it’s all in there. Have fun!
And finally, Neil asks: May be too big a question, but wondered what standout lessons you’ve learned from all the scripts and writers you’ve seen over the years. That’s if any of those lessons can be boiled down to pithy advice (there’s no doubt a book in it). And, related, do you see shifts in what the industry is looking for from writers in 2018?
Finally, in your experience, of all the various routes for breaking in, whether it’s contests, pitch tests, Ink Tip, Black List, et al, which, if any, seem to work better than others and which, if any, might better be avoided?
Jim C. replies: Hi Neil, thanks for the interesting questions. By far the number one takeaway from my 30 years in and around the business is writers make the same damn mistake over and over again: sending out material too early. I’ve shot myself in the foot countless times from doing exactly that.
When we finish a script, we’re jazzed — we’re proud, excited, adrenalin’s pumping. We think, okay, who can I get this to? Our first thought is seldom, “Let me double-check myself and see how close to the target I really am.” That’s the whole reason I founded CI 16 years ago now, because I had 3 guys I was using to vet my material who also read for production companies, and I paid them the same rate the companies paid them for the same, no-holds-barred coverage. And now there are so many ways to get feedback that did not exist decades ago, along with so much more knowledge out there for free on the interwebs, thousands of books, etc. — all out there just waiting for people to avail themselves of it.
And yet, not much has changed. Writers still make that same damn mistake over and over again.
I can’t tell you how many times I talk to people who are constantly spamming the town with queries or sending out first drafts to contests, as if it was buying a lottery ticket — hoping someone will recognize their genius. It doesn’t work that way. When your script rocks, there is almost always a consensus. People can see it from 10,000 feet. That’s when you know you’re ready to hit the contests and start querying — when you get consistent considers; when friends, teachers, and people in your writers group proactively offer to help you. Because that’s what happens when you’re ready. But that might take YEARS. Yes, years. Until then, knuckle down and do another goddamn draft (yes, another one) and address those frickin’ notes. Shore up the weaknesses in your writing (hint: this generally means structure, natural-sounding dialogue and use of subtext.) And only then, when you’re on draft 17 or whatever and you know you’ve got the goods, then and only then, proceed — with confidence. That’s how you win those respected contests, and then the industry will take note.
Similarly, moving to your final question, every single one of those things you mentioned works. However, they only work a tiny percentage of the time — for the exact reasons I have already described. If a screenplay contest gets 1,000 scripts, likely only the top two or three will be “there.” Sometimes not even that. I’ve judged several contests where none of the submissions were really the shizz. But you have to pick one, so… The rest of those submissions will be varying levels of “not there yet,” yes, even in the top ten. I’ve run many contests, and the cream definitely rises. But the cream are the .001-percenters. And you do not stay undiscovered for long when you are in that category.
So the rest of us grouse and get depressed/disappointed, but the truth is, it’s on us. Sure, there are definitely times when readers might miss the boat, but I can tell you for certain, any seasoned reader, agent, manager or exec can spot a killer writer from page one. It’s in the economy of words, the choice or verbs, the punchiness of the writing. It’s in the subtext, it’s in the clever character descriptions. It’s the same reason why when you read a new book by a favorite author, how you become delighted with the way he or she turns a phrase, and you settle in, confident you are in the hands of a great storyteller. It’s no different with a screenplay or pilot — and you can see it instantly.
The thing is, most emerging screenwriters are not yet able to bring it at that level.
So it comes back to my first point — when you’re ready, then and only then, hit up those resources you mentioned and others. Query the town, go to pitchfests, do whatever you have to do. There’s this apocryphal story about how Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry landed his first agent. He was a motorcycle cop at the time, and he came into a fancy Hollywood restaurant where he knew a top agent was having lunch. He hovered over the table menacingly in his cop uniform, and everyone fell silent. Roddenberry then dropped his script on the table and left. The agent commented he had “balls that clank.” He read that script and Roddenberry was in. But that stunt would have failed if the talent was not on the page. Pitchfests like Scriptfest are great — sure, you’re mostly meeting junior-level people, but those are the people who read. Roadmap Writers and Virtual Pitchfest are two other great resources. Blacklist is also good if pricey. InkTip is best for reaching smaller producers who are not served by agencies and management companies, especially if you have an affordable genre movie. Certain contests can really catapult you quickly, while others are basically worthless. Some of the better ones include LaunchPad, Tracking B, Nicholl, Scriptapalooza, Final Draft Big Break, Script Pipeline, Austin and Slamdance. And even plain old query letters can also work.
(Note: CI has no affiliation with any of these companies mentioned.)
One other thing I like to tell people: screenwriting, like any other highly-paid profession, takes years of training, dedication and study to master. It’s no different than if you want to be an architect or a surgeon. It takes thousands of man-hours to learn to design a high-rise or to cut out a tumor. You can’t just wake up one day and say “I’m a surgeon.” But strangely, when it comes to writing, that is exactly what people seem to think. And that is why I frequently refer people to UCLA screenwriting programs (hell, they must owe me a check by now.)
Hope that helps!