(Well, okay, maybe not all…)
Howdy, fellow Scribadelic Warriors,
Recently I sent out an e-mail to our newsletter list offering five free half-hour phone consultations with me to discuss whatever you want — the state of your career, what to write next, and so forth. Well, I got 127 replies, so needless to say, there were a few people I didn’t get to chat with.
However, i did tell all the folks I could not speak with to send me questions via e-mail, and I would do my best to answer them. And quite a few of you did. I thought it would make for an entertaining post to put up some of those queries (anonymously, of course!) and share my responses. Maybe some of the responses may just help a few more of you guys who find yourselves in similar situations.
Of course, you can always give me a shout at [email protected].
One TV writer finds himself between a rock and a hard place. He’s gotten a little bit of traction, in that he has gotten several managers who said he was good enough to staff, but that they were just too busy to take him on. What the hell does he do now?
JC: You are in a kind of no-man’s land, which is good news/bad news. You’ve gotten some attention, which is great. But now how to get them to actually work for you? That’s always the tricky bit. Basically, there are a couple arrows in your quiver:
1) Persistence. If you’re that person who is polite and cool and friendly but also dogged, eventually someone will lift a finger for you. Staying on them is important, but of course that can also backfire at any time and you may find them not returning emails anymore. Oftentimes there needs to be a reason for them to lift a finger…
2) Perception of heat. … Which means that if someone ELSE is interested, people are much more likely to do something for you. Now this is not something you can create on your own, of course, but what you can do is keep feeding the flame — put material up on BlackList and wait for those high scores. Submit to TrackingB and Launchpad and Nicholl and Scriptapalooza contests and hope for a good showing, since those are the places the industry finds new talent. And once you get any interest…
3) Let everyone else know about it. That’s called “cross-collateralizing the heat.” E-mails saying “Hey! Just wanted to let you know that…” when anything happens, such as an offer to hip-pocket or a producer asking for some free rewrites… anything that’s “real,” then you must act as your own hype man and let everyone know. This tells them you know how to work it and you are your own advocate, which is important. Again this can backfire of course, but…
4) DIY. Put things up on Funny or Die or YouTube and then whip up a frenzy. Crowdfund a project (best to get some geek names first. This is surprisingly easy if you have any kind of budget.) This gives you “real” points and shows you’ve got it going on. Reps love that. Doesn’t mean anyone will pull the trigger, but they will track you and be aware of you.
5) Rewrite. Your scripts might be good, but are they good enough? The answer is NO, they’re never good enough. Not until you are Vince Gilligan/Tony Gilroy great, and even then, there’s still stuff that can be better. Always. Make sure that voice is IN THEIR FACE. Got typos? You’re DOA. Don’t give these people any reason to pass. Every manager and exec and agent, they’re all terminally bored and have ADD. They would rather do ANYTHING than read your script. It’s up to you and your supercalifragilistic wordsmithery to glue them to the page and not let them come up for air until the script is over. Until you can do that, you’re going to slogging through the marshes with the rest of us.
And of course I know there are plenty of writers working in TV and film that are NOT all that. A spec sold recently that was all style and no substance. Wham-bam on the page; paper-thin characters. That script would have been a pass from Coverage Ink for script (and probably a consider for writer.) But certainly not a sale. And yet it sold because the ADD execs saw “shiny” and bought in (as well as other marketability factors which tied in to their existing plans in a synchronistic way.) So yeah, there will always be those cases, and hopefully that lightning in a bottle will hit you too. But in the meantime all you can do is just keep working it, shoveling coal, and doing the hard work.
This is a race, not a sprint.
Another writer wanted to know: “My understanding is that rather than trying to sell a spec script, it makes more sense to try to get hired by small producers for rewrites of scripts that they own or else to write scripts for film ideas that they have. I’ve also heard that for the purpose of getting hired by producers, it is best to specialize in one particular genre. Does that sound right to you?”
Now how do you get that industry attention in the first place? Generally that comes from external validation. In other words, a third party has to vouch for you — someone whose opinion is trusted. For example, if you do well in a name contest such as Launchpad, Austin, Tracking B, Nicholl, Scriptapalooza, etc., then that is strong third party validation, and there are managers who track these contests and read the top ten from all these contests. Similarly, a good score on Blacklist.com or a good showing on the Bloodlist or the Fresh Blood part of Blood List can also catapult your script to “must read.” As well, being vouched for by a producer, or our own Get Repped Now promotion, for example, gives managers/producers/agents a good idea that the read is worth their time and thus they will check it out. Without that third party validation, getting any attention is extremely hard. Then it comes down to simply making a great first impression with a query letter (Virtual Pitch Fest is a great resource,) and having a killer, marketable logline. If you present professionally and people can tell in a single paragraph that you have it going on, they may take a look. But those execs are always looks at all these as dice rolls.
The only other way in is DIY – making your own movies, shorts, getting stuff up on Funny or Die, etc. If you get 10 million views on YouTube — yes, that is the magic number — the industry will pay attention. If your movie or short wins awards and gets some buzz at key festivals like SXSW, Austin, Sundance, Slamdance, Tribeca and so forth, you will meet people.
And that is pretty much it.
Yes, focusing on one specific genre is always good — absolutely, pigeonhole yourself and become the best there is at that one thing.
Finally, there is the possibility of getting small rewrites/options for below-the-radar producers. There may not be a big payday, but it will build relationships, it’s good practice, and you may get a credit out of it. You can find these below-the-radar producers (people who are not generally serviced by agents and managers because they’re too small, but they make indie movies, generally direct to streaming and foreign) on places like inktip.com.
But the single most important thing to remember is your scripts must ROCK. Before you spend any time marketing, you must be certain your writing samples/pilots/specs hit like a bomb blast. The VAST majority of writers think they are ready, and they are not. Learning one’s craft takes years, in the same way learning any other highly paid professional trade takes years. Even small producers want to hire master craftsmen. Before you spend your dime and your time marketing yourself, make sure your craft is where it needs to be first. Ask any exec and they will tell you 99% of the queries they get are amateur-hour. You need to be the one that cuts through the chaff, that beacon in the dark.
This fellow was wondering why the advice in screenwriting books may differ from movies that actually get made: “All the books I’ve read say don’t (use title cards/supers, VO and flashbacks) as an unknown spec writer… but Braveheart gives the entire back-story and loads of inner story in V.O — Dances With Wolves… loads of V.O. and he has a journal…. same with The Last Samurai… V.O. and journal… and flashbacks. What ‘s the real deal?”
JC: This is one of these conundrums that drives writers crazy. It seems that there are two sets of rules — those for people who actually makes movies, and then a set of rules for the rest of us.
Well, the truth is… that is absolutely so.
Aaron Sorkin delivers 180-page first drafts. Does that mean we can? Quentin Tarantino writes stories that are episodic and nonlinear. According to legend, Sly Stallone refused to sell the script for Rocky unless he played the lead role — and won. Can we do any of those things? NO.
And when I say no, I mean sure, there will always be exceptions — the incredibly talented people who somehow catch lightning in a bottle and get their movie made despite all the odds. But in general, the rules in those books are there because they are generally correct. Agents and execs and managers all have microscopic attention spans and zero time. They want a snappy, fast read. There are certain red flags, like VOs. Now there’s nothing wrong with VOs. I personally even like them in Blade Runner, and feel it adds to the noir tone. But the rule of thumb is, if the story can be told without VO, do so. Now could you imagine American Beauty or Dexter without the VO? Of course not. But the fact is, some people are just anti-VO. Now if you write some brilliant dialogue and really win people over, then sure — VO, awesome. But most people cannot and do not, and boom, one look at the “V.O.” designation and then reading a couple lines of clunky, leaden exposition, and you are DOA. That’s most of us.
Same thing with flashbacks. You are allowed one, generally right up at the top — some formative, crucial experience in the main character’s life. Go to the flashback well more than that once, however, and you run the risk of losing your reader. Every time you write a flashback, you break the continuum of the story being told. The flashback may be perfectly necessary for the story… but oftentimes they are not, and amateur writers overdo it like a sheltered freshman at his first frat party. Like VO, flashbacks are often overused by inexperienced writers. Confusion is often the result, followed by “pass.”
The books you read are correct. That doesn’t mean you cannot bend those “rules” from time to time. But do so only when you cannot find any other way to tell your story.
Another writer is considering leaving Southern California to live in a city where she can actually afford a decent quality of life — but she worries that doing so will kill her chances of breaking in.
JC: I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, it has never been less important to live in LA – unless you plan on doing TV. But for features it really doesn’t matter — until you get meetings. Once you get some heat, you’d best jump on a plane and come stay for a week or three so you can do the “bottled water tour,” a.k.a. the pile of general meetings. As long as you have the internet and good screenwriting software, it doesn’t matter where you live. So by all means, go enjoy a higher standard of life.
On the other hand, do be aware that you will be constantly missing opportunities. Not living in LA means that you will not accidentally meet someone at a dinner who might become a friend and eventually open a door for you. You won’t be taking classes at UCLA or participating in a cool screenwriting group. You’ll miss out of innumerable potential networking situations. Sure, you can travel for these as needed, but the fact is you will not be in the thick of it. Of course, what it comes down to is what’s on the page — if your script and your voice are the shizzbombdiggity, it doesn’t matter where you live. But the truth is, 50% of it is being in the right place at the right time.
And when it comes to representation, most reps do prefer you live in LA. It makes it much easier to put you up for a meeting when they know that if the producer wants to meet you, you can actually go there. That said, sure, they all have that client who lives in Montana or San Francisco or London. Those people have earned their place on the roster and stay there because they do great work, and where they live becomes part of their mystique. The London or New York-dweller is likely involved in theater or books. The Montana person probably has a ranch and that’s part of that person’s eclectic personality. The San Francisco person is likely working in VR or games. And so on.
Ultimately, I always think you should choose a good life, good schools, and a better standard of living, over suffering through crappy LA life. But maybe that’s just because I did in fact stay and part of me wishes I didn’t. On the other hand, if I did not, I’d probably be working as a cop or an art teacher or something in upstate NY and regretting my choices…
This writer asked, “My first two scripts were dramas, and after about a bazillion rewrites, both are in solid shape. My next two scripts are action/adventure, still in the rewrite phase, but I find myself much more passionate about the action/adventure genre. I’ve been told it’s preferable to have solid scripts in one genre, and before seeking representation I should have at least three well-vetted scripts in the same genre. Do you agree?”
I’m assuming those two dramas are features, not pilots, right? So if that is the case, they are considered a tough sell. While great drama writing chops are rare and marketable, the truth is, as a spec, it’s hard to even get people to read them. Agents and managers tend to only want to read things they can potentially sell, and producers don’t often make dramatic features from specs either. That means that while those scripts could be strong writing samples, unless you hit the Blacklist or win the Nicholl or some other big industry accolade, the chances of them springboarding you into representation and writing work are not as high as with other genres.
However, on the TV side, strong dramatic writing chops are a big plus, and feature specs do work as TV samples. So if you have a good drama spec that wins awards and you get signed, the manager may send your drama feature script out as a writing sample during staffing season. But again, you need to really have a kick-ass script to get to that level.
So the fact that you are amenable to writing in a more commercial genre is great, and potentially makes getting industry attention easier. Once you get either of those scripts to the point where they are bulletproof, I would embrace the “action/adventure writer” label and frankly downplay the dramas temporarily — until you get signed. Here’s how the conversation might go:
So I loved your script, and we’d love to meet with you about it. Tell me, what sort of stuff do you like to write?
I definitely see myself as an action/adventure writer. I think I bring unique perspective and experience to it. My next one is also an action/adventure in a similar vein.
You have now told the manager exactly what he or she wants to hear. Then once you sign with them, you have this conversation:
Say, I also have some dramas I’ve written in the past that won some awards. Think they might work as samples?
Hmm, maybe, sure, send ’em over, I’ll take a look.
Finally, this writer is concerned that his age (70) might doom him from ever getting anywhere with his writing.
JC: That is a valid concern. I am 53 and steer clear of any meeting where I have to sell myself to someone whose idea of a cinematic classic is THE MATRIX. Ageism is real, but life experience is also worth a lot, especially on the TV side. The fact is that when you send in a script, no one knows how old you are, and if it’s brilliant, doors will open. The problem with older folks is they tend to either show their age in their screenplay and material (WWII biopics is a big one… or simply by not writing with panache and modern vernacular;) or they are not where they need to be with their writing craft and never will be, because they are resistant to doing the hard work that it takes to become world-class at the craft, which takes lots of time, learning and elbow grease. Everyone thinks they can write, and just recently I turned down reading a script from a Florida retiree because I took one look at it and knew this person has never even read a book on screenwriting — so why does he want to pay me big bucks to read it??? I sent him the link to two of my favorite screenwriting books on barnesandnoble.com and told him to read those, then come back to me with a new draft in six months.
Now assuming you can get your script to that top-ten Nicholl Fellowship or Scriptapalooza status, or get perfect scores on blacklist.com, or become a Disney/ABC or NBC’s Writers on the Verge fellow, etc. (these are where the industry finds new talent,) your script will be read and you will get meetings. At that point when you show up and you’re — gasp — 70, you have two choices:
- Be cool and affable and joke about your age so that everyone is comfortable with it and the stigma is broken
- Be defensive and as we say, not “good in a room,” and they will say thanks for playing and you will be SOL.
In other words, if you are vibrant and happening and clearly have a voice that cannot be ignored, you still have a shot — ESPECIALLY in TV, where specific life experience works in your favor, and it’s not unusual to have people in their 50s or 60s in the writers’ room. But even on the feature side, you can still find a path in, even if it means you won’t be the next “hot young thing” — it may mean that you may be brought in as a “closer.” And that would be terrible, wouldn’t it?
Go get ’em.