So we did another giveaway of ten free half-hour phone consultations. I love doing these. It’s a chance to get to know some of you guys a little better and find out about your projects. I’m always amazed what you guys have got going on. I’ve only spoken to two of you so far — Hayley and Jeffrey. Hayley’s a British writer/director who is adapting a kick-ass true life story of a group of activist women who set out to take down Big Oil via a spectacular publicity stunt. And Jeffrey is a genre writer from the east coast who is completing his own short film and is going to use that to accompany and help sell his project. Bravo to you both — that is How It’s Done.
We also opened the floor to questions from everyone on our mailing list who wasn’t able to snag one of those ten slots. We’re received some great questions, a few of which are represented below. Hopefully you’ll find these enlightening! And if you have burning questions of your own, check out our free webinar October 13 — Ask Us Anything!
I’m repped by a manager. He passed a script of mine to a couple of heavy-weight producers. Over 50 films produced between them. Big time credits. Not household names but serious guys in the business. Legit, nice guys. They raved about my writing, but thought I needed some direction with plotting, story choices, etc. We talked by phone and entered into an oral agreement to totally rework the script. No option, no compensation until we got an outline nailed down that they felt comfortable with taking out for funding. Then, we would “paper the relationship” with my manager, my lawyer, their lawyers, etc. As an unsold writer, I agreed to do it. I mean, it’s a huge opportunity. The closest I’ve gotten to selling something and launching my career. Legitimizing years and years of effort.
It’s been eight months now. Once monthly conference calls, no fruition. Frustration expressed on both sides. Wrong choices, creative differences, etc. But they remain big fans of my talent, not bailing on the project when they normally would have cut the rope. Now, due to changes in the marketplace, they would like to change tack and pitch my latest outline as a “back-door pilot” for a TV series. But, they made it clear that there would be no compensation unless we had success. They said there really are no more paid assignments from the studios in today’s climate. A thing of the past. My question is this. Is this bullshit? Am I being taken advantage of here? Am I a sucker to continue on in this arrangement..? Putting off all my other projects..? Doing this all for free..?
Jim C. replies:
Yep, that’s how it works, much though the WGA would have you believe otherwise. You just have to suck it up and be a team player no matter what, because as soon as you are not, they will lose interest in working with you. Even if nothing happens with this project, these guys can put you on other (paid) assignments in the future. Or they can crush your chances in the future when other producers call them for referrals. But basically yeah, you have to jump through lots of hoops for no money. I did that shit for years and I’m done with it, which is why we started CI Films. But if you want to be in the game, you have to accept this. Those who show “thank you, sir, may I have another?” attitude are the ones who eventually get hired. Everyone else falls by the wayside.
A word of advice: don’t JUST do this. Your manager is expecting you to generate two specs a year regardless of this sort of situation. I made the mistake of getting into a similar situation with a well-known writer/producer about 7 years ago, and spent a year working with this person on draft after draft only to have him lose faith and that was that. Wasted a year of my life on that project, and worse, I had nothing my manager could sell, which knocked me down a few notches in his eyes.
My writing partner and I are at the point that we are ready to at least see what (if any) managers or producers may be interested in helping us get this pilot sold.
The game plan at this stage is more of a soft sell approach. Reach out to every contact I can and ask them to take a look and let me know what they think, in addition letting them know what the goal is. I do not want it to come off as a sales pitch. If a manager or production company is interested they will let me know. My main goal in this initial stage for them to read it and set up a line of communication. If someone sees money or potential they they will proceed further, if not then maybe they can point me in the right direction or a future project (thus not a true sales pitch so not to get a cold rejection in and of itself).
What do you think of my approach? I can see the POV of a harder sell and trying to force people to take notice of us and our project.
Jim C. replies:
Hi Christian, there’s nothing wrong with this approach, but bear in mind that when it’s a pass, no one will do anything for you, so there’s no keeping the ball in the air at that point. It’s not like anyone is going to say “This isn’t for me, but maybe try Mary at Fox Searchlight.” It just doesn’t work that way. People will proactively offer to help you when the material is in the zone. Until then, thank them for their time and move along.
Also, the key thing that’s missing here is perception of hype. There’s really no ‘hard sell’ in the biz because people just don’t care unless you’ve got heat. It’s a lot easier to get people to read something when there’s some heat on it, which means something or someone influential gives it their stamp of approval. This can mean a manager or producer or development exec, or it can mean a contest or service such as Virtual Pitchfest, Scriptapalooza, Nicholl, TrackingB, LaunchPad, Blacklist, Austin, Slamdance, our own Get Repped Now, and so forth. In other words there are plenty of places whose specific purpose is to find and elevate material that is “there” and introduce the town to those people. The town counts on these mechanisms to do the heavy lifting for them. So while you can certainly bypass this by finding a passionate advocate at a prodco or whatever, the chances of that happening are far, far greater when you already have feathers in your cap by way of a strong contest showing (no, quarter-finals don’t count) in a reputable contest, such as one of the ten the industry actually cares about and pays attention to.
Writers hate when I tell them this, because we get frustrated and impatient, and after years of submitting to contests and not getting anywhere, we look for ways to do an end-run around the system. And sure, give it a try. You never know. But the point is, when you’re there, everyone knows it. People will volunteer to help you. You don’t stay a great undiscovered writer for long. That basically means for the rest of us that we’re not there yet and need to do more work and keep slogging through the mud until then. Good luck!
Mark O. writes:
What do you think the market is for old-school erotic thrillers, the type that used to show on Skinemax?
What are some keys to getting excitement or zest into the narrative? Using the right verbs? Keeping it short? (Tough one to answer). Appreciate any thoughts.
Jim C. replies:
The producers who make those movies are not often serviced by agents and managers. There’s no money in it for them. Therefore those scripts are usually developed internally or it’s someone they know who writes a script. The script fees are generally pretty crappy, maybe $2500 to 10 grand on the high side. It’s not really something that is going to help you even if you get a few produced, because the industry won’t care — they’re not “real.”
That said, a movie is a movie, and a paycheck is a paycheck. So if you have something, you’ll have to target those producers directly. The good news is they are generally pretty accessible — you can call or email them directly in many cases. You can find them on imdbpro or The Hollywood Screenwriting Directory, or sometimes they’re on inkTip or Virtual Pitchfest. Just make a list of similar movies and target their producers. If your script has something different about it and can be done for a dime (few locations, small cast,) you might have a shot.
As for getting excitement or zest into the narrative, yeah, what you said. My best advice is to read great screenwriters like James Cameron, David Twohy, and Tony Gilroy, who really bring it on the page, and study how they do it. You have to write visually, choosing your verbs carefully to create impact and sustain interest. You have to be aware of every single word choice and make sure it has maximum effectiveness. And most crucially, you need to be economical. Finally, structure every scene around a surprise or a reveal of some sort. Every time you throw something in that the audience did not see coming, you buy yourself another page-turn.
John C. writes:
I’ve been writing for 10+ years. I’ve had some interests from producers, but these few opportunities seem to fade after time (Why can’t producers just say, ‘I’m out’ instead of ceasing all communication? It’s like I’m back in high school).
My latest screenplay has generated some heat … well, more like a warm toilet seat after someone else has sat on it. I entered it into the Bluecat last year. The judge’s feedback was fantastic (not hyperbole). I thought I finally had a chance at a finals finish or at least move onto the next round. As it was, I didn’t move on to the 2nd round.
I got an analysis from an industry professional who gave it a ‘recommend’. This professional (perhaps a rival to your organization) has started a ‘LOW BUDGET SCREENPLAYS LIST’, like the BLACK LIST, he’s trying to brand. He put my screenplay on it, so I hope it takes off.
After sending queries, I’ve connected with a producer who liked the writing and asked me if I’d write an idea he was working on, which is all good. We’ve been working on it for the last three months.
Finally, my question: This is the most recognition I’ve garnered for one of my stories. How do I capitalize or maximize these opportunities? I continue to send out the occasional query letter, but is there more I can do?
Jim C. replies:
Sounds like you’re already doing all you can. Until you get some heat in the form of big-time producer interest, a well-respected contest win (or showing,) a spec sale, a viral YouTube video, etc., all you can do is exactly what you’re doing. To get the town’s attention, you need to catch lightning in a bottle. That means something needs to happen that is beyond your control, such as a well-regarded industry type (producer, manager, etc.) going to bat for you. In the meantime, all you can do is keep working on scripts, learning, and honing your material.
Apart from the low budget scripts list, which is a great idea, some of the ways to put your material out there are:
- Cold calls/queries (see my recent blog post on this subject)
- Online pitches like through Roadmap Writers or Stage 32
- DIY (shoot your own stuff and get it in festivals, Funny or Die, YouTube, etc. 10 million views is the magic number to get the town’s attention.)
That’s pretty much it. And there’s no point in doing any of that until your script is the bomb. I often hear from writers saying things like, “Why isn’t my career taking off? I made the quarterfinals of so and so contest last year and the top 50 of another!” This is baffling to me. The answer is right there — there are potentially 49 scripts that contest liked better than yours in the one instance, and thousands in the other. Second-round showings and so forth tell you are that you’ve got a good idea or maybe some writing acumen, but that the draft you sent along is not there yet. And by the way, it may not be there yet even if you’re in the top ten. Contests have to pick the best from what comes in, and sometimes what comes in isn’t all that great.
Again, no one remains a brilliant undiscovered writer for long. When you’ve got the goods, people can see it from 10,000 feet, and they will offer to help you. In the meantime, take classes, keep reading scripts, watch the best movies and TV over and over and break them down until you understand how they were done at the molecular level.
As for contest feedback, understand that reader wasn’t paid much to read that script and is probably a student… I wouldn’t put too much value on any contest feedback, honestly.
Regarding the producer, so you’re in a good situation, since having a producer invested in your project is a good place to proceed from, but I would caution: make sure you have an agreement that stipulates what happens with the material you co-create in the various circumstances, such as: if you option it, is he still attached? If you guys sever your relationship, can you continue to shop the material? Can he? This is a big mess waiting to happen unless you sort it all out in advance. I would also be careful about investing too much time working with any producer who is not ‘real.’ By that I mean produced credits, a production office and so forth. If that person’s office is Starbucks… not good.
Hope that helps!