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Archive for March, 2011

Neil Simon on Critics

“Walter Kerr gave me one of the best pieces of criticism I’ve ever had. In the first line of his review of The Star-Spangled Girl, he said, ‘Neil simon didn’t have an idea for a play this year, but he wrote one anyway.’ That was exactly what had happened. Elliot Norton was helpful to me in Boston with The Odd Couple. His title of the opening review was, ‘Oh for a Third Act.’ He wasn’t going to waste his time telling everyone how good the first two acts were. His job, he felt, was to make me make the third act better. And his suggestion to me was to bring back the Pigeon sisters. I said, ‘Good idea.’ Brought back the Pigeon sisters, and the play worked. More important than the reviews, it’s the audience that tells you whether or not you’ve succeeded.”
Neil Simon
Playwrights at Work

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“I had dabbled with the idea of (becoming a writer), but I had never actually attempted anything. I mean, maybe once or twice I had tried to write a sitcom script or something like that, but again the discipline thing was a problem. And then one night, I was coming home from a shoot (working on music videos), and I had just gotten off the freeway and I pulled up in front of my house and parked the car. And I turned off the engine, and I thought, two women go on a crime spree. That was about December ’97. And I just sat there in the car because of that phrase. I liken it to being hit in the head with a two-by-four. That’s what it felt like…I finally decided I was going to write a screenplay…Probably a total of four people knew that I was doing this and they were all sworn to secrecy. I didn’t want to walk around telling people,’Yeah I’m writing a screenplay,’ because I knew I’d never finish it, I knew I would just get nothing but negative feedback. It seems people are always so willing to believe that you’re going to fail. Especially with somebody who didn’t go to film school, I was kind of there by luck. There were certainly people who would say, ‘Well, what the hell do you know about it. You didn’t go to AFI.’ I just decided to not open myself up to that. And the challenge to me was to just finish the screenplay; that was all I was trying for. I didn’t think about selling it. I didn’t think about anything.”
Callie Khouri interviewed in American Screenwriters
Khouri finished that screenplay, Thelma & Louise, in six months and it not only sold and got produced—but in 1992 she won the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay for that script and it would later be named by the Writers Guild of America as #72 on their list of 101 Greatest Screenplays.  (Ahead of The Verdict, Witness, Rocky, Do the Right thing, and The Grapes of Wrath.)
Like Diablo Cody, Khouri proved that you don’t always have to go to film school, have written 6-10 scripts…or be a man to make a huge impact.

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Writers & Rejection

“There is a brilliant writer called Hugo Hiriart and he oversaw the eight of us in this program (the National Institute of Fine Arts in Spain). I wrote a novel and he took it and said, ‘Who the hell told you that you were a writer? This is shit?’ He threw the manuscript into the air and the pages went flying everywhere. ‘This is the worst thing I have ever read in my life,’ he said. In order not to kill him, I made myself count to ten, and then I had to count again. Then someone else in my group said, ‘Yeah, it’s a very lousy novel.’ I said, ‘Shut up or I’ll beat you.’ So I picked up my novel and said to Hugo, ‘You don’t have a fucking idea what literature is about! ‘[laughs]  Years later I asked him, ‘Why did you do that?’ And he said, ‘Because I wanted to see if you had the guts to be a writer. If you can’t stand rejection it means that you don’t have the personality to be a writer.”
Guillermo Arriaga
That novel thrown in the air was published four years later and he went on to write the screenplays Amores Perros, The Three Burials of Meiquiades Estrada, and 21 Grams. In 2007 his script for Babel was nominated for an Oscar.
Interview with Kevin Conroy Scott
Screenwriters’ Masterclass 

 

 

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Writing “Cedar Rapids”

“Right out of film school I sold a movie and a TV show, and I thought ‘Hah!’ this is going to be easy.”
Screenwriter Phil Johnston on his early misperceptions

It’s not because Cedar Rapids is Iowa that I feel obligated to do another post on the movie Cedar Rapids, it’s because I found a couple quotes from the movie’s screenwriter, Phil Johnston,  that I thought you’d find encouraging. The first one is from a an online article at Film Independent by Maggie Mackay.

Mackey: This is your first feature script to be produced, and you were able to attach a name cast and a seasoned director in Miguel Arteta, can you talk about how the project came together?

Johnston: “It was truly a dream to get this gaggle together, you couldn’t ask for a better group of actors in comedy today.  You’ve seen how long things can go in movies, I’ve sold things that haven’t gotten made, had projects start and then stop, and this was the exact opposite.  I had breakfast with Ed (Helms) a couple years ago, and I just had the skeletal outline, and he loved it.  He was just on The Office at that point and The Hangover hadn’t been shot yet.  We went back and forth with the script for a while after that, and then we were so lucky to attract Jim Burke, Alexander Payne, and Jim Taylor as producers, then Miguel, and Searchlight.  Then The Hangover came out, and he [Ed] became an international movie star type and we were able to develop it as we liked.  Ed is a bankable movie star now, and within twelve weeks of Searchlight saying “yes” we were rolling on it.  I’ve been out of film school for five years and there was a lot of stuff that came close.  I had a film that came close then the company folded.  It’s a minor miracle when it all comes together.”

And this question came from Kiko Martinez at CineSnob: “Out of all the cities in the entire United States, why write a movie set in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?”

Johnston: I worked in Western Iowa for three years. I spent some time in Cedar Rapids and so I had some great affection for the Midwest. Physically, Cedar Rapids had those bad floods in 2008. I wanted something that an insurance agent might be able to look to as a place where they could be a hero. For Ed [Helms’] character, Tim Lippe, he saw these floods as a terrible thing, but he looked at insurance people working in the trenches like firefighters and police officers helping people out.

Martinez also asked Johnston, “Were you disappointed the film could not be shot in Cedar Rapids, Iowa?”

Johnston: Place is a huge part of my writing process, so it was a bummer. It was interesting from a moviemaking standpoint because we had a production office set up in Des Moines, Iowa and we were going to shoot exclusively in Iowa, but there was a scandal with the Iowa Film Commission where they stopped their rebate program. Tax incentives got shut down. We were four weeks away from principal photography and the producer had to find a new location. We moved the whole production from Iowa to Michigan in four weeks. While it would have been great to shoot the movie in Iowa, I think the fact that it got made at all is a minor miracle given that huge speed bump in front of production.

Since Johnston knew Helms and that helped get Cedar Rapids made, I guess I should add to my post on alternative ways to market your script: Get to know an actor in a hot Tv show who is about to become a movie star in a hot movie.

Related post: “Cedar Rapids” — The Movie

Sneaky Long Screenwriting

Scott W. Smith

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“My greatest tragedy is now my greatest benefit: It gave me guts, and a sense of who I am.”
Screenwriter Heather Hach
Denver Post article

What would you do if your spouse called in the middle of the night and said they were never coming home?

You could move to LA and purse a career in screenwriting. That’s what Heather Hach did—and it’s worked out pretty well.

Hach co-wrote the 2003 film Freaky Friday with Leslie Dixon, and wrote the book for Legally Blonde; The Musical (based on another book and the movie). The play opened on Broadway in 2007-2008, is currently on tour in the states, and the West End production of the musical won three Olivier Award Awards (like a British Tony Awards)  last week including Best New Musical which honored Hach’s work along with the music and lyrics by Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin.

Hath’s story begins in Iowa where she was born. (I promise I don’t go out of my way to find these connections. It’s just a recoocurring theme.) In an interview with Joe Tropia on Broadway Buzz, Hach said, “So many musicals are set in Iowa. It’s like the place to cast your Americana.”

When she was 10 she moved to Loveland, Colorado with her family and eventually graduated from the University of Colorado in Boulder (Journalism)  in 1993. She worked in Boulder on a sports magazine, and then worked  for the New York Times Denver bureau. She also began performing with an improv group where she met her husband. )The one that called in the middle of the night a few years later turning her life upside down.)

After the divorce she moved to L.A. for a fresh start and in a divorce recovery-groups met an ABC producer (Jim Janicek) who became her mentor. She signed-up for the Writer’s Book Camp and wrote a screenplay based on her divorce called, “I Used to Be an Honor Student.” (That title alone makes a nice logline.)

In 1999, she won the Disney Screenwriting Fellowship followed by the opportunity to write Disney’s Freaky Friday starring Jamie Lee Curtis, Lindesy Lohan, and Mark Harmon.  Speaking back at CU-Boulder in 2005, she told the group, “I’m lucky because a screenplay ended up getting produced. I can’t count how many scripts are written and pitched to studios, but only a small, tiny number actually end up getting made.” 

And to follow that with a play on Broadway puts her in a rare category. 

Being born in Iowa and experiencing a tough divorce won’t always lead to Hollywood & theatrical success, but Hach is one more example of someone who overcame some rough spots in her life and found a way to use it as a foundation to grow as a person and a writer.

“I was someone who was used to having things go my way. I always felt really lucky in life. I was a good student and doing right in the world and … I just got pushed off a cliff. But I am here to say that life can go beyond your wildest dreams.” 
Heather Hach 

She also remarried and has a son and a daughter. 

Scott W. Smith

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“The sale gave me street cred. I was no longer some schmuck from Canada with a script and a dream. I was Mr. Professional Writer with a studio deal.”
Screenwriter James V. Simpson (Armored) on his first sale

Have you ever taken a script you’ve just finished and tossed it in the washing machine? And then put it in the clothes dryer? Yeah, me neither.

But that’s what the last week has felt like since finishing the script Shadows in Dark that I co-wrote. I’ve had hours of conversations going over my script with people turning the story inside out to make sure it can stand on its own. It is a little like watching your clothes tumble over and over in the dryer. Now I have to take it out and work on a new draft gathered with some of the notes. Someone asked me if I was worried about getting too many conflicting ideas. My short answer is, “no.”

I think the job of the writer is to act a filter with the notes you get and the story you are writing. If I had done it before the script was completed it would have been way too confusing. But I’m already on a new script so holding things loosely with the old script. (Even if it’s just two weeks old.) It helps that at this point in the game that everyone who has commented on the script wants Shadows in the Dark to be the best it can be. So I’m grateful that they’ve taken the their time to give me their two cents. (Actually, not even two cents since I haven’t paid anybody even one cent.)

Also, it’s been an interesting week to learn the Cedar Falls, Iowa area where I live is connected to a major movie star, an established producer with decades of hits, and an assistant with one of the major agencies in Los Angeles. On top of Mark Steines, the host of Entertainment Tonight having ties to Cedar Falls. Of course, that doesn’t mean the script has sold (or will even be read by those people) but interesting nonetheless.

But since this week I did write about marketing your script I thought it would be fun to find a quote from someone just after they sold their first script and what that experience was like. Adam Levenberg  pointed me in the direction of  the blog The Inside Pitch which as far as I know is the only blog written by someone inside one of the top agencies in L.A.—Christopher Lockhart who is the Story Editor with WME (formerly William Morris Endeavor). On his about me section of his blog it says his job is to look “for potential film projects for a small roster of “A” list clients including Denzel Washington and Steve Martin.”

That’s a nice gig. If you’re wondering how you get that kind of set-up, in Lockhart’s case he has an MFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and spent nine years at ICM where his duties included running the story department. He co-produced the feature film The Collector and was producer/writer on the recently released doc Most Valuable Players which was acquired by Oprah Winfrey. Lockhart has also taught at UCLA and given lectures around the country. He doesn’t blog on a regular basis, but he started back in 2006 so there is a wealth of information there.

Back on Novemeber 06 of 2006 Lockhart had a post where screenwriter James V. Simpson wrote about about selling his script Armored (which was released in theaters in 2009).  Here is a highlight from the post My First Script:

After the calls from my manager and lawyer congratulating me were finished, I told my wife. She cried and laughed and I told her to start looking for a car because it had been my promise to her that I would buy her a car with the money from my first sale to thank her for her support and tolerating me all these years.

Then I called my mother. She wept when I told her about the sale. For the first time in my life, my mother was proud of me. I don’t care how much money you get, there is nothing more important than your family and sharing this moment with them.

Since my deal had been done without an agent, I immediately had a lot of requests for meetings from agents as well as producers.

This is the victory lap and you have to take it if you want to start a career, so be prepared to be in LA for at least a week to begin with and for longer periods as your career develops.

So he went from writing for no money to writing for money. It reminded me of Stepehen King when his agent told him the paperback right to his first book sold for $400,000. In On Writing, king writes, “On that Mother’s Day in May of 1973 I was completely speechless. I stood there is the doorway, casting the same shadow as always, but I couldn’t talk.” Keep in mind that he was living in a an apartment in Bangor, Maine working as a school teacher making $4,000. a year. So it was a big moment.

How did King celebrate? He writes, “I suddenly felt that I had to buy Tabby (his wife) a Mother’s Day present, something wild and extravagant. I tried, but here’s one of life’s true facts: there’s nothing really wild and extravagant for sale at LaVerdiere’s (a drug store in Bangor). I did the best I could, I got her a hair dryer.” When he gave it too her along with the news she cried. You gotta love those moments. A hair dryer—if he made that up I never want to know.

In those times when you pull your script out of the dryer and it’s all crumpled and torn, it’s important to know that those breakthrough moments that happened to Simpson and King—though rare— do happen.

Scott W. Smith

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“Seems like we always spend the best part of our time just saying goodbye.”
Elizabeth Taylor as Angela Vickers
A Place in the Sun

A great film to study on many levels is A Place in the Sun which starred Elizabeth Taylor. If you want to see the proper way to introduce two characters check out this clip:

 

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“Talent is helpful, but guts are an absolute necessity.”
Jessamyn West (1902-1984)
Screenwriter & Novelist from Indiana
Credits include The Big Country, Summer Flight, Friendly Persuasion

“Great scripts always sell or get optioned for real money. Sometimes not right away, but it happens.”
Adam Levenberg
The Starter Screenplay

One of the parallels I often compare with filmmaking is the world of athletics. The average person who is mildly aware of the athletic world may be able to recognized 25 names of NFL players, 25 MLB players, 25 NBA players, 25 PGA golfers. (For the athletically challenged that’s football, baseball, basketball and golf.) Notice I just said recognize. Not know their stats or what team they play on—just be aware of them on some level.

Bump that number up to 100 in each sport and I bet you’d lose most people in the United States. Meaning if you combined four of the most popular sports in America you are down to less than 400 recognizable names—out of a county of 300 million people.

But the reality is there are tens of thousands of people who earn a living related to football, baseball, basketball, and golf. They are coaches, trainers, and other support staff. They create training aids and maintain golf courses. They work at the high school, college and semi-pro level. They may not be getting rich, but they are earning a living.

As an acting teacher once told me, “You don’t have to be Babe Ruth to play baseball.”

And so it is in the world of filmmaking.  I bet if you took all of the well-known producers, directors, actors, cinematographers, actors making feature films today the average person might be able to recognize 400 names. Not know what movies they’ve worked on—just be aware of their names on some level. Again slim pickins. (And many of those recognizable names may not have made a film for five or ten years.)

But there are a lot of people out there earning a living in and around the film industry.

So what are the alternatives to your marketing your script? This is a field full of landmines (fraud).  I sure don’t have all the answers here but here are some suggestions:

1) Screenwriting contests

From my perspective the best things about screenwriting contest is it gives you a deadline. Worst thing about them I can sum up in five words: fraud, fraud, and more fraud.

Top contest: Nicholl Fellowship (deadline for 2011 is May 2)

2) The Internet

There are many different websites out there that claim to connect you with producers and agents.  The best thing about these sites is  connections have been made resulting in produced films. Worst thing about them I can sum up in five words: fraud, fraud, and more fraud.

Legit site that has resulted in produced films. InkTips ($50. for four months)

3) Grants

There are hundreds of grants out there and over the years has helped fund many features, documentaries, and short films.  Downside is it is a time suck. Lots of paper work, it’s competitive and sometimes political on who gets the grants and for what. This is the route that Florida filmmaker Victor Nunez (Ulee’s Gold) took early in his career.

4) Pitchfests

Lots of these out there as well and I’m sure some connections have been made. And I’m sure a lot of time and money has been wasted.

5) Start a blog/website

(Hello?) Remember when you’re marketing your script you are also marketing yourself.  I had a lunch meeting a couple of months ago with a wealthy businessman interested in making features, having an Emmy-winning blog didn’t hurt my credibility.

And even now I’m aware that there are actors and people with money who are aware of my script Shadows in the Dark because of this blog. And I welcome them to contact me.  Two days ago I had a friend read my blog and told me his son is interning with one of the big four agencies in L.A. and he could at least get my script read there. This stuff happens but you have to be proactive and you have to just keep swinging for the fences.

In less than a day you can get a domain name and put together a simple website using your blog as the site. (I recently updated my personal website (www.scottwsmith.com) using a template and wordpress and asking a couple of questions to my techie friends, and spending about $100.)

7) Cable TV

HBO, Hallmark, AMC, Lifetime and others are make films and these days they are often times they are better than what’s in theaters (Temple Grandin, Grey Gardens). If you’re resourceful you can query those companies directly and sometimes they pop on in Inktips and other forums requesting logline. Remember it’s a businesss that always needs new product. Every Valentines Day comes around and groups like Hallamrk and Lifetime need new films. In fact, I’ve never written a screenplay centered around a holiday, but I’ve seen many requests for them.

8)  Raise Your Own Money. Make your own film.

If your script was optioned today by a Hollywood producer it would still be two to five years before it found its way to theaters. The bigger the risk, the longer it tends to take. And the numbers that I’ve heard are that the ratio of films optioned to what actually gets produced is 40:1. Ouch. Last week I traded emails with a screenwriter in the Chicago area who optioned a script for 300 against 600. Meaning he got $300,000 up front and would get another $300,00 if the film got made. (A home run by the way. And one that was set-up by the writer’s real estates attorney who knew an entertainment attorney .) Anyway, the deal was made back in 2008 and I asked him what had happened to his script. He said it was in development hell. He got a couple assignments after that that left a bad taste in his mouth and now he’s back to just wanting to do produce and direct his own movies there in Chicgao.

If you decided to make your film yourself it’s possible to shoot and edit your film this year and submit it to Sundance and people be watching in next January. If it doesn’t pick up a distribution deal there’s iTunes (Edward Burns style) and you taking it to theaters yourself  (Kevin Smith Style) and selling DVDs on your own via your own social network. Remember that quote we started with; “Talent is helpful, but guts are an absolute necessity.”

I haven’t seen a time in my life where the skill level of so many people with so high an interest in filmmaking. Producers, directors, cameraman, editors.What started 15 years ago with AVID and 10 years ago with Final Cut Pro has unleashed a world of editors at various skill levels. Two years ago with the advent of the Canon 5D a who group of talented still photographers started bill themselves as cameraman. There’s a talent explosion going on.

And there’s always been more talented actors than work out there. Film festivals are everywhere. People are making short films for You Tube and Vimeo.  And while a lot of it is crap, some of it is pretty good. Some of it is spectacular.

But the one area that continues to be the hardest thing to nail is screenwriting.  So the chances are good that wherever you are in the world, there are young and old people from all kinds of cultures who have a camera and an editing system and a dream to make films. What they don’t have is a good script. You need to find these people any way you can.

You know what a producer is? A producer is someone who says, “I’m going to make this film, and I’m going to find the money.” It’s that simple. Be that person. Be your own producer. Make a couple short  films. Staring pulling a team of creative people together. Start small and grow. Become familar with Kickstarter. You can still submit your work the traditional Hollywood route. But don’t overlook You Tube. Facebook, Twitter and whatever social media was invented this morning to promote you and your work. Not for everyone…but it is an altenative.

A couple of weeks ago I talked to a screenwriter who had several hit films in the 90s who is thinking about doing 2-minute web videos as a way to rejuvenate his career. I don’t think for a second that he’ll have much problems finding willing actors and production crews to help. Stuff like that can be shot and edited in a day. Take the success he’s had in the past and mix it with the new way of distribution and he may have an empire in five years.

Maybe you will too.

But don’t get to caught up in the empire thing right now. Just keep writing, dreaming , and moving forward.

P.S. I came up with eight alternative ways to market your script. Help me find two more ways so I can make it an even 10.

Scott W. Smith

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Have you heard about the wealthy Nigerian businessman who wants to produce an American movie? He just needs your best script—the one you really believe in most…and your social security and bank account numbers so he can make a direct deposit into your bank account.

If there is the slightest hint that your heart got excited for one beat upon reading about that fictitious (I think) Nigerian businessman, then you need to memorize and say out loud three times the following words:

“If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”
(For those outside the United States the proper translations of that well used phrase is, “If it looks too good to be true, then it probably is not true.)

It was true of Bernie Madoff and it’s true of a zillion screenwriting and filmmaking opportunities.

In fact, if there is one thing that there is more of than screenplays out in the world it is schemes and scams to profit from your screenwriting dreams. So be careful. The waters are tricky out there, and if there is one place it will profit you to be skeptical and cynical— it’s in this area.

True Story. When I was 18 years old I went to one of those modeling agencies that is in every large and mid-sized town in America (probably in the world). I was looking for a photographer’s assistant job. The owner of the agency looked and my resume and portfolio then looked at me and said, “Have you ever thought about modeling? I think you’d be good in front of the camera.” Who doesn’t want to be told that?

And though that was a long time ago I remember that moment in Orlando, Florida clearly.

Finally somebody had recognized the obvious and I was soon going to fly off to New York and Paris and live an exciting life that few were able to experience. All I had to do was pay them for a photo shoot and I would be in their book and up for assignments. Oldest trick in the book. My total number of modeling gigs—zero. They made most of their money taking pictures of potential models.

It may not have been the first time I had ever been played in my life, but it’s the first time I remember it costing me money. (And it wouldn’t be the last time, either.)

Side note: If someone thinks you have potential as model and they are a legitimate agency, they will sign you and make their money booking you on gigs, not make their money from you paying them. And if they want you to pay them to take pictures—run. If you’re starting out you will need photos, but even there you can find up-and-coming and even established photographers who will do free testing with you as a way to build their portfolio. It’s a win-win deal.

The real test if someone loves your script—they give you money. It may not be a lot, but they are putting their money where their mouth is. It might be a $1,000./one-year option. And just as important as it is to write good subtext in your script, it’s good for you to read subtext when you read or hear a producer/production company state, “We’re looking for fresh, new writers.” What they probably mean, “We don’t have any money.”

Creative people are susceptible to scams because we live in a world of dreams and illusions.  (Track down the stories of musicians John Mellencamp and Billy Joel and the bad deals they signed early in their careers.) So be careful and know the wolf is always at the door and wearing a million disguises. In fact, the line between scams and legitimate is sometimes very thin. Some would say that the rise of film schools out there is a scam.

Surely there is a difference between the top film schools in the nation and the latest two-year, unaccredited film program costing $50,000—but every year there are tens of thousands of film school graduates (including those with MFA’s from the top schools) who will never work in any real capacity in the field they have studied. (Granted that’s true for many majors, but film and theater majors may be two of the least majors out there. At least there isn’t a degree for people wanting to be a rock star. At least, I don’t think there is.)

And I don’t have time, energy or knowledge to point out every scam and scheme out there. Just tread lightly. Ask a lot of questions. Do a lot of searches.

There are many groups out there that say that they will help you market your script. They range from script consultants to groups that will act as a go between between you and producers and agencies. Some boost of success stories. Some of those stories are probably true, most are not.

And don’t worry, you’re going to make mistakes. It’s going to cost you money. That’s part of life. And trust me,I’ve even met some very smart businessmen who made some very costly mistakes in the film business by trusting the wrong people. One of the great things about the internet is you can do a lot of fact checking in just a few minutes.

And there are some gray areas out there in the agency world. WGA signatory agents aren’t supposed to charge money to read scripts, but what some do is set up separate companies to do so (or do it on the side). Others call them reading fees and others refer of them as educational opportunities for new writers. There are lots of interesting stories out there—maybe you have one to share.

It’s a crazy business. I remember when I studied acting back in the day in L.A. more than one naive girl I knew had “auditions” at a producer’s home. Screenwriting has it’s own built-in traps and quagmires. As a general rule, it’s wise to strive to make every purchase an investment.

We’ll look at some alternative ways to market your script tomorrow, but I thought I’d first give you a warning.

Scott W. Smith

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“Although 90% of the writers we see are through referral and we are inundated with query letters, it never hurts to try. A clever note or a clever package gets our attention.”
Agent Debbee Klein
Paradigm

“You help someone accomplish something they want to do, regardless of where they are in their career. It’s wildly satisfying to start somebody’s career because you have that feeling of giving them their first check, and telling them it’s really real, and it’s a great, great feeling.”
Jeremy Zimmer
Partner/Agent United Talent Agency (UTA)
WGA Words into Pictures Forum

Let’s start out with a recap of Marketing Your Script (Parts 1 & 2) with a little help from screenwriter Max Adams (Excess Baggage), author of the book The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide, and founder and teacher at the Academy of Film Writing.

In Marketing Your Script (Part 1) we talked about writing a logline. Max in her book has a formula she likes to use:

(Title) is a (genre) about (protagonist) who must (objective) or else (dire thing will happen if protagonist fails).

Example:

Raiders of the Lost Ark is an action/adventure about Indiana Jones, a procurer of lost artifacts who must travel to Egypt and find the Ark of the Covenant before the Nazis unearth it and use it to take over the world.

Max graduated from film school in Utah and her entire book is very insightful. As the books cover proclaims it’s the; “DO’S AND DON’TS TO GET YOUR FEATURE SCREENPLAY READ, SOLD AND PRODUCED.” And she has first hand experience in what she writes about.  She was awarded both the Nicholl Fellowship and Austin Heart of Film Festival award —in the same week—her script Excess Baggage got produced and made its way to theaters starring Alicia Sliverstone, Benicio Del Toro, and Christopher Walken. Numerous studio assignments followed.

Since Marketing Your Script (Part 2) was in part about writing a query letter you’ll send to agents and producers, I traded emails with Max last night and she agreed to let me print the query letter that she used for Excess Baggage:

August 25, 1994

Joe Producer
Big Film Productions
c/o Big Dog Studios
5000 Big Dog Way
Hollywood, CA  900

Dear Joe Producer:

I’d like to submit EXCESS BAGGAGE, a feature length screenplay, for Big Film Productions’ consideration. I have professional writing credits in fiction, non-fiction, humor, and theater, recently graduated with a film degree from University of Utah, placed in the top five of the America’s Best ’93 national screenwriting competition, and am current semifinalist in the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting competition ’94.

EXCESS BAGGAGE is a dark romantic comedy about an heiress who stages her own kidnapping and the car thief who derails her plans. The story is set in Portland and Seattle.

If you’d consider taking a look, please, contact my agent, (Agent’s Name) at (Agent’s Phone Number), or call me direct at (My Phone Number).

Best,

Max Adams

So now we come to the big moment of truth where do you send the query letters? There are a few options but I’m going to streamline it to three steps.

1) Writers Guild of America, West website has a Guild Signatory Agents and Agency list.This is a good start for you to get familiar with the key agencies in Los Angeles. (And it’s free.)

2) Hollywood Creative Directory. At $79.95 it’s one of the best investments you’ll make in your screenwriting career and the one that will begin to demystify the process. It lists over 11,000 agents, managers, and productions companies. Some with email address and website addresses. It’s printed three times a year to make sure the contact info is up to date. It’s good to have at least one hard copy around to refer to and you can buy used ones on eBay.

But here’s how you can harness the power a little cheaper. For $19.95 per month you can sign up online and all their info is there for you. You can sign up for one month and cancel. It’ll take you a several nights to copy and past the info onto an excel sheet or your digital address book but you’re pretty dialed in at that point.

3) IMDBpro—another free service if you sign up for the 14-day trial service. Now you can start doing a lot of cross-referencing. If there is an producer, actor, director, or writer you like you can find out who their agent is (as well as often times their publicist, manager, and entertainment lawyer).

Then start sending your letters out—or if you have a little chuzpah and phone skills you can always call. But either way, always be kind and courteous and ready to pitch your story.

If all this sounds like a like of work, it is. Just as you were creative in writing your script now you have to be creative in marketing it. Once you start piecing together all the players you understand a little more how the game is played.

There are other books and services out there, but that’s kind of your foundation to the industry. The key is to start gathering info on people so you can understand their tastes. Keep track of how writers talk about selling a script or getting an agent or manager. If you read a quote from an agent or go hear them speak somewhere write that down in your contact info. And for a little added encouragement here are some helpful quotes from writers and agents:

“The fact is that every single one of us or our agencies take on new people. We have to. It’s the lifeblood of the business. I mean, things turn over. Clients leave, clients leave the business altogether — we do have overhead; we do need to pay attention to those clients who make a lot of money. But there’s always got to be room for the new people.
Lucy Stille
Paradigm

“So often the best people to get in touch with at an agency are the new, hungry people who are reading like crazy and know that their careers are going to be made because of their relationship with some new person that none of us even know exists.”
Lucy Stille

“The only thing is, for people who choose to reside outside of Los Angeles, you must make the commitment to be here as often as is required.”
Bob Hohman

If you want to write specs, you can write a spec from Minnesota or Florida, it doesn’t matter. If you want to have a writing assignment career you have to come here for enough time to meet people so that they want to give you jobs.
Lucy Stille

“You don’t have to target Tom Hanks or Oliver Stone. There’re plenty of anonymous, mid-industry level people who’ll give you a chance. Journeyman screenwriters are always good to approach, I believe — they’re easily flattered, and sympathetic to the cause.”
Screenwriter Terry Rossio (co-writer of Shrek, Pirates of the Carribbean
You, The Expert

“If you’re out there writing scripts, you can make it happen. It happens all the time.”
Jeremy Zimmer
United Talent Artists—UTA

It doesn’t happen much, but it does happen. And in Max’s case, true to form, her first screenplay to sell I believe was the seventh or eighth script she had written.

Tomorrow we’ll look at some alternative ways of marketing your script.

Related post:

Scott Myers answers: How Should I query Hollywood agents if I live outside the U.S.?

Update Decemeber 2011: I have been informed that after 20-years the Hollywood Creative Director no longer exisist. http://www.thewrap.com/media/column-post/promehteus-global-media-lays-hollywood-creative-directory-31441
I imagine other online servies like it will be popping up online and will provide links as soon as I learn of them.

Scott W. Smith

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