Archive for June, 2011

“Art is a microscope which the artist fixes on the secrets of his soul and shows to people these secrets which are common to all.”
Leo Tolstoy

Yesterday I mentioned having had my shares of Days in the Sun. (The kind of days when you tell everyone on Facebook that life is good.)  But like everyone, I’ve also had my share of dark and stormy nights.

As I type this there are people in Minot, North Dakota dealing with flooding and losing their homes, in Florida there is a different kind of being underwater as many are trying to make payments on a house that is well below their mortage loan, there are people in various parts of the country still dealing with the aftermath of tornadoes and fires, there are people who don’t even dream of buying a house they just want food on the table, and there are people just people hoping and praying they’ll get a job. And those are just a small fraction of the problems in the United States. When our scope goes globally, there is no question we live in a world full of turmoil.

We live in a world of conflict. And conflict is the heartbeat of storytelling. It’s also why people flock to movies. Because movies give keys and clues to life in popcorn-sized bites.

Sure they often entertain, sometime provoke, but at their best movies enlighten. And the way they do that is by show characters struggling with life.

“I would never write about someone who was not at the end of their rope.
Stanley Elkin 

That’s one thought to print out and tape on your computer. Off the top of my head I can see a wall of movie characters at the end of their rope in the following movies;

Finding Nemo, Seabiscuit, The Verdict, Braveheart, Gladiator, Titanic, On the Waterfront, North by Northwest, Rocky, Winter’s Bone, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Rain Man, Erin Brockovich, The Wizard of Oz…

And some of the great, memorable scenes in film history are where characters head into the zone where all seems lost.

It’s Rocky realizing he can’t beat Apollo Creed, it’s William Wallace being offered a chance to recant or be tortured to death in Braveheart, it’s the gang in Toy Story 3 inching toward the fiery furnace. Most of us will never know what it’s like to step into the boxing ring against the champ, or have to stand up to the king, or be put into a literal furance—but we have our demons to fight and hard times to endure.

The area known as the dark night of the soul.

Speaking about the dark night of the soul, what do you think of this idea?:

“The comedy follows a young conservative religious woman who loses her faith after a plane crash, decides to go to Vegas to live the life of a sinner, and on her journey finds her way back to her faith.”

That’s one sentence. 39 words.

Do you see the movie? Do you think in light of Christopher Lockhart’s comments in the post Query Letter Strikeout that it “hooks the reader”?

Do you think it’s going to show a person at the “end of their rope.”

If you don’t see a movie in that logline, you’ll be able to see it in movie theaters someday, because that concept/script  (Lamb of God) is Diablo Cody’s next film and her directorial debut.

Enjoy your days in the sun, but write about those dark and stormy nights.

And if you only learn one Latin phrase in your life make it Post Tenebras Lux…”After Darkness, Light”

Related post: Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt (touches on the spiritual side of Diablo Cody)

Thanks to Karl Iglesias’ excellent book Writing for Emotional Impact for the Tolstoy and Elkin’s quotes.

Scott W. Smith

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Days in the Sun

“How far you go in life depends on your being tender with the young, compassionate with the aged, sympathetic with the striving and tolerant of the weak and strong. Because someday in your life you will have been all of these things.”
George Washington Carver

“Everyone, no exceptions, feels like they are still 18 and waiting for their world to begin.”
Dan Linden

Paramount Studios in 1987

Rod Serling died at age 50.

Today I turned 50. Just like Danny Glover’s character in Lethal Weapon. Speaking of Lethal Weapon, I must have been doing my best in 1987 to look like Riggs when this photo taken when I was 25 on the Paramount Studios lot in Hollywood. 

It’s hard to see in this shot, but this area in front of the Directors Building at Paramount is (was?) a great photo-op on a clear day because the Hollywood sign can be seen in the background. And this blog is a way for me to keep an eye on Hollywood from 1859 miles (and 25 years) away.


When I was in high school I had two goals. I wanted to play major college football and I wanted to see all 50 states before I was 50 years old. Maybe not the most ambitious goals but that’s what they were.

There were some complications to my goals. Though I was an All-Conference wide receiver my senior year of high school I was only 5’8″ 150 and was not an exceptional student. (Not exactly blue chip material.) So I went to community college for a year, took some photography classes. wrote for a small newspaper, got my grades up and walked on to the University of Miami football team where future Pro Football Hall-of-Famer Jim Kelley was the starting quarterback.

I walked off half-way through the season with a dislocated shoulder. Mission accomplished with a very small check mark. (If you count playing on the scout team as playing.) I had an operation and shot my first film at Miami with my left arm in a sling and my right hand holding a super 8 mm camera. (Shaky cam before it was hip.)

The complication with seeing all 50 states was when I graduated from high school I had only been to three states—if you count the Atlanta airport. If not, then only Ohio and Florida were checked off my list, giving me 48 to go. But at least I had time, right? And I had the writings (and life stories) of Twain, Hemingway, and Will Rogers and the music of Jimmy Buffett to inspire me on an adventure or two. Long story short, I met my goal six years before turning 50. (Full-sized check mark.)

For a kid who grew up on a dead-end street I’m thankful to have had my share of days in the sun; Sunset sailing in Hawaii, kayaking in Martha’s Vineyard, body surfing The Wedge in Newport Beach, snorkeling in the Keys, Broadway plays, Marti Gras in New Orleans, photographing a solar eclipse in Salzberg, backpacking across Europe, and shooting footage from a sea plane over the Amazon River.

Today has been much simpler, but just as enjoyable, enjoying Main Street and the bike trails in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

And 50 doesn’t feel so old. George Clooney, Aaron Sorkin, and Michael J. Fox just turned 50, President Obama will turn 50 in a few weeks, and Meg Ryan and Eric Stoltz will hit it later in the year.

I still have a lot of goals and one of them is to finally see the best parts of this blog become a book. I’ve spent the past year editing 3 1/2 years of posts down to 65,000 words. A couple filmmaker friends have encouraged me to go the self-publishing route (book & ebook) and to use Kickstarter.com to help get it off the ground.  So I’m going to take a good look at that in the next couple of days and welcome any thoughts you have or experience you’ve had in the self-publishing and crowd-source fundraising worlds.


Scott W. Smith

Related post: …and Dark & Stormy Nights

P.S. For my birthday my wife gave me the book Forever Young based on the words of Bob Dylan and the illustrations of Paul Rogers. A great gift idea and it will sit nicely on our coffee table  next to the Dr. Seuss book I gave here years ago, Oh, the Places You’ll Go!

May God bless you and keep you always
May your wishes all come true
May you always do for others
And let others do for you
Forever Young/ Bob Dylan

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Well, Christopher Lockhart read my post yesterday, Query Letter Strikeout, and had this email response that he agreed to let me post:

“I think it’s important to understand that agencies don’t abhor “small” movies.  Compared to THOR or the BATMAN franchise, your pitch is for a “small” movie.  Yes, those kinds of projects can be tougher sells.  But they can also be used as writing samples – a way in introduce the talents of a new writer.  Those kinds of scripts are valuable to agencies in  many ways.  For instance, they can be great ways to launch new talent or  allow established talent to try something new (like an actor who directs) or they can be magnets for awards. 

I didn’t pass on your pitch because it wasn’t CAPTAIN AMERICA.  I didn’t pass on it because it was a “small” movie.
I passed on it because you bungled it.
If a writer pitches an intriguing dramatic story that allows the reader/listener to SEE the movie, then he has succeeded.  
Your pitch didn’t allow me to see the movie. 
Most new writers fail because they do not conceive an idea that’s appropriate for a film (and the logline and screenplay often prove that out) or because they do not successfully communicate their movie idea.
If a writer doesn’t conceive a functional movie idea, then he can almost never communicate it.  That would explain why most new writers have a hard time with loglines. 
However, when writers have an idea that is naturally a movie concept, it can almost always be presented in a concise, dramatic and exciting way.
But great movie ideas – big or small – are rarely shut out.”
For more on loglines, check out Christopher’s post Loglines Revisted Revistited (not a typo) on his blog “The Inside Pitch.”

To keep with the baseball metaphor of pitching that’s used in the DVD The Inside Pitch which features Christopher, one of the many things I’ve learned in the last week or so is it’s a lot different to be in a batting cage taking battling practice and to step up to the plate in the big league. And for all the books out there that state that structure is most important, or character is most important, or plot is most important, or even theme is most important in a screenplay—just maybe concept is king of them all.

Because you can weave great exposition into your story, have engaging dialogue, interesting story twists and all the other things in your screenplay, but if you can’t get people excited about your concept they probably won’t even get to your script.

Scott W. Smith

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Keep it short. 

That’s the short version of this post on query letters and loglines.

Keep it short.

Unfortunately, it’s going to take one long post to explain in detail why to keep it short. In fact, it’s going to be over 2,000 words—but there’s a lot to learn here. If you’re in college, you should get credit for reading this post. Especially since many film schools never touch on this practical aspect of knocking on doors. (It’s may be more valuable than a discussion on why

About three months ago I wrote a post called Marketing Your Script (Part 1) where I tossed out a several versions of loglines for my screenplay Shadows in the Dark asking readers to give their input.

The consciousness was along the lines of favoring this one:

SHADOWS IN THE DARK—A young, inexperienced police officer from small town Iowa must tap into his dark side to solve the first ever murder in the town’s history before the town turns on him and he loses his faith in himself—and before a killer gets away with a quadruple homicide.

I traded a couple emails with screenwriter Max Adams around that time as I really liked what she wrote about query letters in her book The Screenwriter’s Survival Guide.

Max was kind enough to critique my logline and said it needed to be shorter and stripped of all metaphor. She wrote, “Phrases like ‘tapping into the dark side’ are metaphors that don’t really tell anyone what the story is about.”

And in my query letter I had mentioned that this was my ninth script, but Max didn’t see that bit of information working in my favor. She wrote, “Don’t tell someone it’s your ninth script.  The immediate snotty agent response to that is, ‘If you were any good, why didn’t one of the other eight sell?’  It’s Hollywood.  It’s how they think.  Don’t give them something to react off in that way.”

It doesn’t matter at this point that several people have read the script that I co-wrote with Scott Cawelti has gotten comments like, “Great script. I read it in one sitting because I wanted to know who killed that family.”  Friends, family and other writers are great to read your script for encouragement.

But unless one of your friends on family members happen to have the last name of Spielberg, that encouragement probably won’t result in a sale.

And I received solid notes from several people that resulted in several more rewrites of the script.

Around this time I came across a blog post by Christopher Lockhart that was an eye opener. People often talk about writing a great script, he talked about “the right script.”

What makes a script a “right” script:

1) Concept
2) Execution
3) Marketing

You may have executed the perfect script but if the concept isn’t something that grabs Hollywood executives, agents, or readers then your script will have a tough time even getting read.

Of course, there are plenty of great indie films that don’t have the most compelling loglines and still get made. If you write a script like “Winter’s Bone” don’t expect anyone in Hollywood too get excited.

And I’m sure more than one Hollywood executive said of its under $13 million worldwide total gross, “I knew that film wouldn’t make any money.” But in the indie world, “Winter’s Bone” beat the odds because it not only got made, but it got distributed. And made on a budget of $2 million, even after prints and advertising, it made a little money.

Getting indie films made is one big mountain to climb. Hollywood is similar, but different mountain.

So I sent Christopher Lockhart my query and asked him to critique it and he was kind enough to do so.  Here’s the one page query that I sent Christopher, followed by his response in bold:

June 22, 2011

Mr. Christopher Lockhart

Dear Mr. Lockhart,

In 2008 after seeing “Juno” and discovering that screenwriter Diablo Cody went to college in Iowa I started a blog called “Screenwriting from Iowa.” Since then that blog has not only been listed as one of the top ten blogs for aspiring screenwriters, but was mentioned on TomCruise.com*, and became the first blog on screenwriting to win an Emmy.

Since graduating from film school in Los Angeles, various productions over the years have taken me to all 50 states and overseas as a video and TV producer/director. I’ve worked on everything from shooting a couple interviews for Steven Spielberg’s “Shoah Project,” field producing for ABC’s “The Doctors,” and writing & directing short films while collecting 20 awards along the way. (I even did two days of locations scouting in Iowa for Mandate Pictures.)

My newest script “Shadows in the Dark” is a crime drama. Years after an injury ended his college wrestling career, a 28-year-old finds himself far from his former glory. He’s Chief of Police, but in a one-cop town where not much happens. Until one fall night in 1975 when a family of four is murdered. Since that small Midwest town has never had a single murder in its 137-year history, everyone thinks it was an outsider passing through town.

But was it?

Chief Bartlett isn’t so sure and that doesn’t make him popular with some of the town folks. As he investigates, his inexperience is exposed and makes mistakes.  But he learns that, “It’s not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog.,”—and that the right thing to do is not always the most popular choice—nor the safest. More people will die, but the truth will be discovered. From a perspective of a young cop rite of passage, it’s in the vein of Silence of the Lambs and Se7en.

The story is inspired by true-life events that are still legendary in Cedar Falls, Iowa.

May I send you this script for your consideration?


Scott W. Smith

Your query letter:

This is just my opinion.  Others will have different reactions. 

I think it’s too long.  Personally, I don’t want to know anything about you until I’ve read the logline.  If the logline excites me, then I’ll want to read more about the mind behind this great idea.

If this came to me from someone I didn’t know, I probably wouldn’t read much beyond the first few lines.

The Emmy detail is interesting, but I’m not sure if anybody other than me would care.  I keep a semi-blog, so it has personal intrigue. (And I like to brag to myself that I could be the only screenwriting instructor nominated for an Emmy for teaching screenwriting.  Suck on that, McKee!)

We get lots of e-mails a day.  Hundreds.  And those are business related.  And then there’s the query letter.  Hundreds of those too.  Many companies will not accept unsolicited query letters to avoid liability issues.  (I often get query letters that solicit whether or not the writer can send a query.)   So, for many, unsolicited queries can be trouble or, at the very least, the lowest of priorities.   (By the way, I would never put the word “query” in the subject line of a query letter.  Just use the script title.)

No one has time to read through a query.  Keep it fast and simple.  Evelyn Wood should be your muse.   We’re on a search and destroy mission.  If I can’t pinpoint the logline amongst all the writing, I’m out of there.

You letter has way too much to say.  Don’t sell yourself.  Allow the concept to sell itself.    When the logline is buried alive in the letter, I figure it may not be all that strong.  If I had an awesome concept, I’d put it in the fucking letterhead – not bury in all that black.

So what of your pitch? 

I think it’s too long.    And, boiled down to it’s most fundamental state, it’s the story of a cop who has to solve a murder. 

The hook is that it’s the first murder in the town’s 137 year history.  I’m not sure if that’s all that much of a hook.  Or if it’s enough of a hook. I kind of like it.  But it’s not likely to bowl people over.

Remember, a “hook” is what takes an ordinary story and gives it that spark of originality.  That dash of taking the familiar and making it unique.  Hollywood likes unique – but familiar.   A hook is built into the concept.  It’s not a twist.  The idea of a hook is to hook the reader into the story.  So it’s found earlier in the script.   A twist is an unexpected plot turn.   For instance, in THE SIXTH SENSE, the hook is the boy sees dead people.  The twist is Bruce Willis is dead.  

If you going to offer up an archetypal story (and what isn’t archetypal) then you need a strong hook to compete in the marketplace. 

I’ve read tens of thousands of scripts.  How many scripts have I read that sound like the one you’re pitching?  Thousands.  There isn’t anything that allows me to say, “That’s a good spin on a tried-and-true formula.”

Referencing THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS and SEVEN is a noble effort, but there isn’t anything in what you’ve pitched that allows me to agree.  So I blow it off as hyperbole.

In your pitch, you make the fatal mistake of offering up a book cover synopsis.  In other words, you deliver it with mystery, explaining some things but leaving more to one’s imagination..  I don’t want fucking mystique.  I want to know the story. 

So if you’re going to offer up more than just the logline –  tell me the story.  I don’t need the theme – which you sort of deliver here.  (Don’t tell people what your script is “really” about.  Let them decide for themselves.  It’s a personal journey.  Telling them what they’re suppose to derive from it makes it your journey.  If a reader cannot personalize the experience, the script fails.) 

The pitch is vague in telling me what the cop is up against.  He’s investigating this terrible crime.  He suspects the criminal is a townie and not an outsider.  And…then what?   Your pitch goes off base at that point with theme instead of telling me the actual drama.  You lose focus.   For instance, when he suspects it’s a townie, how does that impact the investigation? What does that mean for him? Is the town trying to cover it up?  Protect the real culprit and allow an outside to take the fall?   

I should understand this from the pitch. 

But you evade the important stuff that I have to know and offer up inconsequential stuff.  A good pitch should intrigue – not frustrate.

Give me the story points that make me want to read this script.  Give me the conflict.  Give me the drama.


So from your pitch, this is what I come away with:

This is based on a true story.

A young police chief, in a small Iowa town, struggles to solve a multiple murder – the only homicides in the town’s 137 year history – but when he suspects the culprit is one of their own and not an outsider…

What should follow after the ellipsis is the heart of the movie, and it’s what you don’t pitch me. 

It’s a fatal mistake.  As a result, I think most wouldn’t be able to have a clear vision of the movie and would simply hit the DELETE button.  It would definitely be a pass from me. 

P.S. By the way, it would be wise to leave out the 1970’s time period, since it makes your script a period piece.  It doesn’t seem to be a crucial detail in the understanding of your story.

Why turn off a potential reader?  (Period pieces are a tougher sell, so they can be less enticing.)

Think of pitching like house selling.  In terms of the marketplace, you want to show off the pitch’s assets and minimize the elements that could turn off reps, producers and execs.  At this point, the goal is to get them to read the script.  If you don’t succeed at that, they’ll never know that you’re a brilliant writer. 

Now keep in mind that WME is the largest agency in the world and is said to represent the top 2% of a relatively small Hollywood talent pool. They’re looking for big ideas, that will attract big dollars. If you were a Hollywood agent getting 10% and Ryan Renyolds was your client would you rather he appear in Buried ($3 million budget) or The Green Lantern ($200 million budget)?

Ultimately, having a query letter strikeout is not the end of the world.  It’s a little like the time when I was 18-years-old and went to an open tryout for the Pittsburgh Pirates. (Key word there is “open.”) You’re just kinda glad to be on the field getting a shot. I’ll keep working in the logline (and the script), and keep pursuing other Hollywood options and indie routes. (And from now on I’m a big fan of nailing your logline and pitch before writing the script.)

Notes like Max’s and Christopher’s either tear you down or build you up. In my case, it recharges me and I’ll step up back to the plate soon. I’ll post round three of my query that will not only be better for this advice—but it will be a heck of a lot shorter.

Many thanks for Max and Christopher for being gracious enough for taking the time to respond. Max heads up the Academy of Film Writing and blogs at See Max Run. Christopher’s blog is The Inside Pitch and is featured on the DVD The Inside Pitch, Selling a Script in Hollywood.  One post of Christopher’s posts that is related to all of this is Think “Hollywood.”

Related posts: Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1)
Getting Your Script Read (Tip #51)
Marketing Your Script (Part 3) —Features query Max Adams used for her script Excess Baggage.

Query from Iowa, By Mark Strauss

Scott W. Smith

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In the post “The Inside Pitch” I mentioned improving your pitching skills by coming up with loglines and pitches for existing and successful films. (It’s sort of like wanting to be a comedian and doing an old Jerry Sienfeld routine in front of your friends. If they don’t laugh, it’s probably not that the material isn’t funny.)

So today I was flipping through Michael Hauge’s book Selling Your Story in 60 Seconds and found a quote by Christopher Lockhart, WME Story Editor,  that gives feet to working on a pitch for a past hit film:

“A good pitch should enable me to see the movie, picture the stars, understand the demographics, know how many screens it will open up on, and even envision the poster. ‘A New York City cop travels to Los Angeles to reconcile with his wife but learns she’s been taken hostage by terrorist in a skyscraper — and he struggles alone to save her. It’s called Die Hard.'” 

Stop in tomorrow and see the critique by Lockhart of a query letter I sent him for  a script of mine.  As a teaser, I did follow Hauge’s advise; “Keep in brief; Query letters are less than one page long. End of discussion.” For Lochkart, one page is more than he wants to read in a query. Read the gory details tomorrow. Cue the Dragnet theme: Dum—de-DUM-DUM.

Related post:
“Juno”—The Logline
“Star Wars”—The Logline

Scott W. Smith

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Since writers are always talking about how difficult it is to get their script read, I found a quote from Christopher Lockhart, story editor at WME, from a post he wrote on his blog “The Inside Pitch” several years ago.  This is an excerpt for a question he received from a Colorado screenwriter who asked a question that essentially asked the questions, “How do I get read?”

“The easiest way to get read is simply to ask. It’s easy because it doesn’t take much time or cost anything. You can ask by letter, e-mail, phone or in person. If you ask 100 executives, most will say “no.” But some will say “yes.” And that’s a perfectly good place to start. The fear of rejection and embarrassment plays a big part in causing writers to shy away from such tactics. I suggest to take a pill or something and get over it.

As I’ve mentioned in the past, try to contact reputable managers who are open to new writers. A scribe who lives in Colorado needs a mouthpiece here in town who can work on her behalf. But never exclude anyone who might be willing to read your script.

Of course, you need to keep writing. Turn out 2-3 new scripts a year. The more scripts you have, the more likely you are to find the right match for one of them – which in many cases is all it takes to launch a career. Set a quota for yourself: Contact X amount of execs, producers, managers and agents a month in an attempt to get your script read. The more queries, the more likely someone will say yes to a read.”
Christopher Lockhart

There you go—you have not because you asked not. (Or haven’t asked enough.)

This posts follows a five-day Q& A I did with Lockhart and one post on the DVD “The Inside Pitch,” which features Lockhart and Jack d’Annibale with more Hollywood insights.

Scott W. Smith 

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“A pitch is a verbal presentation of your dramatic story. It is a concise presentation.”
Christopher Lockhart

A logline is a super tiny pitch. A TV guide presentation of your story. Two or three sentences.

If you ever want to sympathize with Hollywood executives watch the DVD “The Inside Pitch”, a workshop that turned into a TV show in LA where Christopher Lockhart and Jack d’Annibale (then both were ICM executives) listen to pitch after pitch from emerging writers who gathered in downtown L.A. in hopes of seeing their ideas become films (or at least winning a story conference with Lockhart and d’Annibale). It’s a little bit like Amerian Idol and America’s Got Talent, except people are specifically pitching their movie ideas. And like those other talent shows, the talent is all over the place.

The sincerity of the people are never in question—but the quality of their ideas is often pretty weak. Sometimes the idea is strong and the pitch is weak. It’s entertaining stuff as Lockhart and d’Annibale try to wade through the pitches. But the real benefit of the “The Inside Pitch” to you as a writer is the comments that Lockhart and d’Annibale give the audience as they critique a pitch they’ve just hear. Here’s are five samples of their pitching insights:

“If you can grab our attention in a minute with a logline, or a good pitch, or just a zinger, that’s the same kind of process in terms of being succinct, being simple, being sexy, being interesting, being engaging, being chilling, being thrilling—that is the key. The key to screenwriting is very, very simple, but it’s not easy. And the key is make it simple, make it clean, but make it damn good.”
Jack d’Annibale

“It’s important to know what the thoughline of your story is…if I don’t hear a throughline, I don’t think you have a dramatic story.”
Christopher Lockhart

Hook & Ladder:

“The hook is the entry way into the main body of the story. The hook of Die Hard is that moment when Alan Rickman rolls in win the terrorist and they take over the building. It is literally the moment where the writer is giving us a wink or a peek into what this story is going to be about.”
Jack d’Annibale

“The metaphor I sometimes like to use instead of a throughline is a ladder. So the ladder is sort of the spine or throughline of the story. Literally how we climb from the bottom of the story to the top of the story.”
Jack d’Annibale

“High concept goes for the extremes. So you take one character and put them in an extreme situation.  So like in Sister Act you have a Reno lounge singer who finds herself in a convent. It’s a complete antithetical setting to where she starts off.”
Christopher Lockhart

“The Inside Pitch” is an Emmy-nominated program that contains an hour of material and can be order online for $19.95.

If you teach a class or can gather a small group of writers, one way to improve your pitching is to pitch hit films, classic films—basically any story that works. That will do two things; A) Tune your antenna to what makes a good story, and B) Improve your speaking skills, because if the pitch isn’t engaging then you know it’s not the story that’s the problem.

Learning to be “Good in a Room” (Part 1)
Learning to be “Good in a Room” (Part 2)
Screenwriter/Salesman Pete Jones

Allan Palmer’s post How to write a logline

Allan Palmer’s post The 6 most common logline weaknesses 

Scott W. Smith

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SWS Question 7: Screenwriter Diablo Cody is with your agency and a great inspiration behind this blog because she went to college in Iowa. I love that she broke into the industry writing a spec script in Minneapolis that went on to win an Oscar. And while “Juno” was her first screenplay, by her own admission she had been writing short stories, essays, and poetry on a regular basis for 15 years. In the writers that you’ve seen breakthrough over the years is there usually a long paper trail behind their overnight success?

CHRISTOPHER LOCKHART*: Yes, I think, for the most part, writers pay their dues.  (And so do sound mixers and assistant directors and costume designers and so on.)   Some writers might hit it out of the park their very first try – selling the very first script they write.  One of my former students, Josh Schwartz, a wunderkind before he ever wrote a script, sold the first spec he wrote and went on to become the youngest showrunner in TV history (having created hits like THE O.C, GOSSIP GIRL and CHUCK) .  But, it’s probably safe to say, that most have to work out the kinks in their craft.  And achieve that perfect confluence of concept and craft.  Nothing drives the wannabe writer to the grave faster than impatience.  I’ve met many writers over the years who have said to me in a panic, “I can’t pay my rent this week and I’m going to get kicked out if I don’t sell my script right away.”  While he might end up the most successful screenwriter in Hollywood history, it seems certain he’ll be sleeping at the curb by the end of the week.

Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 2)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 3)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 4)

A sample of the posts you’ll find a Christopher’s blog archives is My First Time (scroll down to November 06, 2006) and written by screenwriter James V. Simpson after his first script sale. That script, Armored, got produced and was released in 2009. Simpson, who’s originally from Canada, writes,  “It is my opinion that anyone can sell a script from anywhere, but to accomplish that and build a career you need a team in L.A. that will be working every day on your behalf.”

Diablo Cody related posts:
Screenwriting’s Biggest Flirt
The Juno-Iowa Connection 
Beatles, Cody, King & 10,000 Hours
Diablo Cody+3=823



Scott W. Smith

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SWS Question #5: What should a writer avoid when writing a query letter?

CHRISTOPHER LOCKHART*: Avoid silly, self-effacing, or obsequious letters. Be professional. Often, authors of comedy scripts try to pen funny letters. In some cases, it is effective. However, if the letter does not garner a chuckle, this can kill the script. Allow the pitch itself to earn the laugh. Sadly, goofy letters are often passed around the mailroom for a late afternoon chuckle before landing in the recycling bin. Or even worse, they are commemorated on the “wall of shame.”

Keep all information in the query letter pertinent. Avoid superfluity. For instance, a writer will tell an agent that she is a “grandmother of 12,” or another will say, “I have an accounting degree.” Only include what is absolutely necessary. No one cares if a scribe has an MBA from Michigan State. However, it makes sense to say, “I have a BA in film from….”

Do not include scenes from your screenplay in a query letter. Scenes, descriptions of your characters, action or actual dialogue can seem very unappealing when taken out of context. Screenplays deserve to be read in their entirety – as a whole.

Avoid insignificant praise. Never include readers’ positive comments. “My college film professor says it’s the best screenplay he’s read this semester.” “The local mailman said my depiction of the United States Postal Service is accurate and riveting.” “Mary Jones at Warner Brothers loves the script but says I must have an agent.” If Mary Jones loves the script, she will do everything within her power to obtain the script. (Mary Jones is politely blowing off the writer.) Occasionally, these quotes offer an unwitting sub-text that backfires on the screenwriter. Also, avoid hyperbolic descriptions of the screenplay. “It’s an action packed, thrill-a-minute character study with a romance that will break your heart.” Any kind of hype is unprofessional. It is silly for a screenwriter to praise his own work. It goes without saying that the writer believes his “characters are riveting” and his story “important for our times.”

Be careful in boasting about contest placements. While it might seem like a big deal that your script came in 27th place in a screenwriting contest, it’s possible that few in Hollywood will care.  I was once chatting with an agent who got an email during our conversation. It was a query from a writer who explained that his script came in third place in a big contest.  The agent wrote back saying he would be more interested in getting the names of the first and second place winners.  If you didn’t win the contest, find a smart way to couch or position the information.

Do not include supplemental material. For instance: “With the hopes of enticing you to read my new screenplay, SHAME: A GIRL WITH AN STD, I have enclosed an eight-page booklet about syphilis.” The odds of the pamphlet being read are slim to none. Also, don’t send food or candy with a letter. No one in their right mind will eat food sent to them by a complete stranger.

Do not make casting suggestions (unless you are targeting an actor’s representative), do not suggest marketing concepts, and do not offer up taglines. You can refer to an actor to communicate the type of protagonist. (“Think of someone like Tom Cruise.”)

Avoid the “Clearance Bin at Wal-Mart” query letter.  That’s the query that provides loglines for all the scripts you’ve written.  Those letters, in my opinion, always give off a bad vibe.  You’ve written all those scripts and haven’t landed representation yet?  And when all the loglines are bad (and they most often are bad), it’s a real career killer – before you even have a career.  I once wrote back to someone, suggesting they avoid the “Clearance Bin” method.  They responded with, “I’ve had a lot of success this way.”  To which I responded, “Then why are you querying me?”  My suggestion is query with your one strongest piece of material.  And regardless of when you wrote it (like five years ago), tell everyone you just finished it.  If they want to read more of your work, you can go through the clearance bin.

Proofread the letter. One would believe writers have a strong command of their language. However, query letters are often littered with misspelled words. This also includes grammar and syntax errors.

Letters should be sent to a specific person. Be sure their name is spelled correctly. Refer to the “Hollywood Creative Directory,” the Internet, or call for the correct spelling. In general, calling ahead is a good idea. Double check to make sure the executive is still employed with that company. The agent’s name may appear in the “Hollywood Agents and Managers Directory,” but turnover is fierce, and the agent at UTA today could be at CAA tomorrow.

It is not bad form to query more than one rep at a company at the same time.  One may blow you off and the other might respond.  If they both respond, they can work it out between them.  That’s a happy problem for you.

Avoid writing the letter by hand. Of course, an equal amount of care should be given to the envelope.

Avoid including “yes/no” self-addressed postcards – unless requested.

NEVER send the script along with the letter – unless requested.

When your script is solicited, do not ask that it be returned, and do not include a self-addressed stamped manila envelope for its return – unless requested.

The same applies for e-mail queries. There are services that will write your e-mail query and blast it all over town. However, those queries are often too long and laborious and make it difficult to enable one to “see the movie.” Brevity is essential in a query letter. Those services might have an easier time getting your e-mail into every computer in town, but you should, at least, write the query.

Also, send the query to everybody. For instance, you might do some research and learn that a small prodco only makes horror movies. As a result, you decide not to send them a query for your comedy. But, unbeknownst to you, they have decided to look for material outside their trademark genre – a missed opportunity because you censored yourself. Let others determine what material is right for them. All they’ll do is say, “We don’t make those kinds of movies.”

Don’t expect anyone to respond to your letter.  Follow-up in two week intervals.  If after six months you don’t get a response, consider it a response.  You should never sit at home waiting for a response.  Send your letters, make those calls and, in the meantime, start writing the next script. 

Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 1)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 2)
Christopher Lockhart Q&A (Part 3)

*Christopher Lockhart is a film executive, educator and producer.   He is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s biggest talent agency, where he looks for projects for “A” list clients including Denzel Washington and Steve Martin.  He has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU and lectures around the country.  His writing workshop “The Inside Pitch” was produced for television and earned him an LA Area Emmy nomination.    He co-produced “The Collector” (2009) and its sequel (in post production) “The Collection” (2012).  He wrote and produced the documentary “Most Valuable Players (2010),” which won the “Documentary Channel Audience Award” at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival and was acquired by Oprah Winfrey as part of the OWN Documentary Club for a fall 2011 premiere.   He has been a guest judge for screenwriting contests like Big Break!, The Wisconsin Screenwriting Contest and the UCLA Showcase 2011.  Christopher is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and SciencesThe Writers Guild of AmericaWest and the Producers Guild of America.

Scott W. Smith

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SWS Question #4: So if the way to finding a manager, agent, or production company is a strong logline and query letter, can you give us what you consider an effective examples of both?

CHRISTOPHER LOCKHART*: You cannot go wrong with a short letter that features one brief paragraph indicating your intent, one brief paragraph to convey the concept (via a logline), and a final, brief paragraph to introduce yourself. No particular order necessary.

Some might want to lead off with the logline or some sort of question to pique the reader’s interest. In a query for MINORITY REPORT, an opening question to pique interest might go: Would the world be a better place if we had the ability to capture criminals before crimes were committed?

If the letter goes over a half page (including letterhead and addresses) you’ve entered the Yucca Flat of 8 ½ x 11.

There is no real science to writing a query letter because the truth is that regardless of how beautifully written or clever the letter might be, if the concept (logline) doesn’t grab the reader, it’s a pass.

On a rare occasion, an exec might be inspired by the letter itself – in spite of the lackluster concept. But I’d rather find a serviceable letter surrounding an amazing movie concept.

Dear Mr. Thalberg,

I am currently seeking representation for my new sci-fi adventure MINORITY REPORT.

In a future where criminals are apprehended before they perpetrate the crime, a cop is falsely accused of a murder he has not yet committed and goes on the lam to prove his innocence.

I am a former New York City police officer and an avid reader of science fiction. I’ve combined my expertise in both fields to write this screenplay.

May I send you a copy?


John Smith

Some letters might include a brief summary to explain the logline in more detail.  If a writer feels it’s necessary, keep it to a short paragraph.  Sometimes, less is more.   By sharing too much information about the story, you could give the reader more to object to. 

For more on loglines check out Lockhart’s blog post Logline revisited.

Screenwriting from Iowa related posts:
“Juno”—The Logline
“Star Wars”—The Logline
Marketing Your Script (Part 3) 

* Christopher Lockhart is a film executive, educator and producer.   He is the Story Editor at WME, the world’s biggest talent agency, where he looks for projects for “A” list clients including Denzel Washington and Steve Martin.  He has an MFA in dramatic writing from NYU and lectures around the country.  His writing workshop “The Inside Pitch” was produced for television and earned him an LA Area Emmy nomination.    He co-produced “The Collector” (2009) and its sequel (in post production) “The Collection” (2012).  He wrote and produced the documentary “Most Valuable Players (2010),” which won the “Documentary Channel Audience Award” at the 2011 Nashville Film Festival and was acquired by Oprah Winfrey as part of the OWN Documentary Club for a fall 2011 premiere.   He has been a guest judge for screenwriting contests like Big Break!, The Wisconsin Screenwriting Contest and the UCLA Showcase 2011.  Christopher is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and SciencesThe Writers Guild of AmericaWest and the Producers Guild of America.

Scott W. Smith

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