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Archive for June, 2011

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?

Sincerely,

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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SWS Question 3: If a writer living outside of L.A. writes “the right script” do they really have a chance of creating heat in Hollywood? (And what if they live outside the United States?)

CHRISTOPHER LOCKHART*: If an out-of-town writer scores a local manager or agent, the writer can certainly see results.  However, because the business is so competitive, I think a writer really needs to be in Hollywood to maintain his professional status.  He wants to mingle with those who do the hiring.  He wants his face in front of producers and executives in order to create relationships.  It’s not easy to break into this business, let alone maintain a career.  Distance makes maintenance even more difficult.  Once you land on the “A” list, then you can pretty much live wherever you please.  But it might be difficult to get on the “A” list without spending some time in town.

But if you don’t live in L.A., believe it or not, your being in Iraq or France isn’t all that different from a writer living in Missoula, Montana.

Most communication between writers and Hollywood is through letters, e-mails and phone calls. Since you cannot attend parties to mingle and network, you’ll have to make contact in other ways.

Firstly, you must exhaust all your existing contacts. Be sure to squeeze them of any helpful information and leads.

Although many hate the dreaded query letter, they DO work in terms of getting someone to read a script.   Query letters are a way to let executives know who you are and what your script is about.

Although you’ll want to query production companies, managers and agents – your efforts might be best served by pursing management.

The likelihood of you being able to find the right production company for your script can be very difficult. Finding a manager might be a bit easier. Also, once situated with a manager (who will help guide you), he will come up with a logical strategy for marketing you and your scripts. Managers are a good choice for new writers who are developing their craft and business acumen.

In tomorrow’s post Lockhart will address loglines and querry letters.

* 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.

Lockhart’s blog is “The Inside Pitch”; A Hollywood executive discusses screenwriting.  The Inside Pitch; Selling A Script in Hollywood is available on DVD.

Related post: How to Get an Agent
Marketing Your Script (part 2)

Scott W. Smith

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One of the side benefits of this blog I started three years ago is it’s given me interesting connections that I didn’t even make when I lived in Burbank. Soon I will be posting interviews I did earlier this year with screenwriters Dale Launer (My Cousin Vinny, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and Pen Densham (Robin Hood Price of Theives, Moll Flanders).

And today I’ll start by posting part one of a Q & A with Christopher Lockhart. While not posting much on his blog The Inside Pitch much is the last couple years he was on the forefront of helping screenwriters back in 2006, and there is a good of helpful information listed in his archives. There you’ll find his response to such timeless questions such as, What type of spec should a novice screenwriter try writing? (A question that I’m sure Thomas Edison was asked soon after patenting the first movie camera in the late 1800s.) Lockhart’s expanded bio reads:

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 Sciences, The Writers Guild of America, West and the Producers Guild of America.

SWS Question #1: What were your goals when you started your blog, “The Inside Pitch,” five years ago?

CHRISTOPHER LOCKHART:  There were plenty of blogs by professional writers and amateur writers and screenwriting gurus.  My goal was to present an opinion that was shaped by the talent agency business; a kind of opinion and experience that I’d hadn’t seen blogged about.   At first, I answered questions from the POV of my side of the business.  But then I also started to muse about my experiences in the industry.  A blog can be consuming, and it started to eat away a lot of my time.  Besides my job at the agency (ICM at the time), I started developing projects as a producer.  So, I put the blog to rest.  I revived it in a very part-time status about a year ago, but in order to develop a readership, a blogger must write regularly.

SWS QUESTION #2: It’s been said that most screenplays written range from bad to not very good, and that a great script will not go unnoticed. Do great scripts always open doors in Hollywood?

CHRISTOPHER LOCKHART: “Always?”  Of course not.  A writer must have access to the business.  What good is a “great” script if the right people don’t get the opportunity to read it?  Having a “great” script is only a percentage of what a writer must accomplish to evolve a career.

Teachers and purveyors of HOW TO books use “great” every chance they get. What else can someone say? “Great” makes everyone look smart. Writers are writing great scripts, and Hollywood is selling/buying great scripts.

And, in such a tough, puzzling business, “great” allows the writer to actively strive for something specific (so he thinks). He enthusiastically tells himself, “All I have to do is write a great script and Hollywood’s doors will open for me!”

But anyone who works in the business knows this is not entirely true.

I suggest writers write the “right” script.

When I started talking about the “right” script rather than the “great” script, I was criticized and lambasted.  But I still believe that lots of factors play a role in getting writers to the professional level.  For instance, “timing.” 

What make a script a “right” script?:
1) CONCEPT
2) EXECUTION
3) MARKETING

CONCEPT is king in the Hollywood spec market – especially for “tyro scribes” (that’s Hix Nix Stix Pix for “new writers”). I hear lots of concepts from new scribes and rarely do any resonate with the sound of a “Hollywood movie.”

Part of being successful in this business is having a good head for concepts. For instance, I like the concept for TWO MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT.   In this story, an obnoxious divorce attorney must find his kidnapped wife before he’s forced to pay the unorthodox ransom: He must kill himself.

I still believe that a new writer needs to develop a “movie” concept.  Most writers develop concepts that are neither dramatic nor cinematic.  They’d make great poems – but not great movies. 

So, a “right” script has to be great but it also includes other factors that some “great” scripts often lack.   

More tomorrow…

Scott W. Smith

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“She was known and loved universally as Gertrude Stein, born at Allegheny, Pennsylvania, in 1874, now rests in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise at Paris, along with Balzac, Oscar Wilde, Daumier, Beaumachais, Delacroix, Brillat-Savarin, and countless other writers, painters, and musicians.”
Bruce Kellner
Baby Woojums in Iowa 

Watching Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris and Kathy Bates’ performance of Gertrude Stein reminded me of a Stein quote that I have been familiar with ever since I moved to Iowa in 2003, but had never found a place to drop it in. So it’s now or never.

“You are brilliant and subtle if you come from Iowa and really strange and you live as you live and you are always well taken care of if you come from Iowa.”
Gertrude Stein
Everybody’s Autobiography (1937)

Gertrude Stein never actually stepped foot in Iowa. She had plan to give a lecture in Iowa City, but was prevented because of a snow storm. But undoubtedly she had met Iowans in her circle of writers and artists. Perhaps her quote was simply a reference to writer and photographer Carl Van Vechten who was born in Cedar Rapids, Iowa and who met Stein in Paris in 1913.

Scott W. Smith


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“Am I alone in struggling with vulnerability? No. So this is what I’ve learned. We numb vulnerability…We are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. You cannot numb emotion.”
Brene Brown
TedxHouston 

Vulnerable: capable of being physically or emotionally wounded
Merrian-Webster 

I just got an email from the Austin Film Festival linking to KLRU which has a 30 minute show called On Story featuring interviews from past Austin Film Festivals. A great free resource. Here’s a sound bite from the episode Northeast Front which features Shane Black. (That episode also includes comments from Randall Wallace and Lawrence Kasdan.)

“Vulnerability is seems to me is very important. Because vulnerability implies two things, you’ll see what the character’s really about if you glimpse those moments in which they’re most vulnerable, also it shows you what they’re going to try erect a wall against.  The ways in which they’re going to hide from you their vulnerable spots, their weak points is what’s interesting.”
Screenwriter Shane Black (Lethal Weapon)

“Kill people….Only thing I ever did good. When I was nineteen  I did a guy in Laos a thousand yards out.  Rifle shot in high wind. Maybe eight or ten guys in the world coulda made that shot. It was the only thing I was ever good at.”
Riggs (Mel Gibson)
Lethal Weapon

Here are some links to some great scenes in movies which show vulnerability in a character:
Seabiscuit: “I can’t see.”
An Officer and a Gentelman: “I got nowhere else to go!”
Jerry Maguire: “I came here to fire you Jerry.”

Can you think of others?

Scott W. Smith


					

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