If you look at the last decade of screenwriter Michael Arndt’s career it’s rather amazing. He won an Oscar for Little Miss Sunshine, then he wrote Toy Story 3 which was not only a brilliant screenplay but became a great movie that made over a billion dollars at the box office, he wrote the script for Hunger Games: Chasing Fire which comes out this year, and a few months ago it was announced that he would be writing Star Wars Episode VII. But it’s important to look at the decade before he had an agent and before he sold a single script and see if there are any clues that prepared him for the career he is currently having.
“The question is ‘How do you meet an agent?’ or get your script to an agent—It’s a mystery to me. Everyone sort of is able to find a different path, and usually it just comes to referrals. You can submit your script to contests, blah, blah, blah crap like that. For the real top-tier agents they just don’t care about contests or anything like that. I would recommend just working in the industry. Just by virtue of working in the industry you make contacts with people. If you keep talking to people you’ll find a way to get your script on the right desk. I was a [script] reader and I read at least a thousand scripts, and I’d say that out of those thousand scripts maybe twenty got made into movies, and maybe three or four were good movies. So it’s much easier to get your script read and it’s much easier even to get your script made into a movie then it is to write a really good script. So I would say 99% of your effort should go to writing a good script. And my story is a testament to that. I spent a whole year—10 years—teaching myself how to write. It went to one [agent's] desk basically and once it hit that desk though it was like the doors were flying open. They were going to send it to Spielberg, and to Robert Zemeckis, and Steven Soderbergh—once they find something they think they can do something with it’ll just go straight up. So as a writer you can only control what’s on the page. You can’t control what happens to your script after it gets out the door, so just try and focus on making the script as good as possible.”
Screenwriter Michael Arndt (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3)
2007 talk at Cody’s Books (at the 35:53 mark of the FORA.tv video)
It’s also important to know that Arndt’s career path is different than Diablo Cody took in Minneapolis (blogging & non-fiction author) and different than John Logan took in Chicago (playwriting)— but the one thing they all have in common is they focused (99%?) on writing a solid script that made the doors fly open. And both Cody and Logan also had one cheerleader in Hollywood that became aware of their work while the writers still lived in the Midwest.
P.S. So the Screenwriting from Iowa…and Other Unlikely Places Facebook page is live and less than 24 hours old. Thanks to those who’ve already jumped on board. Like those on the email list it helps inspire me while searching for quotes and insights that will help you in your writing and career. Plus there will be some things different on the Facebook than on the daily blog posts.
The Secrets to Being a Successful Screenwriter (Seriously) —John Logan’s foucs and journey
Screenwriitng Outside L.A. 101 —Touches on Chris Sparling’s focus before Buried was produced and picked up at Sundance
Screenwriting Quote #10 (Nick Schenk) Schenk’s focus in Minneapolis before Gran Torino was produced
Self-Study Screenwriting—The focus of Frank Darbont and Sheldon Turner before they became Oscar-nominated screenwriters