Yesterday, I was fortunate enough to sit on a screenwriting panel at the International Family Film Festival. The panel was titled “Sold! Getting Your Screenplay Sold and Produced”… but it ended up being so much more than that. Perhaps it should have been titled “Surviving Hollywood – Stories from the Front Line.”
On the panel was moderator Quendrith Johnson, with guests screenwriter and WGA Board Member Aaron Mendelsohn, manager and producer Kalia York, writer/producer Patricia Rust and development exec turned writer of many trades, Rob Tobin. What I was doing amongst such talent is a mystery to me, but it was a delightfully engaging and informative two-hour session.
While my brain is still a bit fuzzy from a restless, storm-filled night, I thought that I would share some of the excellent advice given during yesterday’s event.
Things a writer should always do
- Nurture and develop your voice. Find the unique timbre of it.
- Read scripts. Not just what is current, or trendy, but from the great classic writers: Wilder, Loos, Chayefsky, Godard. Study the masters, starting with the inception of the written screenplay. Get your education on.
- Have an inventory of pitches. Several. If you see eyes glazing, then you know that it is time to move to the next project – and you better have one ready to pitch.
- Write every day – and write with intelligence.
- … and rewrite.
More advice for the scribe
- Do not send out a script when it is not ready to be seen. You only have one chance to make a first impression. Do not release it until it is ready – and vetted with professional eyes.
- Discover your strengths – and your weaknesses. Cultivate the former, nourish the latter. If dialogue is a weakness, seek help with a good dialogue Rx. If structure is a problem, find a coach to help you with that.
- Fix all flaws. Ten years ago, one could release a script with some tweaks needing to be made. Not now. Your work must be perfect. It must bear the stamp of excellence. Development is no longer part of the process in regard to the spec script sale.
- Leave ego at the door. Accept and absorb criticism. If something was said about your script that makes your blood boil, your anger is most likely coming from the knowledge that the note is ultimately a correct one. Do not assume that you are superior to your reader or your audience. Also, leave the grandstanding behind. A producer spoke about a script that she had come across a couple of years before. It was a first script from a new-to-market screenwriter. She fell in love with it, she had half of the financing, and she knew that she could find matching. She made an offer on the script. “Fine,” the writer said. “But I want to come in as producer. I want to produce this.” She expressed that this negotiating was a little unusual for a first-time-out-the-gater; however, the writer said that he had the matching financing. Unfortunately, he did not. He simply felt that he could raise matching. Then, he threw in another caveat – “I want to direct.” He had never directed for film; he had no reel. He was firm about his beliefs – and he destroyed the deal. Think on it: what a fantastic opportunity for a new writer… and it’s gone-baby-gone, simply because of ego. This story of self-sabotage nearly broke my heart. Will he be able to sell a project in the future? Not likely with this producer. He blew his first impression – and Hollywood is a small, small town.
- Don’t quit your day job. Screenwriting is about time: the time that you put into your story, the time that it takes to get people interested in your story, and the time that it takes for your story to reach an interest level in which it is optioned or sold. Seven years is the number I often hear. You’re going to need money. Work at day, write at night. That other work can keep you sane.
- Value yourself. If you do not place value on yourself, and your work, others will not. That being said, if a good opportunity comes up, don’t refuse it simply because you are asked to do it for free. The current trend is for producers to find writers that they like, ask them write on spec, and then walk the script into the studios. There is no one-size-fits-all answer for the above proposal. It is laden with risks, but it can also be an incredible opportunity. Do your research, do your homework and go with your gut. If you say “no” because you are desperate for money, you may have just closed the door to opportunity.
- Attachments help. With the economic downturn, producers and studios want the security of a built-in audience. If you know a name actor/director/producer – consider reaching out to them for attachment.
- Think of your manager as also your editor. This is more a reflection of mine, after listening to the life and work of the representative. Literary writers have editors to help nourish their stories, and make them grow. Screenwriters have no one… until you have a manager. They are not so interested in a single script – they are interested in helping you to establish a career. They will select which stories are right for the market – and which next projects you should focus on. They might even tell you to rewrite again – and you should trust them, for if you did not, why did you sign with them in the first place?
One reason that the panel was so interesting to me is that last week, my partner and I began to launch our spec to market. It is an intimidating task, bypassing representation, and going directly to producers. I was kindly given props for moxie; however, I also shared what an exhaustive process it is. I lost three writing days to marketing last week – that is precious time that I cannot afford to lose.
Ultimately, you will need to seek representation, for that person is the one who is fighting the good fight for you, giving you much more time to focus on your pages. This does not mean that once you are repped, you don’t have to get out there and shake hands/kiss babies/dial for dollars. What it does mean, however, that when the legal speak and contract mumbo-jumbo begins to enter the conversation, that you have an advocate that will take the reins from there, and negotiate the best possible scenario on your behalf.
The most oft-repeated phrase was “It is all about the story.” If you know me, you know how passionately I believe in this. The genre that you are writing in is secondary – your primary focus is on your story. What is it? How are you telling it in a way that is marketable? What distinguishes your story from the one over there? And why should this company want to buy it?
Now, go write.
HRH, Princess Scribe
What I am reading: I’m plunging into a rewrite, and to help me dive deeper into the nitty gritty of the Depression, I am reading The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl.
What I am watching: Anxiously awaiting THE TOWN. Still catching up from sick days.
A Royal Shout-Out: To Suzanne and Chris Shoemaker, as well as the other fine people at IFFF. I’ve know Suzanne for a couple of years; she is a true champion of the independent filmmaker, the young filmmaker, and all those who yearn to carve out a career in film. The Shoemakers also produce the Fresh i Academy and associated events, which focuses on training the young filmmaker. We need more like them, please.