Friday, December 19, 2014

8 Truths for Building a Screenwriting Career

News flash: it’s very hard to break in to the screenwriting business. It’s equally hard to stay in it. There are many more talented people who want to write movies and television than will get the chance. The difficulty level can lead to mindsets that harm your chances of success. Here are eight truths that will help you avoid mental traps:

1. There is no “wall” between you and the industry, no secret password to break in.
For new writers it can seem like Hollywood is surrounded by a big wall, and they need to find some secret door to get past it. This can lead them to stalk industry insiders, or to try embarrassing gimmicks to get attention, or to fall prey to promises of, “if you just buy my product or seminar, you will be able to break in.” But in fact Hollywood is always on the lookout for fantastic new writers. Yes, you have to network. Yes, contests and pitch fests can help get you noticed. Yes, it will take time, determination, and a lot of rejection. But most people fail not because they lack access but because their material really is not yet as great as they think it is or because they don’t put in the required effort. So focus on creating better material and then getting it read, and stop looking for the “secret” way into the business.

2. It is always hard.

Two stories: After Sweet Home Alabama came out I was looking for a new agent via my manager. We were having difficulty getting agents to even read my new spec. I said to my manager, “Wow, I thought this would get easier.” She replied, “Oh no. It’s never easy. Get that out of your head.”

Second story: I got to have dinner with David Seidler (writer of The King’s Speech) at a WGA event. I asked him if winning the Oscar changed anything. He told me a story about going to a meeting (after the Oscar) where he thought he was being offered a writing job. It turned out he was competing against five other writers for the gig – four of whom also had Oscars. He said, “All that changes is you move to a higher level of competition.”

3. You need luck, but it will do you no good if you are not prepared.

Ask any writer how they broke into the business and their story will inevitably contain a moment where they got very lucky. It can make you think success is random. But here’s the thing – everyone who makes the effort gets those lucky breaks. And if you stick with it, you will continue to get even more breaks. The writers who succeed are those who are prepared when the opportunity comes – prepared with good material and professional work habits.

4. Stop blaming outside forces for your lack of success. Even if it’s true, it won’t help you.

You hear a lot about ageism, sexism, racism, etc. in the business. Statistics back up the claim that it is harder for non-white, non-male, non-young writers to succeed. But if this applies to you, you can’t use it as an excuse. Whining won’t change things. And it can be a trap – I’ve seen writers refuse to accept that their material needs work because they blame outside forces for their failure. As a result, they never improve. If the playing field is tilted against you, you really have only two choices: give up or work harder. (The same applies if you have dyslexia, a family to support, or any other reason you blame for your failures other than the quality of your material.) The reality is that it’s hard for everyone, even young white males.

5. It is a business. If you want to be a pro, you have to learn the business side.

If you want to write screenplays as a hobby, you can write whatever you want and not bother to learn about the business. But unless you are independently wealthy, your screenplays will then be doomed to remain unmade. If you want to earn a living at writing, and you want studios or independent financiers to pay for production of your movies, you need to take the business side seriously. You have to follow the trades, network, learn to pitch, learn to incorporate studio notes, etc.

6. Nobody owes you. You have to earn it.

Nobody cares how badly you want to be a screenwriter. They only care how good your material is and how professional you are. Fortunately, passion can help you become a better writer. But only if you don’t feel entitled to a career. Focus on proving that you deserve a career. Be humble, work hard, and be willing to learn.

7. Being selfish holds you back. Being nice, generous, and cooperative opens doors.

Ask not what your industry contacts can do for you, ask what you can do for them. You will need help to start and maintain a career in Hollywood. People like to help people that they like. So remember the golden rule and treat people as you would like to be treated.

8. Watch your back.

Despite the above, be aware that there are many people who will try to take advantage of you, including some straight up con men that prey on desperation. Don’t let that make you overly cynical or suspicious – that will hurt you as well. But do your homework on people. Make sure they’re who they say they are. And seek legal advice when dealing with contract issues. Don’t be afraid to say no if something feels creepy or unfair. It can be better for your career long term to turn down the wrong offer. 

Keep these truths in mind as you climb that difficult mountain that we call a career in screenwriting.

Friday, December 12, 2014

Mailbag: How Much Do Screenwriters Make?

Today I’m going to address a couple of questions that have been asked by blog readers.

Marilyn Thomas asked about the financials of a normal script sale (as opposed to a huge million dollar type of sale).

This is a tough question because there really isn’t such a thing as a “normal” script sale, especially these days. For the purposes of this question, we’ll assume it’s a WGA covered deal (an independent, non-union deal could be for as little as nothing up front in return for a vague back-end payment). We’ll also assume we’re talking about a studio film (i.e. high budget), and that we’re talking about a straight up spec sale.

You can look at the schedule of WGA minimum payments on the Guild website - it can be a little hard to follow, as it covers multiple time periods and budget levels. Currently the minimum (scale) for an original high budget spec sale is $93,257. Often your agent will be able to negotiate scale+10% for a new writer. To make the math easy, we’ll round off to $100,000

Typically, studios don’t purchase the script outright, they option the script (giving them the exclusive right to purchase the script for one year - if they don't you get it back and keep the option payment). A 10% option for one year with a renewal for an additional 10% is fairly standard. That means your option payment would be $10,000.

Of that, you’ll pay 10% ($1,000) to your agent, 10% ($1,000) to your manager, and 5% ($500) to your attorney, assuming you have all three. The Guild dues are 1.5% ($150). That means your revenue will be $7,500. Your tax rate will depend on a lot of other factors about your income, but let’s say it’s 25%. Fortunately the above commissions and dues are deductable, so taking 25% off $7,500, you’re left with $5,625 for the one year option.

If the studio exercises the option and purchases the script, they pay the difference between the option and the purchase price. That’s $90,000 more to you – minus $9000 to your agent, $9000 to your manager, $4500 to your attorney and $1350 to the WGA. That leaves you with $66,150, which, after taxes, comes to $49,612.50. There will probably be a few other expenses from that as well, such as for an accountant to handle your taxes.

Of course there’s lots of variables in there. Your option could be for more or less. The total price could be higher if there’s competition among buyers. But the market for specs is very weak right now. Bidding wars are rare and often producers don’t feel the need to option material because they aren’t afraid of someone else stealing it away from them, or else they option it for a token payment. Also, ideally you want to include a rewrite in your deal, which would add a minimum of $33,916 to the deal but comes with other issues.

Still, that should give you an idea of how a deal might look for a new writer working with a studio. The most important thing is to get experienced people to advise and represent you. You especially want a good entertainment attorney.

Now on to the second question:

David Bishop asked, “The usual wisdom says you should write within your wheel house to build a cohesive career. … You've blogged how Sweet Home Alabama was an outlier for you, and that created challenges when it took off. Could you talk about how overcome that challenge, or about what happened next?”

Today we refer to this as your “brand.” Successful screenwriters are typically associated with one type of film – a certain genre, and maybe budget level or style. There are big career advantages to this. You’ll build relationships with producers and execs who like that type of film. You’ll get called upon when they need someone with the skill set you’ve established. And it will be easier to keep track of the market and your competition.

One big advantage to being a screenwriter is you can change your brand simply by writing spec work of a different type. If you’re a horror writer and you decide you want to write broad comedy, just write a broad comedy spec and voila – now you’re a broad comedy writer.

However, you lose much of the clout from what you did before. Most of the producers and executives with whom you’ve built relationships writing horror won’t be interested in making a broad comedy. The few who are might read yours but they’ll be skeptical of your abilities since they only know your skills at horror. And broad comedy producers will not know you or your writing. You’ll be building your network again almost from scratch.

Furthermore, your agent or manager may not be interested in representing you for broad comedy (you should definitely discuss it with them before changing your brand). So you may have to seek out new representation. And since agents and managers generally want to see multiple scripts from a prospective client, that means you’ll need to write more than one broad comedy spec to prove your abilities - and your commitment to the new direction.

Essentially, shifting brands means starting over again almost as though you were a newbie.

After Sweet Home Alabama set records for a September opening, I got known as a romantic comedy writer with particular skills in writing female characters. It opened a lot of doors to me. I could get pitch meetings just about anywhere – as long as I was pitching romantic comedy. Most of my assignment work has been in that genre – just this year I got a gig to rewrite a romantic comedy.

But what I've always wanted to write is science fiction and adventure movies. Sweet Home Alabama was an unusual spec for me, something I did in school somewhat on a whim before I really thought about things like branding. I don’t regret it. I like being paid to write! But I decided a couple years after the movie came out that I wanted to do different things and set about changing my brand. So I wrote a new action-adventure spec. My manager at the time was very supportive, but my agents weren't. So when I finished the spec I started looking for a new agent. To my shock, about a third would not even read the action-adventure spec. "If he does a romantic comedy, we'll look at it," they'd tell my manager.

Fortunately, the agent I did sign with, Lew Weitzman, was very supportive of the new direction. With his help, I was able to do some new things. Unfortunately Lew passed away a bit over a year ago. My current manager understands what I want to do now… but he still frequently encourages me to reconsider romantic comedy. It’s just easier for him to sell me that way.

What I really need is for one of my newer scripts to get turned into a big hit movie. But that's easier said than done.

Thursday, December 4, 2014

How Original Is Your Idea?

Reader D Brian Weller recently asked me, “How can a writer know an idea hasn’t been done before?”

Of course this is of great concern to screenwriters. But the short answer is, you can’t, really. In fact, with tens of thousands of people out there writing spec screenplays, there’s a pretty good chance at least a few of them are working on very similar ideas to yours right now. Every movie that comes out inevitably gets sued by two or three people who are convinced the producers stole their script. The writers always lose those lawsuits. Always.*

I’m not saying nobody ever steals an idea in Hollywood, but in the vast, vast, vast majority of these cases, a writer simply couldn’t accept that someone else had the same idea as them. I guarantee you, no matter how original you think your idea is, at least three other screenwriters are working on something similar.

It can, of course, be pretty depressing than to be a few weeks away from finishing a spec only to read about a sale in the trades of a script with the exact same idea. Unfortunately it happens.

That said, you do need to make an effort to make sure there wasn’t a movie already made on your idea. There’s no quick way to discover this. However, you should be watching everything you can in the genre you’re writing. If you’re writing science fiction, you should be watching every science fiction movie that comes out and working your way through the catalog of science fiction movies on DVD. If you’re writing horror, you should be seeing everything horror you can. Also reading books and comic books and seeing plays in your genre. (This is one often unmentioned reasons to work in a single genre… switching around requires you to do considerably more homework and research.) I would also recommend using a source like Done Deal Pro to keep track of what has sold recently.

There have been so many movies made (and books published and plays performed, etc.) that there really are no original ideas anymore, at least not good ones. But the originality of an idea is a little overrated. You don’t want to have a logline that immediately brings to mind another movie, of course, but it’s really the development and execution of the idea that counts.

Sometimes it’s a matter of identifying what’s original in your own idea. The Hangover (written by Jon Lucas & Scott Moore) is about a bachelor party gone bad, an idea that was also the basis of Bachelor Party (story by Bob Israel, screenplay by Bob & Neal Israel and Pat Proft). If you presented The Hangover as:

A raunchy comedy about a bachelor party that goes horribly awry.

It will sound derivative. What’s original is the search for the groom aspect. That’s the new element. So a better log line for The Hangover would be:

A raunchy comedy about five friends who go to Vegas for a bachelor party and lose the groom. The four groomsmen must retrace their steps and find the groom in time for the wedding.

You’ll notice that it’s the specific details that make the idea seem original. This may seem obvious when analyzing an existing high concept film, but I see many writers who don’t take the time to identify the core details that are crucial to the originality of their concept. They either make a generic log line (such as the first one above), or they overload their log line with non-core detail. But identifying the core, specific, original details of your idea will help ensure you develop your script to emphasize these elements. Spend time on this before you start writing!

Often good movies come from adding a twist to a common or even cliché idea. Alien (story by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, screenplay by Dan O’Bannon) took the monster movie and set it in space. Frequently the best way to ad a fresh spin is through the main character. Bridesmaids (written by Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo) did the bachelor party comedy seen in movies like Bachelor Party and The Hangover, but made the main characters women. Suddenly a tired idea was fresh. Attack the Block (written by Joe Cornish) is about an alien invasion – something we’ve seen a million times – but the heroes are street thugs. How original!

In 1981, Dragonslayer (written by Hal Barwood & Matthew Robbins) made a cliché story idea of a hero rescuing a princess from a dragon fresh by making the hero the wizard’s inexperienced apprentice rather than the wizard himself. Twenty years later Shrek (screenplay by Ted Elliott & Terry Rossio and Joe Stillman and Roger S.H. Schulman) told the same story but made the hero a grumpy ogre, a traditional villain in most fairy tails.

Die Hard (screenplay by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza) did both a twist on the genre and an unexpected main character. At the time, action movies were globe-trotting adventures with heavily armed, indestructible, superheroic main characters. Die Hard contained the action in a single location and gave us a hero that was unarmed, overmatched and bled when he was hurt.

But the bigger point is that Alien, Bridesmaids, Atack the Block, Dragonslayer, Shrek and Die Hard succeeded because they were good, at least in terms of what they were attempting to do. A good idea poorly executed will do nothing. So do your research, identify the original core details of your idea, and, most importantly, write well!

(If you’re interested in more on this topic, see this post on The Value of an Idea)

*You may be thinking of the Art Buchwald Coming to America lawsuit. He actually won breach-of-contract, not copyright infringement. He had a contract with Paramount that if they made a movie based on the idea, he would be compensated. Or maybe you’re thinking about The Matrix case. That’s a myth based on an inaccurate newspaper article. See: http://www.snopes.com/politics/business/matrix.asp

Friday, November 21, 2014

The Hollywood Economist

I just finished reading the 2nd edition of the book, The Hollywood Economist by Edward Jay Epstein. It discusses the economics of the movie business – how studios finance and distribute films, how movie theaters make money, how revenue is divided and disbursed, why almost no movie ever hits profit on paper, and so on. Today I’d like to offer a combination book review and musings on some of the issues raised.

You may be wondering whether a book like this is worth a screenwriter’s time. After all, we’re not involved in things like financing and distribution. However, we are independent contractors, and I believe it behooves us to understand the industry in which we work. Moreover, the feature film business is in a period of radical change that will likely have a big impact on what kind of movies get made in the future. The Hollywood Economist is the perfect business-of-Hollywood book for a screenwriter because it discusses the economics in the language of lay people. (It also explains why you’ll never see any income from those net points in your contract.)

There are some problems with the book, however. First, it has a few unsettling errors, such as when it’s discussing the box office for Gone in Sixty Seconds. The movie grossed $242 million, which the book then refers to repeatedly as “almost half a billion dollars” when in fact it’s less than a quarter billion. This may seem minor, but when the subject is economics, you want the author to be a little more detail oriented!

The other problem, which is unavoidable, is the information becomes quickly dated. The first edition of the book was published in 2010; the second was published in 2012. Many of the examples and illustrations are from movies at least five years old. Much of the data ends at 2007 because it comes from reports published by the MPAA that were stopped at that point (more on this in a minute). That means that today much of the information is over seven years old.

Another example of the problem: updates for the second edition included Netflix and their move into streaming. But the book didn’t anticipate Netflix’s move into original programming, or that television would quickly overtake features in Netflix’s streaming business. What does this mean for feature film streaming sales? Even just two years later this book is too old to offer help. All of this is part of the fast-changing nature of the business right now, and any book will quickly become dated. How I wish there was an up-to-the-minute version of this information!

Still, you can learn a lot about the movie business from The Hollywood Economist. For example, you’ll learn that theatrical box office is a very small part of studio revenue these days. In 1980, theatrical accounted for 55% of a movie’s revenue, while in 2007 it had dropped to 20.4% of revenue. Meanwhile, Video/DVD rose from 2.2% in 1980 to a peak of 22.8% in 2004, only to drop to 17.9% in 2007.

This is one of those areas where the numbers stop in 2007 because the source was MPAA reporting that ended that year. I think it is very likely the MPAA stopped revealing this data because of the dramatic drop in home video revenue. The MPAA is in the business of promoting the movie business. This means they like to report the good news and avoid reporting bad news.

2007 was seven years ago. What’s happened since? A few clues come later in the book. At one point, Epstein notes that MGM’s net receipts from DVDs fell from $140 million in 2007 to just $30.4 million in 2010. Later he mentions that Time Warner’s home video revenue dropped 30% between 2007 and 2010. That’s not a good sign, particularly considering the book makes very clear how home video was the underpinning of feature film financing for the last two and a half decades.

Add in reduced income from pay TV as channels like HBO, Showtime and Starz focus more on original programming than features. The book notes that pay TV channels were buying half as many movies in 2009 as they were in 2005. Considering all this, we may start to understand why studios have cut back production so much in the last few years, and why the mid-budget movie has largely vanished.

The book traces the historically changes in the industry. Much of this you might be familiar with – how movies exploded in the twenties. How by 1948 two thirds of the U.S. population went to the movies at least once a week. How television destroyed that business model.

Here’s where Epstein makes an interesting point. After television upended the industry, studios found they had to create an audience for each movie. They did this through advertising. And that’s how teen boys became the primary movie audience. They were the easiest to reach because they clustered around a handful of TV programs. But today that has shifted – teen boys have become the most difficult audience to reach with advertising. And, I would say, the industry has been slow to react by changing its product to target different audiences.

Another interesting topic the book looks at from a unique perspective: the battle over day-and-date releasing. Epstein explains how, for a variety of reasons, it is in the best interest of the studios to release movies on pay-per-view and streaming at the same time they’re released in the theaters. This will, of course, hurt theatrical attendance, but that would be a small price to pay for the studios.

It would not, however be a small price to pay for the theaters. Epstein explains that theaters are really in the business of selling popcorn and sodas. He quotes a studio executive estimating that a 10% drop in attendance would cause two thirds of American theaters to go out of business.

A chilling thought for those of us who love seeing movies in theaters.

The book is an interesting read and a useful primer on how revenue flows into studios (and doesn’t flow to production companies and talent). Unfortunately, it only starts to address the issues of importance to the feature film business. We’ll all have to stay tuned to see how this plays out.



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 Next week I plan to do a "mail bag" post where I answer reader questions. If you have a question for me, leave it in the comments!

Thursday, November 13, 2014

How to Survive a Notes Session

Before you become a working professional screenwriter, you are the master of your screenplay. You can – and should – solicit feedback, but you are not obligated to take any suggestions. Once you become a professional, however, that is no longer true. Professionals have to do notes sessions.

A notes session happens after a screenwriter turns in a draft of their screenplay.* After the various producers and executives involved in the project have read the screenplay – which will take much longer than it really should – you will either be asked to come to a meeting or participate in a conference call to get notes. All of the producers, executives, and in some cases possibly a director or even a movie star will then bombard you with ways you ought to change the screenplay.

These sessions can be brutal, and not just because a whole bunch of people are ripping apart your work. The truth is, many of the notes will be very smart and help your screenplay. However you will inevitably also get notes that do not fit your vision of the movie. Worse, you will frequently get ridiculous or contradictory notes. Also, producers and executives may have different visions of the movie from each other, and you’ll be stuck in the middle. Here are some tips for surviving a note session:

Accept the process. Film is a collaborative art form. Get used to it. If you won’t make the changes, they will replace you with someone who will. Do not expect your screenplay to be used exactly as you wrote it in the first draft. Commit yourself mentally to collaboration.

Be prepared. Bring a pencil and notepad or notebook to take notes on the feedback. Not taking notes can appear unprofessional. Taking notes will also make people hesitant to improvise new feedback, which is often what leads to the most bizarre suggestions. Also bring a copy of the script so you can refer to specific scenes or lines.

Remember the goal. Everyone wants two things: A good movie and a successful movie. But if a studio or producer is forced to choose between good and successful, they’ll pick success. That means you have to consider the business requirements and fit your art into those.

Don’t defend. It’s best not to respond to a note in the moment. Simply record the suggestions. This will give you time to process the feedback objectively. Something that seems stupid at first glance may actually be brilliant once you wrap your head around it. Or if not, there may be an underlying thought that is really valuable. The exception to keeping your mouth shut is if you don’t understand something – you should then definitely ask for clarification.

Never embarrass anyone. Most meetings are political for the people in the room. If someone makes a bonehead mistake – suggesting something that’s actually already in the script for example (it happens surprisingly often) – don’t call them out on it. You will make an instant enemy. If you challenge a bad idea, you force the person who said it to defend it. There are often ways to skip a bad note, but if you start a public ego contest with the person who gave it, you will end up forced to make the change. Which brings me to…

You don’t actually have to take every note. If you do most of the notes, you can reject a few. Say you tried it and it didn’t work and explain why. This shows that you did seriously consider it (and you should actually have considered it). Most producers and executives don’t expect you to follow every note literally, they actually expect you to take the notes and improve upon them! You ultimately may still have to do a specific note that you disagree with if the executive really believes it’s right.

If you get a note that doesn't work, try spinning it into something better. Remove what they objected to, but replace it with your idea instead of theirs. Then you’ve addressed the note, but not weakened the script. Always credit the note-giver for the inspiration. Again, most producers and execs will be happier if you find a better way to address a note than just taking their suggestion verbatim – that’s why they’re hiring you! (If you are particularly skilled, you might be able to pull off this redirection in the room.)

Take baby steps to get to your position. If you have a radical difference with a producer or executive on a story element, it may take time for them to come around to your point of view. Rather than fight to get your way right now – a fight you will probably lose – try moving them gradually to your idea. Give them time to get comfortable with it.

Remember, this is a business of personality. You have to figure out how the people you’re working for like to work. Some are happy to debate, some want you to do every note exactly as they say.

In the film business, the writer is the employee. That’s why you get paid! Like any job, you are under some obligation to tailor your work to what your employer wants. If you don’t, they can fire you and hire someone who will. But if you are a team player, they will come to trust you. And when they trust you, you will have more ability to shape the material the way you see it.

And not for nothing, you will also be happier if you embrace the collaborative nature of the filmmaking process.


*Note, even though it is not contractually required, screenwriters are generally expected to turn the script in to the producer first, get his or her notes, and then do an unpaid revision (a “producer’s pass”) before officially turning in the draft. This is good in the sense that you get some valuable feedback that can help you succeed with the draft. It is bad in that many producers have started abusing this process to get multiple free rewrites out of poor writers.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

The Let’s Schmooze Field Guide to the LA Screenwriter

This week I’m going to have a little fun. I have categorized the ten types of screenwriters I’ve met in Los Angeles. I’ve even been a few of them. Which one are you? (Don’t get insulted… if you’re going to survive in this business, you need a thick skin and a sense of humor!)

1. The Talented Temp – A rare form of screenwriter, skilled and talented who has yet to sell anything and typically supports him or herself by temping. Often the reason they have yet to sell a script is they insist on writing non-commercial stories or they have no interest in or knowledge of the business side of screenwriting. They are unaware of this failing.

2. The Un-Talented Temp – A common form of screenwriter, unskilled and untalented who has yet to sell anything and typically supports him or herself by temping. Sadly, they believe they are Talented Temps.

3. The Someday Screenwriter – Someone who plans to be a writer someday, when they have the time. Since they will never have the time, they will remain writers in their own mind. Someday Screenwriters often work in development, convinced they could do better than the writers whose scripts they read… if they only had the time.

4. The One-Idea Wonder – This screenwriter has been working on their first screenplay for over a decade. It is typically an epic passion project or coming-of-age story. They will be working on it for the rest of their lives. It will never become a movie because they will never finish.

5. The Imposter – This is an aspiring actor or director writing a screenplay for themselves to star in or direct, respectively. They mistakenly believe writing a screenplay is easier than acting or directing. Typically they write an incoherent first draft filled with spelling, grammar and format errors and immediately send it around to producers and executives. They are amazed when it doesn’t sell.

6. The Studio Hack – A regularly employed screenwriter with excellent craft skills who will execute any development note to the letter. They are typically the middle writer in a long chain of re-writers. They often wonder why they never get to work on better projects.

7. The Indie Writer-Director – an award-winning hyphenate writer and director of art house films. They actually make their living re-writing studio scripts under a pseudonym.

8. Charlie Kaufman – a brilliant, idiosyncratic artist who can break all the rules and still get his work produced. The industry allows one of these to exist per generation. If you’re name’s not Charlie Kaufman, it’s not you.

9. The A-Lister – The writer of one monster big-budget hit movie. They will then be continuously employed no matter how many bombs they write as long as they always book their next project before their current project is released.

10. The Has-Been – A once regularly employed screenwriter who has not had a job in over a decade. Typically working on a noncommercial, mid-budget drama spec about the Holocaust, the McCarthy era blacklist, or marital infidelity. Spends their non-writing time teaching screenwriting and bitching about ageism.


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Doug Eboch wrote the original script for Sweet Home Alabama and is the co-author of The Hollywood Pitching Bible. He also teaches screenwriting. Yeah.


Check out the Kickstarter campaign for the short film Microbe.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Daily Habits of Successful Screenwriters

A couple months ago, I asked for suggestions for blog topics. Since then, I’ve been working my way through them (in between writing about other topics that come up.) If you have something you’d like me to discuss, feel free to let me know in the comments of this post or via Twitter.

Today I’m going to address a suggestion from Michelle Hall (hopefully she's still reading my blog): “As a newbie wanting to pursue screenwriting full time, what tasks to pursue on daily basis?”

One of the problems, of course, for most “newbies” is that they often can’t really pursue screenwriting full time because they have to hold down a full time job to support themselves while they write. But they are also in competition with established pros whose only job is screenwriting, with way more experience and resources. It’s a challenge. The next challenge comes when you actually are able to pursue screenwriting full time. I’ll get to that in a minute, but let’s start with what you do when you have a limited amount of time.

The first thing that you have to do on a daily basis, naturally, is write. You can’t become a professional screenwriter if you don’t write! You need to learn your craft and generate a body of work to demonstrate your skill and potential employability. And I highly recommend writing on a daily basis – as in writing every day – to achieve this body of work. At some point you may be able to take weekends off – though the movie business is pretty 24-7 – but when you are stealing time around a job and other commitments, you can’t really afford to give up any possible writing time.

I think the best approach is to set a goal of daily writing time, as opposed to a certain number of pages or something. So you might say that you are going to write for an hour a day. It doesn’t matter if you write one line of dialogue or six pages, sit in front of your computer (or legal pad or whatever) and do nothing but write or think about your story. No email, no texting, no surfing the web. It may not seem like you’re accomplishing much in each session, but you’ll be surprised how much you get done in a month. Those hours add up.

You also gain momentum from writing on a daily basis. Your mind stays in your story. You’ll be working out problems as you commute or do laundry or take a shower. Take too many days off and your mind moves on. You’ll find it hard to get started when you sit back down to work on your screenplay.

Probably the next most important thing is to make time to watch movies and read screenplays. This serves several purposes. First, you learn by observing what works and doesn’t work. As you read screenplays, the style and form will become instinctive. And you will gain an understanding of the market. If you want to succeed in the movie business, you need to have seen the latest hit movies – and at least a few of the latest flops – particularly in your genre. You won’t necessarily watch a movie or read a screenplay every day, but each should be at least a weekly habit.

There is a third thing that you should be incorporating into your daily schedule, but what that thing is depends on where you are in your career preparation.

If you’re just starting to write (i.e. you’ve completed fewer than four screenplays), you should be learning writing techniques. Read screenwriting books and/or take classes. Not every book or class is equally good – and some are actually quite bad. Also, not every writer responds to the same approach. But there is valuable insight to be had. Try to get a variety of perspectives and use what seems to work best for you.

If you feel you’re starting to get the hang of screenwriting and you’ve built up a body of work, you’ll want to start plotting the move to “full time screenwriter.” This is going to mean earning a living from writing. And if writing is going to be a source of income (as opposed to a hobby), then you have to treat it like a business. That means market research becomes a part of your day. You’ll move from reading books on screenwriting to checking industry news daily. Deadline.com is a good source of free info, but if you want to be a pro, it’s probably worth subscribing to The Hollywood Reporter or Variety and getting their daily email editions.

(Learning how to pitch will also be a useful skill – might I humbly recommend The Hollywood Pitching Bible as a source of good information?)

And at some point you have to translate that market research into action. You need to get your screenplay read by people in the business. At the most basic level, the way to break in is to write great screenplays and show them to anyone who will read them. Get involved in industry organizations, go to film festivals, participate in online message boards – whatever you can do to meet and befriend people who are connected to the business. Once they like you, ask them to read your work. Entering the top contests or taking classes or going to pitch fests are other ways to get your work in front of industry connected people. You won’t necessarily reach agents, managers or buyers right off the bat, but if your work is great – and I mean really great – people will be happy to recommend it to the agents, managers or buyers they know. (See this post on “How to Get an Agent.”)

Now, what happens when you find yourself in the position of having all day to dedicate to your screenwriting career? The danger here is that it’s easy to fill up your day with non-job activities. The gym is less crowded in the middle of the day, as is the grocery store… Flexibility is one of the advantages of the profession, but you have to maintain self-discipline. Most of the time you’re the only one who will be making sure you’re doing what you need to do to keep earning.

Your daily screenwriting-oriented activity when you’re full time is much the same as when you weren’t, except you do everything for longer periods of time. You have to keep writing. Hopefully, sometimes you’ll be working on assignments – rewrites, adaptations, turning your sold pitch into a screenplay. But if you don’t have an assignment, you should be generating spec work. Writing is your job and really should be the focus of your day.

Writers have different work habits. I personally write in short, intense bursts. I will sit down and write for an hour or two, then go do something else for a while, then come back for another session. If I try to write more than five or six hours in a day, for more than a few days in a row, I will eventually burn out. But I get a lot done in those short bursts – often I can do 3-5 pages in an hour. I think this is because I’m focused and because my mind noodles with the story between writing sessions. I also find it helpful if I work on one project in the morning and a different project in the afternoon. Somehow it keeps my creativity level higher.

This works for me, but other writers find other work habits are more successful for them. And of course I don’t always have the luxury of this system. Sometimes I’m under deadline and have to work ten hours straight on one project. Sometimes I have meetings, or have to teach my class and I can only get in a single writing session in a day (though I always try to get in at least one.)

The other daily activities are often business related: Reading Deadline.com or The Hollywood Reporter or Done Deal. Talking to my manager or attorney about a project or contract or upcoming meeting. Returning emails and phone calls from producers or development execs. Rehearsing pitches. I also practice saying my log lines for all of my current projects that I might want to mention should I run into a potential contact in a social situation.

Other things will come into your calendar on a non-daily basis, of course. As your career progresses, you’ll be doing general meetings and pitch meetings, and perhaps reading books or screenplays to prep for assignment pitches. If you should be so fortunate to have a movie coming out, you’ll have press and promotional obligations. You’ll go to networking events whenever you can.

But not matter what, write every day.

Make no mistake, it’s hard to become a full time professional screenwriter. Most people who attempt it fail. Those that succeed often struggle for years before they support themselves from writing. You have to be committed to it. You have to carve out that time every day. But if you take a strategic, disciplined approach, you will have a much better chance of success.

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