Thursday, January 24, 2013

How to Look Like an Amateur

Recently on the excellent Good in a Room blog, Stephanie Palmer did a post on how to avoid being seen as a rookie. The post was mostly related to pitching and much of it was advocating an online class she’s offering.* However it got me thinking about the various ways aspiring screenwriters expose themselves as rookies or amateurs. Here are a few of the ways I’ve observed that you could brand yourself as not professional:

You don’t know format, acceptable length, or standard style. Producers and development execs are fond of saying they’d buy a script written longhand on paper bags if it was good enough. They’re lying. There is so much material flooding the market they need ways to cull it down to a manageable amount. The first filter they use is, “Has the writer bothered to learn proper screenplay format, and for that matter Basic English?”

Professionals write scripts in the proper format. They know grammar and spelling. They deliver scripts in a length range that is suitable for production and appropriate for their genre. They know not to put camera direction in their scripts.

These are basic standards. If a writer hasn’t learned them, the assumption is they haven’t learned the bigger things like character development and structure. And they obviously haven’t worked professionally. You can learn these things from any number of books or blogs, and by reading a lot of screenplays – something professional screenwriters all do.

You only have one piece of material. “Writers write,” as the old saying goes. It’s nearly impossible to write a good screenplay on your first try. Quality writing takes practice. And to be a working professional requires a certain self-discipline and ability to finish. That means professionals will have a stack of sample scripts ready to show.

Maybe you’ve managed to write one great screenplay. Good for you – you’ll get attention. But if you show it to an agent, the first thing they’ll want is to see another one. If a producer likes it but can’t buy it for whatever reason (it might not have to do with quality – it could be budget or they have something else similar), they’ll want to see something else. At the very least you should be working on something that you can show them in a month or two. If you’ve only written one thing they will doubt your ability to produce consistent professional work.

You aren’t up on the business. Professional screenwriters understand they are entrepreneurs working inside a larger industry. They’ve educated themselves about that industry and keep up on the latest news.

Can you name the major studios? Do you know the difference between an agent and a manager? Do you know what movie topped the box office last weekend? Can you name the biggest hits from last year? Do you know the hot films at Sundance? Do you know what the latest big spec script sales were? Have you seen the latest hit films? At this time of year you should have seen most of the Oscar nominated films, too.

There are two reasons this is important. First, this is the kind of stuff likely to be discussed in meetings and you want to be able to participate in the conversation. Second, you don’t want to be in the embarrassing situation of pitching a story identical to the latest script sold or latest indie film sale. In the Internet age it isn’t hard to stay informed. You can read Deadline and subscribe to Done Deal. It’s also not a bad idea to subscribe to the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, or both.

You aren’t familiar with other work in your genre. If you write sci-fi you will be meeting with people who like sci-fi. They will talk about other films in the genre, as well as books, comic books, etc. Nobody can possibly see and read everything, but if you are unfamiliar with a lot of the things they reference, it marks you as someone who is out of the loop.

This is bad for a writer. You need to have familiarity with your genre so you don’t inadvertently write and pitch things that have already been done. Professionals know their genre.

You don’t behave like a professional. You’re not a team player. I’m using the term professional in this post to indicate writers who work fairly regularly. To work regularly in film you have to get along with other people. This means you dress and behave appropriately in meetings. It means you are on time. It means you are prepared. It means you can take script notes and discuss story changes without getting angry or defensive or bursting into tears.

Especially in the early phase of a business relationship, the person potentially hiring you will be looking for signs of whether you will be easy to work with. If you’re late to meetings it’s likely you can’t meet deadlines. If you’re unpleasant to be around, mercurial, a prima donna, then working with you will be a chore.

You don’t know how to pitch. Okay, pitching is hard and many professionals don’t do it well. But if you work regularly you will be asked to pitch a lot. Successful professionals will acquire at least a basic competence at telling a story verbally. And if you pitch well it will instantly create a sense of professionalism that might overcome a lack of experience.

You do too much razzle-dazzle and rely on gimmicks rather than talent. Breaking in is hard and staying in is just as hard. The competition is intense. Which leads writers to try to give themselves a leg up with gimmicks. This includes bringing outlandish props to a pitch or using unusual packaging to deliver a script. It also includes trying to hard sell or hard schmooze people.

This business requires a lot of selling and it’s useful to know some sales techniques, but ultimately you’ll succeed because you have talent and a solid work ethic. If a writer needs to resort to trickery it raises the suspicion that they may be trying to compensate for a lack of ability or effort. Professionals are adept at selling but they make sure their primary sales tool is quality work.

You stink of desperation. Again, this is a competitive business and nobody succeeds without a lot of failure and rejection along the way. The buyers know this but they also want to feel confident in you. They get worried if they get the sense you’re someone nobody else wants to work with. Even if you don’t have a lot of success to point to, you need to create the impression that you’re on the way up.

If you seem desperate they will shy away. You should have confidence in yourself and your material. You shouldn’t complain about how unfair the business is or how mean all the other buyers have been to you. Professionals are the opposite of failures, so if you project failure then you mark yourself as not a professional.

To a certain extent it doesn’t matter if someone sees you as a rookie. People love hot new talent in Hollywood. If you are young and unproduced, maybe fresh out of school, they will know you likely have a day job and aren’t hobnobbing with movie stars. And they won’t care – as long as you demonstrate the tools and attitude of a professional.

Film is a high risk/high reward business. Making films requires an enormous investment in time, money and politicking. The buyers want to have confidence that you will hold up your end. So it’s not that you’re trying to trick them into thinking you have experience you don’t have, it’s showing them you’re ready to take the next step – that you’ve done your homework and that you’re prepared.


*I don’t have any first hand knowledge of Ms. Palmer’s class but based on her experience and blog I suspect it would be valuable to anyone who wants to pitch better. Also, I am not in any way affiliated with Ms. Palmer or Good in a Room.


PoetCSW said...

"Do you have anything else like this?"

No matter what you write, having "the one" you can't leave behind is unwise. I have had plays declined, only to be asked what else I have.

Good advice for all writers.

Unknown said...

I really appriciate all your posts. Keep it up. You have a lot of fallowers in London.