Friday, February 26, 2010

How to Get an Agent

The one question that is invariably asked in every screenwriting panel, class, seminar or Q & A – regardless of the speaker, audience, or posted topic – is “how do I get an agent?”

The most basic answer and the one that nobody wants to hear is: It is really, really hard to get an agent.

It may in fact be the most difficult thing to do in this business (except perhaps winning an Academy Award). It is certainly harder than selling a script.

I think aspiring writers focus too much on getting an agent. They somehow believe once they have an agent the doors to the industry will swing wide open and their career will take off. It doesn’t work that way.

The two biggest dips in my career momentum came right after I signed with my first two new agents. The reason, I now realize, is that when I didn’t have an agent I worked really hard to advance my career. When I got an agent, I thought I could quit doing that. But no agent will ever take as much of an interest in your career as you will. The agent should enhance your career building efforts, not replace them.

After Sweet Home Alabama came out I wasn’t happy with my current representation and started looking for my third agent with the help of my manager at the time. To my surprise, several of the agents I was interested in refused to read my sample work. I said to my manager, “wow, I thought this would get easier once I had a movie out.”

She responded, “oh no. It’s never easy.”

Still, you will want to have an agent. So, as an aspiring writer, or even one who’s somewhat established, how do you do it?

I’ve had three agents in my career. Every single one of them came from a referral. Pretty much all of my friends with agents got them the same way. Referrals – either by a current client, a manager or attorney, or by someone respected in the industry like a producer or studio exec – are the primary way one gets an agent.

So how do you get a referral? You need to get your sample work out there. You need to write a lot of scripts, send them to contests, network and build your fan base. Then, once you have some established relationships, let them know in a non-pushy way that you’re looking for an agent. If your work is really, really great, one or two of them might make a referral.

(Some previous posts on the topic of networking: How to Network, How Not to Network, Screenwriting Contests)

The truth is you will be better off focusing more on writing well and getting people to read that writing than on trying to land an agent. When you are really ready to have an agent, you will probably start getting referrals without asking. Agents may even come to you if you win the right contest or have a great film shown in a festival.

There is one other thing you can try: the query letter. I did it once with some success, at least in terms of getting agents to read my sample. About one in four of the letters I sent out resulted in an offer to read. (Ultimately I found an agent through a referral, but getting the read is the point of the query letter.)

Here’s what I did: I spent three months poring over the Hollywood Reporter and jotting down any script sales. I looked for agents who sold multiple times in that period – those were the agents I wanted – and I looked for any commonality between the writer in question and myself, or the script in question and my sample.

Then I selected twelve agents and wrote a personal letter to each highlighting the reason I was writing to them. I might say something like, “I saw that you represent Writer X and my work is in a similar style so I believe you might respond to it.”

I did this because I had heard an agent at a panel say that if you had done your research and had a reason you thought he might like your work, he would probably believe you. He said he never responded to letters that sounded generic. I had tried the query approach once before, sending identical letters to fifty agents and got no responses so there must be something to that.

Next I listed a couple of the highlights of my career to date – I had a degree in screenwriting from USC, I had won a contest, and I had a script optioned by a known producer. Now you may not have any of those things. But if you don’t have some success or training that you can point to you probably aren’t ready to have an agent yet anyway. So instead of writing query letters, go take classes, enter contests and get your script to producers!

Finally I gave what I thought was a really killer logline for my script. A logline is a one-sentence description of the story. It needs to be interesting and compelling enough to make the agent want to read that story over the dozens of loglines he’s probably seen or heard that week.

If you write query letters that are targeted, point out why you're special, and give a logline that makes the agents salivate, they just might be willing to read your sample.

One other thing: as I write this in February of 2010 we are nearly a year into one of the worst periods for feature screenwriters ever. Script sales, pitch sales, and writing assignments have plummeted over the last twelve months. I am sure that means it is harder now to get an agent than it has been in decades.

Yet I’m equally sure that over the next three months more than one new screenwriter will sign with his or her first agent. So you might as well keep trying. After all, what’s the alternative?

In the end, my best advice on getting an agent is simply to keep improving your writing and show it to anyone who will read it. The agent will come when you’re ready for them.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Reflecting Theme Through Character

(SPOILERS: Wedding Crashers, The 40 Year Old Virgin, Up in the Air)

Last post I talked about theme and thesis. One of the best ways to explore your theme in a way that is not didactic is through character.

If theme is the philosophical subject matter of your script and thesis is a particular point of view on that subject matter, you can explore various theses by giving those points of view to your characters. As I mentioned last time, some movies promote one particular thesis while others compare various theses without advocating one over another.

If you want to convey a particular thesis your strongest vehicle will be your main character. There are two basic approaches here:

1) The main character can share the author’s thesis. Often in these cases the antagonist will hold the opposite point of view. For example, in Good Night and Good Luck (written by George Clooney and Grand Heslov), Edward R. Murrow believes that Joseph McCarthy’s fascist tactics are a threat to democracy while McCarthy believes he is protecting the country. The movie obviously sides with Murrow. This is also the approach usually taken in less complex good vs. evil genre stories.

2) The main character can start the movie holding one thesis and through the story convert to the author’s thesis. In this case the conversion is the character arc. For example in The Wedding Crashers (written by Steve Gaber & Bob Fisher) John and Jeremy start the movie wanting to avoid commitment but in the end come to value and desire marriage. In these types of movies there is often a mentor who teaches the main character the author’s thesis.

You can explore multiple aspects of theme by giving different supporting characters different points of view on the topic. This approach is one of the reasons why the screenplay for The 40 Year Old Virgin (written by Judd Apatow & Steve Carrell) was nominated for an award from the WGA.

The theme of The 40 Year Old Virgin is, obviously, sex. Notice how each of Andy’s friends holds a different take on the topic: David is still hung up on an old girlfriend and has an over romanticized view of sex, Jay is in a relationship but cheats because he is afraid of monogamy, and Cal just likes any kind of freaky, no-strings-attached sex. These views interact with Andy's anxieties about sexuality in a way that makes the movie more complex than a simple "losing his virginity" story.

Movies like Crash (story by Paul Haggis, screenplay by Paul Haggis & Robert Moresco), Syriana (written by Stephen Gaghan) and Babel (written by Guillermo Arriaga) use this approach to show how one topic can affect various people in different ways.

Now let’s look at Up in the Air (screenplay by Jason Reitman and Sheldon Turner). The theme of the movie is relationship. The main character, Ryan Bingham, believes that relationships weigh you down. He goes through life avoiding any kind of attachment. But over the course of the movie this thesis is challenged by Ryan's experiences and the characters around him.

Natalie, the young woman Ryan is forced to train, longs to be married but has unrealistically high expectations. Alex, a woman Ryan is sleeping with, seems to share Ryan’s point of view but we later learn she’s leading a double life – trying to have it both ways.

We get additional perspectives from Ryan’s siblings when he goes back home for his sister’s marriage. The bride and groom are perfect for each other, and though there lives aren’t fantastic (there’s intimations of considerable financial difficulty), they are happy. Meanwhile we get an even different perspective from Ryan’s other sister who has just separated from her husband.

Each of these characters allows us to view the question of whether relationships are good or bad from a different perspective. And it doesn't shy away from things that reinforce Ryan's original position. This makes the movie far more thematically complex than something, like Wedding Crashers.

The most important thing to keep in mind when assigning theses to your characters is to make sure they are human beings, not bumper stickers. Give them fully fleshed out lives, human desires and foibles, so that we get caught up emotionally in their story.

Not every movie gets its power from thematic depth, of course. In fact, those are probably the exception rather than the rule (and I don't mean that judgmentally). But if you want to tell a story with complex thematic elements, it will be at its most powerful when the ideas are delivered through believable characters in a strong, emotionally involving story.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Does Theme Have a Place in Screenwriting?

(SPOILERS: To Kill a Mockingbird)

“If you want to send a message use Western Union”
-Sam Goldwyn

What Sam Goldwyn meant, of course, is that movies ought to be entertainment. I think he’s right about that. But that doesn’t mean your movie can’t have strong, thought provoking thematic elements. In fact, I believe every movie sends out all kinds of thematic messages whether the filmmakers mean to or not. And personally I like to be aware of what kinds of messages I’m putting out into the world.

We don’t use the word theme much in the movie business but we do talk about it. We often discuss “what the movie is really about” and “what’s the heart of the story” and “how will the film resonate with the audience.” These are all ways of getting at theme.

First I’d like to differentiate between theme and thesis. Theme is the philosophical topic of the story. Thesis is the take the writer has on that theme. So a movie’s theme may be “infidelity” and the thesis may be “infidelity leads to unhappiness for all involved.”

What good old Sam Goldwyn was really railing against was thesis, not theme. Thesis can get you into trouble. Often the most thought provoking of thematic movies don’t have a strong thesis. They take an ambivalent approach to the theme.

If you want thematic depth in your story you have to have a thesis with some complexity. The movie Extraordinary Measures (written by Robert Nelson Jacobs) has this problem. The movie makes the profound statement that disease is bad and helping kids is good. I hardly need a movie to tell me that.

If you’re making an action movie or comedy you can easily get away with a simplistic thesis such as “love conquers all” or “good men can’t be knocked down.” In fact, you might be better off keeping things simple. But if you’re doing a drama or social satire where the main appeal is that it’s going to engage the viewers’ minds then you better explore a complex theme. And you’re probably going to be better off avoiding a strident stand.

There are exceptions, though often they are most powerful in the context of their time and place. Philadelphia (written by Ron Nyswaner) wears its thesis in support of AIDS victims on its sleeve, but it was released in a time where such a thesis wasn’t very widely accepted. That made it controversial. A similar movie released today would probably bore the audience.

To Kill a Mockingbird (screenplay by Horton Foote) holds up much better. At first glance it may seem that the movie’s thesis is “racism is bad” – a pretty simplistic idea. But though the movie does assume that point, its real theme is about standing up for one’s beliefs.

And it doesn’t treat that theme in a simplistic way at all. Atticus Finch suffers for his beliefs and ultimately loses his case. Scout, whose eyes we’re watching this through, is left with the distinct message that ultimately life isn’t fair. Doing the right thing doesn’t always succeed. And that ambivalence is what makes the movie profound and makes the thesis – that it’s important to do the right thing even when it’s not popular – resonate powerfully.

In practice I’m not always aware of exactly what my theme is when I’m developing my story. Often I think I’m writing about one thing but discover after the first draft that I’m really writing about something else. It was only after Sweet Home Alabama was released that I realized it was actually about the mixed feelings I had about my small town roots when I moved to Los Angeles. I always thought it was a love story!

And it’s in the first draft where we best listen to Mr. Goldwyn. If you want to get the audience involved in your story it must be about characters and their problems, not about philosophical arguments. You can think a lot about theme in the development phase, but when it comes time to write the scenes you need to get all of that out of your head and concentrate on what the characters want and what stands in their way.

(That is how movies like Philadelphia can hold up over time. Even after the relevance of the movie's "message" fades, we can still become involved in the character's struggle.)

Ultimately the best way to explore theme and convey thesis is through character. How you do that will be the topic for my next post!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Life is What Happens While...

(MINOR SPOILERS: Some Like It Hot, Independence Day, Pretty Woman, The Visitor)

“Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”

-John Lennon

John Lennon’s quote neatly crystallize something I think is very valuable when creating characters. Many stories are about an event that a character is forced to respond to. In order for those characters to seem like believable human beings they can’t just be sitting around waiting for a story to happen to them. They have to have other plans.

Consider Some Like It Hot (story by Robert Thoeren and Michael Logan, screenplay by Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond). The story is about Joe and Jerry, two musicians who witness a mob hit and have to go undercover as women in an all-girl band. But they aren’t planning any of that when we meet them.

Instead, they have just landed a job at a speakeasy. Jerry wants to use their upcoming pay to see a dentist about a toothache, but Joe thinks they should bet it on a dog at the track. We learn that they have a bunch of outstanding debts they need to deal with. Then they lose their job when the speakeasy is raided. They hock their coats to bet on Joe’s dog and it loses. They learn of another possible gig but it’s far away so they arrange to borrow a car. It is while they’re picking up the car that they witness the murder.

The toothache and dog and debts and job in the hinterlands have no real bearing on the story. But by the time we get to the murder, the catalyst that sets the whole story in motion, these guys feel like real people. We care about them and the journey they're about to go on.

In The Visitor (written by Thomas McCarthy), Walter isn’t planning on meeting an immigrant couple and getting involved in their struggle. He's a character who's lost direction in his life, but neither is he just biding time waiting for something to happen to him.

Walter is a burned out college professor whose job seems to be in some jeopardy. However he is still teaching and has certain obligations to show up to class and department meetings. We learn he’s been working on a book…though he hasn’t put any effort into it for a while. He’s also taking piano lessons in an attempt to honor his dead wife's memory. And he’s asked to present a paper he co-authored at a conference. He doesn’t want to do it, but he’s not given much choice by his bosses at the university.

I like to think through my characters’ short term, medium term and long term plans. In The Visitor Walter’s short-term plan is to present the paper and get back in time for a department meeting; his medium-term plan is to learn the piano; and his long-term plan is to publish the book. That’s a lot of plans for a character without direction! But it makes him feel real.

Independence Day (written by Dean Devlin & Roland Emmerich) demonstrates this well. Captain Steven Hiller – played by Will Smith – isn’t sitting around waiting for aliens to invade. He has plans.

His short-term plan is to enjoy a day off barbecuing with his girlfriend and her son. We then learn that he’s considering whether to propose to his girlfriend (his medium-term plan). The problem is his girlfriend is a stripper, which his friend thinks will interfere with Hiller’s long-term plan – to fly the space shuttle.

That long-term plan will come into play by the end of the movie. That’s a good thing of course! One of the reasons we show the characters’ plans is to establish who they are and what they want. Walter's desire to explore a musical side will help him connect to the immigrant couple he meets in The Visitor.

In Some Like It Hot, The Visitor, and Independence Day the catalyst disrupts the characters’ plans. Not every story works that way, of course. In Almost Famous (written by Cameron Crowe), the main character’s plan to become a rock journalist is what leads the story to happen.

In Pretty Woman (written by J.F. Lawton) we learn that Edward has plans to close a big business deal and that he wants to be back in New York by Sunday because he has tickets to the Met. These plans aren’t exactly derailed when he meets Vivian, but they provide context to their relationship. More importantly they make Edward seem like a man living a life of momentum. The character could just as easily have been an L.A. businessman driving home from work, but that would have felt like a stock character.

Let the story happen to your characters while they're busy making other plans. After all, that’s life!

Friday, February 5, 2010


(SPOILERS: Silence of the Lambs, Hellboy, a few other very minor spoilers)

All stories have an antagonist. Sometimes the antagonist is actually the protagonist (man vs. himself) and sometimes it’s a situation (man vs. nature). But most commonly the antagonist is another character (man vs. man). Today I’d like to discuss building this last kind of antagonist.

In many types of stories we refer to the antagonist as the villain. But it’s important to remember that nobody thinks of themselves as a villain. Everybody is the hero of their own lives. Hitler didn’t think he was evil, he thought he was saving Germany.

You should strive to give your villains heroic motivations at least in their own minds. My two pet peeve motivations are the villain who’s doing evil things because, “he’s CRAZY!” and the villain who’s doing evil things because he’s a Nazi and, y’know, Nazis are evil. (You could put Satanist in there as well, I suppose.)

Let me give you an example: Hellboy (screen story by Peter Briggs and Guillermo del Toro, screenplay by Guillermo del Toro). In this movie the villains were trying to open up a portal that would destroy the universe. Why were they doing that? Well, they were Nazis and Nazis are, y’know, evil. But it didn’t really make sense. Nazis live in our universe. Why exactly would they want to destroy it? It kind of ruined an otherwise pretty decent movie for me.

The Nazis are also the villains in Raiders of the Lost Ark (story by George Lucas and Philip Kaufman, screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan), but in that case their motivation is understandable. They are at war. Finding the Ark can help them win the war. Even Belloq, the Frenchman, has understandable motivations. He wants to help the Nazis find the Ark because he sees it as an opportunity to make his place in history. None of them think of themselves as evil.

Think of the villain Buffalo Bill in The Silence of the Lambs (screenplay by Ted Tally). Bill is sexually confused. He wants to transform himself into a woman so he’s making a “suit” out of human skin. That’s certainly crazy but it’s grounded in a kind of twisted logic that grows out of the character’s twisted perspective.

Your villains should do evil things for the same reason people do evil things in real life. Often they'll justify those actions – remember the famous “greed is good” speech in Wall Street (written by Stanley Weiser and Oliver Stone)? This justification can come in a world view that simply incorporates a different moral code than are own.

Other times antagonists may do things they know are wrong because they’re overcome with greed or lust. But usually in those cases they’ll feel guilty afterwards. Certainly all of us can relate to doing something we’re not proud of in a moment of weakness.

But what about those antagonists who aren’t evil at all? There’s a technique for these situations known as “mutually exclusive goals.” That’s when two characters each have goals that can’t both be achieved. A common example is romantic triangles. Two guys are in love with the same girl…both of them can’t end up with her. Neither character has to be evil for them to be in conflict.

Often you’ll see love triangles in romantic comedies where you have a good guy and a bad guy who are both after a girl. The idea is that the audience will root for the good guy. The trouble with this approach is the girl starts to look like an idiot if she’s attracted to the bad guy. And if we don’t like the girl we won’t be rooting very hard for the good guy to get her. The solution is usually to have the bad guy cheating on her – but she doesn’t know. Unfortunately that’s kind of become a cliché.

In Sweet Home Alabama we took the mutually exclusive goals approach. We created two guys who are very different but they’re both still good guys. Our heroine has to decide which one is right for her. (In this case neither guy is really the antagonist; the antagonist is Melanie herself.) I think that makes the emotional arc of the story more sophisticated than the movies where we’re just waiting around for the heroine to discover her boyfriend is cheating on her.

One more thing to keep in mind when creating an antagonist: we measure the hero by the strength of the villain. This is particularly important in action movies and thrillers. James Bond wouldn’t seem so super cool if he was fighting a ragged third world street gang armed with rocks and sticks. And look how much more powerful Spider-man seems when he beats Doc Oc versus when he captures some petty mugger.

The place where writers often get into trouble with weak villains is action comedies. Beware the bumbling villain! You might get some good gags out of it, but if your villain could barely outsmart a five-year-old, your super spy is never going to seem like he’s in jeopardy. (The one place the bumbling villain worked was in Home Alone (written by John Hughes) but that’s because the hero WAS a five year-old.)

So spend some time developing your antagonist. They should be as rich and complex as your hero. And if done well they can also be a lot of fun!

(For more on the antagonist as it functions in the mythology structure, read about “the shadow” in this post.)

Monday, February 1, 2010


Screenplays have a very specific format (or really several specific formats if you consider sitcom, hour drama and feature film). It should not surprise you that if you want to work as a professional writer you need to use the proper format. It should not surprise you… but for some reason I’ve encountered an amazing number of aspiring writers who moan about learning format.

I’m not going to describe proper format here. You can get it from most basic screenwriting books or probably with a quick search online (I found what looks like a reasonable guide at Script Frenzy). Even better, read recent professional scripts until it’s ingrained in your mind. Here are a couple of good links to get you started:

Simply Scripts

Drew's Script-o-Rama

A couple words of caution about reading scripts for format. Format changes over time so emulate more recent scripts (this is also why it’s risky to use a guide printed in a book from 1988). For example, when I started out it was considered proper format to put “(CONTINUED)” at the bottom of each page. These days few professional writers do that.

Also, be aware that what’s online are often “shooting scripts” as opposed to “selling scripts” and the format is slightly different. Most importantly, you do not number scenes in a selling script. That is done by the production manager once the movie proceeds to pre-production.

Also be cautious of bound book editions of scripts. They are often reformatted to fit the book size. And be aware that some of what you’ll find are transcripts rather than the original scripts. Transcripts are usually in proper format but they may not reflect the content of the script that was originally greenlighted.

Ugh, it’s starting to sound complicated, isn’t it? Well if you read a lot of scripts you’ll figure it out. And if you want to be a professional screenwriter you should read a lot of scripts.

The other thing that will help you is to use screenwriting software. Final Draft is currently the industry standard, though Movie Magic Screenwriter has its adherents. There’s even Celtx, a fairly good freeware product. And since Celtx is free you really have no excuses.

Once you load the proper template for the kind of script you’re writing, the software will take care of most of the formatting for you. There is a small learning curve on any of these, but you’ll get the hang of it quicker than you think and wonder how you ever wrote without them.

The truth is a few formatting errors won’t kill you. If you use a slightly dated format people will still take your script seriously, though if you’re writing in a format used in the ‘40s or if you number your scenes it’s kind of a tip off that you’re not a working professional yet.

If, however, you write in a radically non-standard format people will absolutely not take you seriously. First of all, if you can’t be bothered to learn something as simple as formatting you probably haven’t bothered to learn anything else about the craft of writing either. The moment a producer or executive or movie star sees an improperly formatted script they immediately assume it’s awful. Experience says they’re probably right.

Secondly, there are reasons for the format. A big one is timing. A properly formatted feature screenplay should roughly equate to the length of the movie in a ratio of one page to one minute. The producer can then tell if your script is an acceptable length. If you’re using some bizarre format of your own they’ll have no idea.

Similar to format, you have to use proper spelling and grammar in your script (with allowances made for stylistic effect, of course*). Now if you read professional scripts you won’t have any trouble finding the occasional spelling or grammar error. That isn’t really surprising when you consider that unlike a novel a script isn’t intended as a final product. Studios don’t employ copy editors the way publishing houses do.

But most of the executives and producers in this business have degrees from top universities. They know the difference between “lose” and “loose,” “than” and “then,” “its” and “it’s.” If you don’t know how to use those words they’re going to think you’re kind of stupid. Is that the impression you want to give?

Again, a few errors will never get your script rejected. But if an Ivy League educated producer finds half a dozen spelling and grammar errors on the first page of your script you can bet she won’t bother to read the second page. If you haven’t mastered Basic English what’s the chance you’ve mastered dialogue and plot?

Look, nobody’s perfect. My Achilles heel is double letters – the word “occasionally” drives me nuts! Fortunately we have some good resources available to help with these things. The most obvious is the spelling and grammar checkers on your software – though they don’t catch everything. I’d also recommend getting Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style.” And if you’re unsure of your abilities you can always ask a friend who has a good command of language to proof your script.

Format, grammar and spelling create an impression on the reader before they even get to the quality of your storytelling. You want to create the impression that you are a smart, skilled artist who has spent time learning your craft.

In the end it’s all about being a professional.

*There are two places where you will violate the rules of grammar. One is dialogue. People rarely speak in perfect English and your dialogue should reflect the way people actually speak. The second is for stylistic effect. For example, screenwriters often use sentence fragments to create a sense of pace and tone. But in these instances it will be clear that you are violating the rules intentionally for effect. If on the other hand you confuse "their" and "there" everyone will know it's out of ignorance or sloppiness.