Friday, January 31, 2014

A Plan for Your Screenwriting Career – Part 3: Marketing Goals

When I started this series on making a plan for your screenwriting career, I mentioned that one of the challenges is dealing with things that are out of our control. The last couple posts I’ve talked about writing spec material. That is something that is within our control – it’s one of the advantages of being a writer. We don’t need permission from someone else to write.

But there’s more to being a professional writer than writing. If it’s not a hobby, then we need to do the business side of the job as well. So if we’re making a plan for our career, then we should include some goals related to marketing our work. Making a goal to “sell a script” or “get a writing assignment” is no good, though. Those things are out of our control. But we can control what we do to increase the odds of something like that happening.

Everyone’s resources will vary. If you’re an unknown living in the Midwest, you will need a different plan than a writer with an agent and manager and produced credits.

Fundamentally you build your career in screenwriting by writing great material and getting as many industry people as possible to read it.

If you are just starting out, getting those reads will be more difficult. Screenwriting contests can be helpful, but there are a thousand of them and most won’t do you much good. So you have to do research to find out which are best. There are also fellowships you can apply for, and the Sundance Screenwriters Lab. Part of your plan may be to do some homework and compile a list of appropriate, worthy places to submit your work.

If you are an established writer with representation, then a goal might be to increase your contact list or refresh your current network’s perception of you. Both goals require writing a spec.

Most professionals should be writing new spec material every few years at minimum. A new spec gives your agent a reason to contact new producers and development execs and get your work to them. And if you find your current network isn’t generating assignment jobs like it used to, then new spec work can get their attention and remind them what a great writer you are.

When you produce a new spec, don’t just hand it to your representation and wait for them to do the selling. Make a list of people you’d like them to get the work to. You might start with the list generated when you were considering your brand. Get on IMDB and look up movies similar to what you do and find out who produced them. Sign up for Done Deal Pro and search for spec sales in your genre and find out who bought them. Follow the trades and keep track of any relevant buyers you read about. I keep a running document on my computer of potential new contacts.  Whether your representation contacts all these people or not, they will appreciate that you have done your homework.

Even if you don’t have representation, if you have some credibility (produced credits, a degree in screenwriting from a major university, significant contest wins) you may be able to get some of these people to read your material by cold calling (or cold emailing… is that a thing?). But plan your call or email carefully – keep it brief, highlight why they should pay attention to you up front, and have a killer logline. And be ready with a two-minute pitch if they should ask you to tell them about the script.

Of course if you don’t have an agent or manager finding representation could be a goal – but perhaps it shouldn’t be. It is easier to get producers to read your work than agents. When the industry takes an interest in you, the agents will come calling. Managers might be more useful. You can make a list of candidates using Done Deal Pro and target them with cold calls/emails just like producers. But really, unless you’re somewhat established, you may find chasing representation takes a lot of time for not much result.

Networking is also a big part of getting new contacts and getting people to read your work. You might include a greater focus on networking in your plan. Perhaps you could join an organization like Film Independent or Scriptwriters Network and make a point to attend their meetings/events regularly.

(For tips on effective networking, try these posts: 
How Not to Network )

Your business-oriented goals will work in concert with your writing goals, of course. The best time to increase your contact list is going to be when you have a new spec script ready to go. Next week I’ll wrap up this series by discussing how we can pull all these things together into a coherent plan.

Thursday, January 23, 2014

A Plan for Your Screenwriting Career – Part 2: Crafting Your Brand

Last week I began talking about how you can make a plan for your screenwriting career. I discussed the need to build up a portfolio of material to show potential reps and buyers. Sample material is how you get attention and jobs in the industry. And who knows, every once in a while you can sell a spec. I’ve done it.

Since you are writing spec material to build up a portfolio, you should think strategically about what your portfolio says about you. Your sample work is creating a “brand” for you as a screenwriter. When selecting which of your ideas to write, you should have an eye toward intentionally shaping your brand.

News flash: There are a lot of very good writers out there. There are a lot of very good writers with credits and experience and contacts. You obviously need to be a good writer to have a screenwriting career, but you also need something more. You need to offer the industry something it can’t get anywhere else. That thing is your voice.

A big part of your brand is the genre you work in. Specializing in one genre is wise, especially when you’re starting out. You might be able to pull off two if they are similar. Your brand might also include a particular aspect of writing that you’re particularly good at (“my scripts are in touch with the youth zeitgeist,” or “I write spectacular action scenes.”) It could include a thematic or stylistic aspect (“The humor in my broad comedies is really edgy,” “My sci-fi scripts contain subtle social critiques.”)

If you are known for something specific, then producers and executives will think of you when they need someone to do that thing on a project. You’ll be much more likely to get adaptation and rewrite assignments. Also, everyone has personal tastes. If you build up a group of contacts with one spec, you want the next one to be in the same genre to increase the chances they’ll like it. Finally, if you are pitching an idea, you will need a sample similar to that idea to assure the buyer you can pull it off.

When you are first starting out, you probably ought to write whatever moves you. It may take a while before you really find your voice. Don’t lock yourself into a direction too quickly. But once you’ve got a few scripts under your belt, you should start to figure out how you want to brand yourself.

Some writers know exactly what kind of thing they want to write. If you spend every night watching horror movies and you’ve always dreamed of being the next Wes Craven, you’re set. Most writers aren’t so clearly focused.

Start by thinking about what kind of movies you love. I encounter far too many young writers who are trying to write a movie that they wouldn’t pay to see themselves. Why would you do that?

Next, think about what you like to write and what you’re good at. Sometimes what a writer writes isn’t quite the same as what they most like to watch. If you love romantic comedy but can’t write witty dialogue, that’s probably not the best brand for you to pursue. Usually it isn’t hard to settle on a type of movie that you both love and that you can write well.

(You may want to poll people who have read your work – your writers group, your agent – to find out what they think you’re good at.)

Next, you should examine the marketplace. If you really want to write musicals or westerns or courtroom dramas, you will find Hollywood today a very frustrating place. Try to identify a dozen successful movies from the last five years that would have fit your brand. (Keep this list… it will be a resource to target producers, stars, and other folks who might be interested in your work.)

Okay, so let’s say you love musicals but Hollywood doesn’t really make them anymore. That doesn’t mean you have to give up the business. Can you apply your love of musicals to a genre that is viable? Alvin and the Chipmunks, Magic Mike and Pitch Perfect weren’t musicals in the traditional sense, but they all had strong musical components. Maybe you can write comedies set in the world of music, or biopics about famous musicians.

The Same But Different

You don’t want to just mimic what’s already successful, though. Believe me, I see writers try to do that a lot. Remember, what you have to offer is your unique voice. So think about what you can bring to the commercially viable genre that isn’t currently out there. What’s your fresh perspective? This will help you hone your brand so it is uniquely yours.

If you are already somewhat known in the industry – whether you have produced credits or a few sales or you have representation – then you already have a brand based on the material you’ve previously sent out. Try to define what your current brand is. Does it match the brand you want to have?

One reason for more established writers to write specs is to shift their brand. Maybe they’ve grown bored with the genre they’re in, or maybe the industry has changed since they started out and their brand feels dated. The average screenwriting career is something like eleven years. If you want to beat that average, you need to reinvent yourself periodically.

It’s probably not a great idea to try to radically shift your brand. It’s difficult to jump from family comedy to torture horror. Instead, make a subtle shift. Maybe go from family comedy to more edgy comedy. You might plan your shift in several steps. The idea is to keep the valuable reputation you’ve built, but show people you can do more.

Once you know what brand you are trying to build, select material that will help you get there. Develop your next two or three spec ideas to highlight your brand and also show a bit of range within it. Develop a couple of pitches that fit your brand for when you get meetings from your specs. Research the market and the competition in your corner of the business. Remember, these are still ideas that you love and are excited to write. But you're choosing the ones that will also help advance your career.

Our plan is starting to come together in terms of what we’re going to write. Next week I’ll discuss how to incorporate getting your material read into the plan.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

A Plan for Your Screenwriting Career – Part 1: Great Writing

Reader Billy Martin sent me the following suggestion for a blog topic he titled “Starting Right Now”:

It's New Year's Resolution time. For many of us part time, wanna be screenwriters we are looking at all of the awards show pomp and realizing another year has passed us by. Or more accurately, we have passed it by. We see some great movies released in the popular Holiday pre-awards season. But, throughout the year we have been reaching to the bottom of the Redbox barrel and saying to ourselves, "How did that movie ever get made?" For me personally, I write small, human stories, that could be made on a budget.

Regardless of how straight-forward and candid you are about the difficulty of making it in the business, I believe there are many of us not willing to give up on the dream. Maybe you could steer us in the right direction.

It’s now well past New Year’s resolution making time, but who says January 1st is the only day you can plan your career? Mr. Martin’s suggestion inspired me to do a series of posts on making a career plan for screenwriting. (And maybe even inspired me to update my own plan! Yes, I consciously plan my career, in writing.)

This isn’t perhaps exactly the same as the suggested “Starting Right Now,” but it encompasses those things. I’ll cover plans for various levels of existing career, from just-getting-into-this to already-a-produced-writer. I’ll discuss both creative and business issues. It’s a big topic – thus the series of posts.

(A note on Mr. Martin’s last paragraph – it is true the business is unbelievably competitive. It’s true that it is difficult to break in and even more difficult to make a living once you’re inside! But that doesn’t mean you should give up your dream. It does mean if you hope to achieve your dream you have to be willing to work extremely hard.)

Planning a screenwriting career, even in the short term, is tough because so much is out of your control. Any “how I made it” story always contains a heapin’ helpin’ of good luck. Of course, remember the saying “luck is opportunity meets preparation.” If you work at this long enough you will get opportunities. Your plan should be about making yourself prepared for when they occur.

The other challenge is that “events on the ground,” to use a military phrase, can change everything. Let’s say you send out a spec script. The outcome of that experience will determine what happens next – if it sells, you’ll likely be hired to rewrite it. Or perhaps it will impress someone enough to offer you a shot at pitching an assignment. Or if it lands with a dull thud, you’ll have to go back to other spec work. So how do you plan beyond sending the spec out?

Let’s start with the most basic thing you need for a screenwriting career: great screenplays. Note that this is plural – one won’t do it. You need to have a selection of material to show. Also note that I said “great” – not good or competent or your Mom likes it.

If you want to be a screenwriter but have not yet written a screenplay, your first goal should be just to finish a script. Finishing the first one is really hard. You don’t want to take forever, but it’s your first one so it will probably take a while. Your plan right now should focus on the process: setting aside time to write every day.

You might also need to learn something about your craft, so taking a screenwriting course or reading books on screenwriting might be part of your plan (and a class can help motivate you to finish). You also may want to find a writers group that can hold you accountable and give you feedback on your work. But you’ll learn the most simply by doing. Until you finish that first draft, it’s hard to even understand what you need to know. Until you have a screenplay, the rest of it doesn’t matter much.

If you’ve written some spec scripts but don’t yet have a body of top quality work, your plan should include more writing and possibly rewriting existing material. Most writers have to write at least five scripts before they turn out anything that’s any good. Of course, you must approach every script as if it will get made, but the reality is you have to practice your craft a lot before you will master it. If this sounds discouraging, remember that you’re in this for the long haul. And becoming a professional screenwriter is not easy.

You might want to work on improving your productivity. Standard professional contracts generally give the writer twelve weeks to do a feature draft. Often this is loosely enforced, but if you’re going to be a professional, you should be capable of this pace. Try making a plan for your year that involves writing a draft of a screenplay every three months. That will help you increase your output. I suggest alternating new, first drafts with rewrites of other scripts.

If you’re interested in writing television, the ability to meet deadlines is critical for a career. Definitely work on turning out spec material in a timely fashion.

(Here are some Tips for Productivity that might help.)

If you have a body of work or are established, then turning out new spec work may not be the most important part of your plan. But you probably already know that it’s critical for your career to keep writing. Any time you don’t have paid work, you should be writing a spec. And possibly you need a new spec to send out so you can expand your network or re-brand yourself or just update your image.

It’s important – no matter what your level – that you choose your spec material carefully. That requires thinking about your passions, the market, and the “brand” you want to establish. Those things will be huge influences on the plan you’re making. Choosing material and planning your brand will be the topic for my next post.


Thursday, January 9, 2014

Best Written Movies of 2013

It’s time for my best-written movies of the year list. Once again, it’s been a surprisingly good year. There was a time when I’d only have two or three locks to make my list, and I would have to fill out the other spots with decent-but-flawed choices. In 2012 things were different. Looking back, at least seven of the movies that made my 2012 list were really excellent screenplays. This year, I’m having a hard time limiting myself to only ten films! (I don’t know that I’ll feel the same way about these movies a year from now… we’ll see.)

One interesting thing I notice is that this year original screenplays were by far the strongest, with only a few quality adapted screenplays. And as usual, the director of many of these was involved in the writing – indicating, I believe, less the literary skills of directors than the value of having the writer in a position of power on set.

Now for my usual disclaimers: This is the list of what I think are the best written movies, which is not the same as the movies I liked the best. Also, though I watch a lot of movies, I haven’t seen everything. So obviously if I didn’t see something it’s not on this list (the movie I haven’t seen yet that's most likely to have made this list this year is 12 Years a Slave). And remember, this is my list… if you don’t like it you can make your own!

1. Her (written by Spike Jonze) – Funny, moving and thought provoking. This is a great example of a film that entertains and says something interesting and important about our culture in the moment. It’s a romantic comedy and a sci-fi drama and a character study and a meditation on both the nature of love and the nature of personhood. And it is full of surprises. Stunning.

2. Before Midnight (written by Richard Linklater & Julie Delpy & Ethan Hawke based on characters created by Richard Linklater & Kim Krizan) – If you haven’t seen the “Before” trilogy, do yourself a favor and watch them all. This third one is the best of the bunch. The characters are so fully realized you almost can’t believe Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke aren’t a couple in real life. This is a film that lives completely on dialogue (there are literally only about six scenes) but is still very filmic. All by itself this is a great script, but in context of the trilogy it is an amazing examination of a complicated romantic relationship over two decades.

3. Enough Said (written by Nicole Holofcener) – Another winner from Holofcener. These characters feel like people you could know, assuming you know witty and interesting people. Funny, romantic, charming. The conflicts are the kind of real conflicts people have in relationships. Even the one slightly contrived plot point goes down easy with these characters.

4. Mud (written by Jeff Nichols) – This is a wonderfully entertaining movie with great characters and a strong narrative. Essentially a coming-of-age story wrapped in a small town adventure, it tells of a boy’s disillusionment about the purity of love. I really liked how they (mostly) kept it from the kids' perspective, so the conflicts between the adults are confusing and incomplete in a way that really captured the experience of childhood. Might have been number one, except I was annoyed at the few times they “cheated” by breaking away from the kids' point of view, and the ending gets just a bit over-the-top.

5. Frozen (story by Chris Buck and Jennifer Lee and Shane Morris, screenplay by Jennifer Lee) – This movie is pure entertainment. The screenplay is full of heart, the characters are as loveable as can be, and it’s packed with humor and emotion. And unlike many movies in this genre, "good guys" and "bad guys" are more shades of grey. It makes it look easy, but movies this enjoyable are never easy.

6. Saving Mr. Banks (written by Kelly Marcel and Sue Smith) – I like this movie because it’s such a unique story – which makes it hard to categorize. It’s a drama, but one with lots of humor and music to go along with the heart. Great character work, too.

7. American Hustle (written by Eric Warren Singer and David O. Russell) – I will admit to being a little disappointed when I watched this, but only because I was expecting so much. The characters are enormous fun and the story a wild snowball of craziness. It has a strong style and point-of-view. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

8. Gravity (written by Alfonso Cuaron & Jonas Cuaron) – This was actually my favorite movie of the year, but it comes in at number eight because a lot of what made it so great was the beautiful imagery and the filmic suspense created through editing and sound. Still, that all starts with the screenplay – particularly in a case like this where everything had to be so meticulously planned. The plotting and character development are very well done. Occasionally, though, particularly early on, the dialogue becomes overly expository.

9. Dallas Buyers Club (screenplay by Craig Borten & Melisa Wallack) – Just because a screenplay is based on real people doesn’t mean it’s easy to bring characters to such multi-dimensional life as this one does. Perhaps a little past social relevance because of the long struggle to get it made, this is still a very entertaining and touching film.

10. Labor Day (screenplay by Jason Reitman) – Relatable, flawed characters in an intensely dramatic situation. It has heart and is full of surprises.

As I mentioned, there were many other candidates for inclusion. I could give honorable mentions to the excellent craftsmanship of The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, Lee Daniels’ The Butler, World War Z and 42. Blue Jasmine and Inside Llewyn Davis both feature really good characters and dialogue in stories that are perhaps a bit too slight. Captain Phillips was slow to get started but finished with a bang. And This Is the End was wildly inventive and hilarious – it deserves credit for doing dumb comedy exceedingly well.

I had a fair number of candidates for worst screenplay – and I didn’t even see The Lone Ranger or After Earth. But for 2013’s Worst Screenplay of the Year, I will pick Man of Steel. The movie tried to reinvent Superman in a darker, grittier vein. I question that decision, but that’s not why the screenplay was so bad. The real flaws were the inconsistent characters, complete lack of any sense of humor, some cringe-worthy dialogue, and the soul-killing casualness toward death and destruction. And it all culminated in one of the most ill advised kisses in movie history between Superman and Lois Lane.

But there was so much good in theaters this year, I'd rather focus on the positive.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

A Look Back at LetsSchmooze in 2013

Happy New Year! First, I want to say thank you to everyone who reads this blog. For those perhaps expecting my ten best-written movies of the year, this is not that post. I’ll do that next week. I’m planning to spend some time this weekend catching up on the awards season contenders, so I’ll have a more complete group of candidates from which to select my best.

Today I’m going to look back at the year in this blog. There are several topics that I regularly cover here:

Obviously, the craft of screenwriting is a big subject for me. In 2013 I wrote about craft topics like Setting the Scene, Writing True Stories When We Know the Ending, and Do You Need This Scene?

I also often talk about the business of screenwriting in such posts as What Does a Million Dollar Spec Sale Really Mean? Because of the publication of The Hollywood Pitching Bible, I wrote a lot about pitching this year, with posts like How to Get Buyers Emotionally Involved in Your Pitch and Different Pitches for Different Situations.

I have done interviews in the past. This year the only interview I did was with Ken Aguado, the producer with whom I co-wrote The Hollywood Pitching Bible. Maybe it’s time to plan some new interviews.

I also occasionally reviewed screenwriting books and answered reader questions in mailbag posts. This year I did not do much film analysis – maybe I’ll have to put that on the agenda for early 2014.

If there are things you would like me to cover, I’d love to hear about it in the comments. I don’t promise I’ll write about anything I don’t feel like – I’m offering this for free after all – but I like the blog to be useful.

Blogger allows me to see how many views each post gets. The range is fascinating. Of course, over time posts build up views, so the more recent ones have a pretty low count. (Is it arrogant to do a “best of” list of one’s own stuff? Probably.) Anyway, looking back, here are the top five most popular posts from this blog in 2013 by views:

1. Help! My Screenplay is Too Short – Apparently, writing too short is a common problem!

2. Six Techniques to Build Suspense in a Scene – this is one of my personal favorite posts of the year.

3. Structure vs. Formula – Want page views? Engage in a controversial viral debate!

4. Help! My Screenplay is Too Long – Again, length seems to be a big issue for screenwriters.

5. Hollywood Etiquette for Screenwriters – I like to do posts where I can reveal something I wish I’d known about the business when I was starting out.

Interestingly, many of my more business-oriented posts have the least views. Apparently writers are more concerned about writing well than selling what they write. I guess that’s natural, but it surprises me a little because it seems like the latter information is harder to come by.

2013 also had a sad note within my career – the passing of my long-time agent and friend Lew Weitzman this summer. It seems only appropriate that I close out the year with a little memorial to him. Here’s what I wrote on my Facebook page:

My long time agent Lew Weitzman has passed away. Lew was an old school guy, from the days before managers and email who valued phone and face-to-face interaction with his clients. Every few months he would say, "Come by the agency, I'll buy you a turkey sandwich" - whether I was earning for him or not. He was also a master teller of bad jokes. One of his favorites was, "It's so hot today I saw a dog chasing a cat and they were both walking." He was a fierce defender of writers. I once went into a meeting with a producer who was late on paying me and the producer said, "You don't have to worry about whether Lew has your back - he just ripped me a new one. We'll have a check cut ASAP." Any time someone asked me to do work for free, Lew would say, "Someone needs to tell them Lincoln freed the slaves." Then he would take care of it. If we hadn't talked for a few weeks I'd get a phone call. He would say, "Just wanted to make sure you were breathing okay." Breathing just fine, Lew. I'll miss you.

To all my readers: Happy New Year, and best of luck with your writing in 2014!