Thursday, July 24, 2014

5 Networking Tips for Industry Events

“It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.”

That’s the famous excuse used by aspiring screenwriters to explain why they haven’t been successful. Well guess what – it’s partly true. You need industry connections to get your screenplay read by people who have the power to make it. (You also do need to know a thing or two.) But what if you don’t have any industry connections?

You make some.

You don’t have to be related to someone in the business or grow up in Hollywood in order to become friends with people in the industry. But you do have to go to where industry people are. Ultimately this means moving to Los Angeles, but you may not be at a place in your life or career where that’s possible yet. And Los Angeles is a big city – just because you live here doesn’t guarantee you’ll run into producers and directors… although if you leave your apartment it’s hard not to.

There are places industry professionals congregate – film festivals, screenings, conventions, etc. – that are open to the public. As I type this, Comic-Con is going on in San Diego. Tons of movie stars and big name directors will appear on stage in Hall H. Of course there will also be security guards keeping the general public away from them. But there are also tons of producers, directors, writers and agents walking around on the show floor and hanging out in the hotel bars.

So it’s not too hard to put yourself in proximity with industry folks. But how do you make an actual connection when at an industry event? Here are a few tips.

1. Break out of your shell. This should be obvious, but writers in particular tend to be introverted. That’s fine, but you need to be at least a little social. Don’t sit in the corner at an industry event with your face buried in your phone. If you’re with a group of friends, agree beforehand to make an effort to talk to others. Be friendly and social – do not act like a used car salesman. Recently, I was waiting for a friend at an awards reception. I was standing at the edge of a room full of people by myself. I noticed another gentleman standing by himself a short ways away. So I went over and introduced myself. We ended up having a long conversation, and it turned out he was a development executive at a major production company. It’s amazing what happens when you make just a little effort.

2. Prepare an icebreaker. At film festivals, you can always ask the person next to you if they’ve seen anything good – or even better, tell them about a great film you saw at the festival. At conferences and conventions, you could talk about a great panel or presentation you saw. Other situations do not have such built-in conversation starters, so think about something interesting you can lead with (NOT something about your work) before you arrive. Or even just comment on how good the hors d'oeuvres are. Sometimes you can commiserate over a complaint - "The lines at Comic-Con are really long!" But I prefer to stay positive.

3. Know what you want. Not so much from the event - although that can be helpful - but in your career. Be focused. For writers, usually what you want is for people to read your screenplays. But you could also be looking for funding for an indie film. Or you might want to find representation. Or maybe you’re running a Kickstarter campaign for a short film. If you don’t have a goal, it’s hard to network effectively. But – and this is very important – do not directly ask for the thing you want! At least not at a networking event. Instead, work on making yourself and your pitch so appealing people offer to help you.

4. Oh yeah, your pitch. Have a short, compelling pitch of your project ready. Do not “sell,” simply describe it in the most appealing way possible. You should have both a 30 second and two minute pitch ready to use depending on the circumstances. You don’t want to wing it when somebody asks you what you’re working on. And remember, if you’re at an industry event everyone else there has a project they’re working on. What makes your project different? What makes you different?

5. Do your homework. Consider whom you might meet and what might interest them. People at a smaller film festival will probably be interested in art films. People at Comic-Con will more likely be interested in science fiction, fantasy and horror. Is this a place where you’re going to meet other creatives, or where you’re going to meet buyers? The environment should influence what you talk about. And if there are specific people you might run into (panelists at a convention, for example), familiarize yourself with their bio and credits.

Most importantly, networking is not the same as pitching or selling. When you are networking, you are trying to make a connection with someone. It’s not important that you even get to talk about your screenplay. So be outgoing but not pushy. And bring business cards!

Friday, July 18, 2014

Reading Screenplays

What would you think of someone who tried to write a novel without ever having read one? Or someone who tried to design a house without ever having seen a blueprint? Foolish, right? But a surprising number of people try to write screenplays without ever reading one. They have seen movies, of course, and that helps. But if you plan to be a screenwriter, you need to read screenplays.

This can be harder than it sounds. Screenplays generally aren’t published, and when they are, they are often reformatted and edited to match the final cut of the film. There are “screenplays” online that are actually just transcripts of the film written after the fact. If you are trying to learn screenwriting, you want to read the screenplays that actually went into production.

Here are a few sources of actual production screenplays:

The excellent Good in a Room blog posted screenplays for The King’s Speech, Milk, 12 Years a Slave, Dallas Buyers Club, Iron Lady, Wolf of Wall Street, and Lincoln.

You can browse The Daily Script, Drew’s Script-o-Rama and Simply Scripts. They are archives of all kinds of screenplays, however they do include many transcripts. And, many of the screenplays are production screenplays which are formatted a little differently than what you would submit as a writer (more on that in a moment).

Here are two pdf’s that are the actual, properly formatted screenplays for Mean Girls and Speed. And here are screenplays for The Long Kiss Goodnight and The Matrix that are in more-or-less proper format and style, except they’ve been converted to html so the page breaks are no longer there.

If you’re in Los Angeles, there are also plenty of places you can go read physical scripts. The Writer’s Guild Foundation Library is a good starting point.

 I’ve referenced the different kinds of screenplays out there. I want to go into a little more detail on this subject. I’ll leave out the transcripts and other forms of “screenplay” that are not actually something the writer is involved with. There are three basic types of screenplay you should understand. I’ll cover them in reverse order of the chronology in which they are created.

Production Screenplay – this is the screenplay that is used to make the actual film. A screenplay becomes a production screenplay when it is “locked” – which generally happens when the film is given a “green light” by the studio, or put into production. At this point the production manager or line producer will number the scenes so they can start breaking down the script for scheduling and other production purposes. This is the primary way to recognize a production screenplay: the scenes are numbered. Screenwriters never number the scenes when submitting scripts for sale or development!

Just because we call the screenplay locked doesn’t mean it won’t change, however. Often revisions are made as pre-production is going on, or even into production itself. This can cause problems for the crew, though, because if you start changing scene and page numbers, it becomes difficult to track and schedule things. So there is a special process used, involving things like Omitted Scene designations, a and b pages, and asterisks to mark changes. New revisions are printed on colored paper, starting with blue and moving through a pre-set order of colors. New pages are integrated into the crew’s screenplays until they look like rainbows! How to do this would require a blog post all its own, but it uses all those things on the “Production” tab of Final Draft.

Development Screenplay – this is the type of screenplay you see while the movie is in development. In other words, the studio or production company has acquired or optioned the screenplay and is now paying writers to revise it. The example links I’ve included above are mostly this type of screenplay. Development screenplays do not contain the production mark-ups of a production screenplay.

Selling Screenplay – These are the screenplays writers write – often on spec – to try to get the project off the ground. A selling screenplay and a development screenplay look quite similar. The difference is mostly stylistic, based on the different purposes. Since a selling screenplay is meant to sell, they tend to focus on making a great reading experience (while still conforming to the filmic guidelines I discussed in my last post).

What does this mean? It means deemphasizing things like camera direction. Sometimes it means fudging the format – for example, many selling scripts use incomplete slug lines to speed the reading experience. It can mean using more explicit expository dialogue than you might want in the final film, to make sure a development exec, who is reading five scripts a night very quickly, doesn’t miss an important point. And it can mean streamlining action, since action is hard to convey with text.

Admittedly, the distinction between a development screenplay and a selling screenplay is subtle. But it can be important. You can’t make your movie until you convince the right person that it deserves to be made. Newer writers are usually writing spec screenplays and should thus be using a selling screenplay style. Too many inexperienced writers overload those screenplays with unnecessary and even inappropriate things like camera direction or music suggestions that are not integral to the story.

The best way to grasp the differences is to read a lot of screenplays. Try to read recent screenplays, since format and style changes over time. And any time you can get your hands on the selling draft – a difficult thing to do – pore over that script carefully!

You want to pay attention to the tone and style, and to the sorts of things the writer includes – as well as what they leave out. How much description do they use to set the scene? How much detail do they provide for action scenes? How long are their paragraphs? What is the ratio of dialogue to action to description?

Every writer is a little different, but by studying a broad selection of screenplays you will start to get an instinctive understanding of what professional screenplays look and feel like. And then you can make sure yours are up to that standard.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Film vs. Screenplay

It’s important for screenwriters to keep in mind that the screenplay is not actually the final product. The general public does not read screenplays, they see movies. What we are doing when we write a screenplay is crafting a guide for the making of a movie. This is self-evident, but easy to forget when you’re in the throes of writing. After all, the screenplay is your final product. But, though we often do our work alone, the screenwriter is part of a team with a goal beyond the words on the page.

This has important implications for what you write. You have to constantly think about how your work will appear on screen. Screenplays have their own unique style that you have to absorb if you want to write them well. And the best way to absorb that style is to read a lot of screenplays. Today, I want to discuss some of the stylistic concerns of writing for a filmic medium.

Most basic, you must remember that film communicates to only two senses: vision and hearing. Therefore you should only include in a screenplay what can be seen or heard in the theater. You can’t describe how a room smells or how food tastes. You can’t reveal what’s going on in a character’s mind in the action/description lines. If you do, scenes and story points may work in the screenplay that won’t work on screen.

But there’s more to it than simply avoiding unfilmable elements. You want to take advantage of the visual nature of film. One of the things I learned seeing my screenplay for Sweet Home Alabama turned into a movie was how concerned the director (Andy Tennant) was with creating interesting visual arenas for scenes. Many of my scenes involved people talking in rooms. Andy moved several of them to new, more interesting, more visual locations, with “business” for the characters that provided action on screen.

Similarly, I’m about to embark on a rewrite assignment on a script that has a director attached (I’m not at liberty to reveal the details just yet). The mandate from the director is no talking heads. He always wants the characters on the move. The screenplay may contain mostly dialogue, but your choice of where to set scenes, and what characters are physically doing during those scenes, has a big impact on how visually rich the final film is.

However, it’s very easy to overdo the amount of action and description in a screenplay. You must be ruthlessly efficient, picking just the right details and actions to include. Otherwise, you may be guilty of overwriting. One page of screenplay is supposed to equate to roughly one minute of film. If you take a full page to describe a room that the audience will grasp on screen in a couple seconds, your length will be way off. (See this post on tightening for some tips.)

And remember, it is considered bad form to include much camera direction (pan, tilt, move across, etc.) or actor direction (parentheticals with words like "slyly," "sadly," etc.) in a screenplay. Your job is to tell the story, not tell the cinematographer, director or actor how to do their job.

There are also several things that can technically be done on screen, but do not work as well as they might on the page:

Long speeches: There is definitely a place in filmmaking for characters to make big speeches (anything more than, say, five lines of dialogue), but you should pick these moments judiciously. It’s very difficult to make a character’s speechifying visually interesting. One or two big speeches can give your stories rousing moments and be catnip for stars, but much more and your script simply becomes talky and your character a gasbag.

Voiceover: Voiceover is an even bigger challenge. With a speech, at least you have the actor’s performance to engage the audience visually. But with voice over, you have to think long and hard about what is happening on screen while we listen to that voiceover dialogue. If we’re watching characters in a scene, they will have to have some plausible activity – and no dialogue of their own – while the voiceover is running. This can be harder than it seems. Even a couple sentences of voiceover can create a challenge in a scene if the writer hasn’t thought about this.

Time Transitions:
It’s easy to skip over some time in a script. You simply create a new slug line ending with LATER or MOMENTS LATER. But if you have the same characters in the same location, an audience watching the film may have difficulty understanding that time has passed.

Text on Screen: Describing text in a screenplay – say the contents of a note, letter, email or text messages – reads not much different than dialogue. But if the text is more than a few words, this can be problematic on screen. We don’t have to worry about illiteracy much anymore, but people read at very different speeds, meaning some people will finish reading well before the editor cuts away while others might not finish reading before the cut. Also, text on screen is visually boring. And now that people are watching things on smart phones and tablets, you have to worry about the size of the text. Best to minimize any use of text on screen.

There is an audience for a screenplay as a written document, however. In the period before a movie is given a green light, that audience is development execs, producers, directors and movie stars. After the green light, that audience is the entire production crew. This leads to two subtly distinct types of screenplays – the version written to get a project going – often known as a selling script – and the version written to produce – known as a shooting script.

I’ll go into the distinction next week, as well as where, how, and why to read screenplays.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Happy Independence Day!

Let's Schmooze is taking the week off to celebrate the U.S. Independence Day holiday! If you need something to read you might check out this humorous article I wrote with Ken Aguado about "fixing the liberal bias in Hollywood movies."

Or check out these posts if you missed them:

Why This Character for This Story?

Wisdom from LAFF and DIFF

Working with Agents and Managers

Have a safe and happy 4th of July!