Ah, the romanticized life of a working screenwriter…

August 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

Completing your screenplaySure, it can be torture at times—a hellish rewrite on a screenplay can make you question your decision to become a screenwriter when you curse the day you typed “FADE IN.”  Other times it’s easy breezy and brings you great creative satisfaction, a credit and the bonus of getting paid as a professional screenwriter. As with life, you deal with the good and the bad, and learn how to survive and weather the storms to stay in the game. I just wrapped up my twelfth paid screenwriting assignment of my career and it’s been a fantastic six months working on this gig. I’m blessed to have worked with a talented producer and production executives who were spot on during the development process.

This was my first time working with them and I didn’t know how the experience would turn out. They didn’t know me before either so we both took a bit of a risk on each other. The best part was—I was on a short list of writers and beat them out to secure the job. Sometimes you get lucky and the alchemy just works and you produce a great script and build new working relationships.

hollywood boulevardI joke about the cliché of the ideal “romanticized life” of a working Hollywood screenwriter, but many times I find aspirants who work with total freedom on their specs, believe it will be the same experience when they get hired to write a screenplay assignment. It’s not—it becomes your job with the same expectations, responsibilities, pressures and deadlines of many jobs—all while working with a contract. If you’re blessed enough to secure the gig, you must be the ultimate team player and collaborator. Sure, you scored the job, but never fool yourself into believing you’re the only screenwriter who could do the job. There is always someone out there equally or more talented and hundreds of eager aspirants who would even write it for free just for the break. The important thing is that you landed the job. It’s yours to screw up or succeed. Show them why you were the right pick on that short list of other writers.

I completed my contracted first draft in twenty-five days and turned it in five days early. What followed was a first set of notes and then my second draft. This was followed by a second set of notes and turning in the second draft. The production executives went over my second draft and contacted the producer with only polish notes (always a good sign rather than another rewrite).  The producer contacted me on a Thursday and asked if I could complete my polish by the following Monday per the production company’s request. I replied, “Of course!” I worked the next three days executing the polish and wrapped it up at 3:30 A.M. in the wee small hours of Sunday morning. I wanted to give the producer a full day to review the script before he sent it along to the production company as my official third draft.

CUT TO:

This Monday morning. I received an e-mail from the producer with a short list of tweaks issues to be fixed: a line of dialogue changed, a slight action added to a scene, a few lines of dialogue added… nothing that wouldn’t take me but an hour of work. It’s always good to take another look before you send in the final draft as even down to the last minute—it can always be made better. The dozens of tiny changes were all to push the script closer to a production ready draft, to attract a director, name actors—and GET IT PRODUCED.

DISSOLVE TO:

Moments ago—I just received the confirmation e-mail this evening from the producer saying that my third draft script was officially submitted to the production company tonight. We were successful in meeting our deadline and delivered a production ready script as promised. Always remember, meeting your deadlines is vital to your reputation and your career. During this entire six-month process on this assignment, I always followed through with my promises, turned in my drafts early, and was building my working relationship with the producer and the production company. As I pushed myself to always do my best writing to date, I also kept my eye on the bigger picture and not just this one job with them. Doing my best work to date on this script could set the wheels in motion for them to hire me for another project.

script page and keyboardSo, what’s all this I continually hear about the romanticized and exciting image of working screenwriters? It’s a false image and not reality. Most of the time it’s not fun or exciting, it’s the hard work of pleasing your producers and executives, filled with rewrites, polishes, and the pressure of deadlines. It will always be about the work. If you’re a true screenwriter, you thrive on process and getting the job done no matter what it takes. You’ll go above and beyond every time to show your producers and executives that you are the right person for the job. Screenwriters are craftsmen and craftswomen, the ones up at 3:30 A.M. chipping away, fixing the scenes, working on the structure, building the characters and their arcs, and executing the notes to meet a deadline.

Sure, you might come up short on praise and validation, but even when you do receive praise, it might be a let down from what you’d expect. The longer you’re in the screenwriting game, you’ll learn that screenwriting can be a thankless and lonely job as you slog away sometimes in the wee small hours of the morning. But don’t lose heart, realize that it’s a job and it’s hard work at all levels of the business.

It was your choice to pursue the journey of a master craftsperson, working away in your workshop, crafting a new story to unleash upon the world. It’s a lonely process with no parties, no champagne, no red carpets, no fame and rarely fortune, but your praise and validation comes from the satisfaction knowing that you’re working at the top of your game. How do you know? You’ve just moved your last draft from the development process into the important pre-production stage—that’s a major step to success.

nightThe end of my story? During those wee small hours of the morning before the dawn, I closed the script, hit “send” and finally closed my eyes to sleep. I was at peace knowing that I did my best work to date and successfully wrote a genre that was not in my usual wheelhouse. No fame, no fortune, no glory… just a master craftsman in his workshop, finishing up his twenty-seventh screenplay, blowing out the candle to return another day on another project. I never take any of it for granted and know the long slog and decades of experience that it’s taken me to get here.

It’s work—hard work and I’m happy and humbled to have had another chance up to the plate and made sure to knock it out of the park.

Scriptcat out!

P.S. with an update:  I turned in the final production draft this morning and the movie just got a GREEN LIGHT and goes into production in early September of this year.  A director was hired, casting begins, location scouting, the works!  That’s the best news of all and excited to have my 7th movie produced.  Always keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages.

Did you just complete your latest screenplay and need in-depth consultation?  Check out my affordable services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website and more information. You never get a second chance to make a first great impression with your screenplay. Make the time to get it right.

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“… the payoff of playing-the-game-for-money is not the money (which you may never see anyway, even after you turn pro).  The payoff is that playing the game for money produces the proper professional attitude.  It inculcates the lunch-pail mentality, the hard-core, hard-head, hard-hat state of mind that shows up for work despite rain or snow or dark of night and slugs it out day after day.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

“Work every day.  No matter what has happened the day or night before, get up and bite on the nail.” – Hemingway

Everyone holds his fortune in his own hands, like a sculptor the raw material he will fashion into a figure. But it’s the same with that type of artistic activity as with all others: We are merely born with the capacity to do it. The skill to mold the material into what we want must be learned and attentively cultivated.”—Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe

“When the last dime is gone, I’ll sit on the curb outside with a pencil and a ten cent notebook and start the whole thing over again.” — Preston Sturges

“You have to be very productive in order to become excellent.  You have to go through a poor period and a mediocre period, and then you move into your excellent period.  It may be very well be that some of you have done quite a bit of writing already. You maybe ready to move into your good period and your excellent period.  But you shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a very long process.”—Ray Bradbury

“This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.” —Rod Serling

changes

The treatment debate: To write the story or not and how little is too little?

June 30, 2014 § 5 Comments

treatmentI can’t believe that I still find myself going through this discussion with screenwriting aspirants who have not written long enough to realize how important structure and story are to the success of a first draft. They also don’t respect the fact that execution trumps any idea in a screenplay’s potential for success. There is no shortage of “good ideas” circulating Hollywood, but what’s usually lacking is the proper execution of the screenplay. Respect how important your script’s bigger story is and it will serve you well. You need the strongest foundation going into your script pages, otherwise you’ll be crafting a house of cards that is ready to collapse.

Rarely will a producer buy your poorly written screenplay because of the idea alone. You’ll need the full package to even get a shot at any level of success with your project. On a scale of one to ten, with one being the worst, is your first draft a 5?  A 7?  How much work might it take to get it to an 9? That being said, I was lucky that my early screenwriting mentors drilled into my mind how vital is it to work on the story treatment as part of the process. This before I ever started to type one page of script. They were working screenwriters themselves at the time and knew the real world disciplines that lead them to their success.

I’m working on the second draft of my new screenwriting assignment and executing notes from the producer and the executives from the production company. My contract stated that I needed to write a story treatment first and submit that to the producer, follow the notes and changes, and work on a handful of drafts to get it right. We all had to know exactly what story I was writing and everyone had to be on the same page. Once approved they allowed me to start the screenplay.  Trust me, they don’t want to be surprised when you turn in your first draft. Time is money and it will put everyone behind if the first draft needs months of work—especially with a production slate of films coming up this year and this script being one that will go into the pipeline sooner if it’s in great shape.

I completed the first draft script in 25 days and turned in my 105 page script early. It wasn’t impossible because I was working from my solid ten page story treatment. When you’re working on assignment jobs, producers will not allow you to start the script until the story treatment or step outline is completely fleshed out. This way, your screenwriting adventure will be a breeze as you have a solid road map to follow.

An original draft treatment is the roadmap to a successful first draft as it’s the blueprint for the script.  The treatment will serve as lifeline when you’re deep in the trenches trying to finish your script to meet a deadline. It’s varies in length and detail, sometimes with dialogue and can range from one to fifty pages in length.  I once crafted a step outline that was my most extensive to date at thirty pages long.  Everything in that document was in full detail and left nothing for anyone reading to wonder: “I don’t understand.”  It was clearly planned out and solid. I’ve also written scripts from treatments as little as two pages in length and some up to fifteen pages.

I’ve worked on beat sheets, a less detailed outline that presents the major dramatic beats of the story and step outlines, a slightly more detailed version that focuses less on the details and more on the story.  It’s basically a list of the scenes in order and gives an overview of the movie. A treatment is a tremendous guide to writing the script and filling the blank pages.  It’s your road map to speed the process of writing because you’ve already worked out the aspects of story and character before you start pages.

As I’ve mentioned with my latest assignment adventure, the treatment itself usually goes through many rewrites before the producers lock it down.  In a perfect world, everyone will be on the same page with regards to the story and tone of the script. You also need to work out if the motivations track and the deep enriching character stuff before you begin any pages.

IMG_1767A fellow screenwriter friend always tells me he doesn’t like to work from a detailed treatment because he feels it stifles his spontaneity as he writes pages.  His method is using a loosely structured beat sheet and he fills in the blanks as he writes. Usually he gets into trouble when he enters that barren wasteland called “ACT TWO” and has no idea how to get through those pages that will lead him into ACT THREE… good luck, my friend!

Different writers use different methods, but I’ve never gone astray writing the script from my detailed treatment.  I always find plenty of creative breathing room and spontaneity even when working from a detailed treatment.  I still have to write the scene and let the characters interact, but I’ve already figured out the reason for the scene so it allows me to play within the story’s parameters and create ideas not listed in the treatment.  I’ve always found so many good ideas spring from a solid foundation because it’s a creative framework and suddenly one idea begets another, and so on. Much easier to plan the script before you get into the middle and realize that you have missed so much.

Treatments, beat sheets and step outlines are an important process that prepare you to write the script.  If you’re getting paid as a professional writer for a script assignment, it’s standard practice the producer or executive will require you in the contract to create one of these structured documents before they’ll allow you to start the script.  Writing an extensive treatment is similar to doing a pre-draft of your script.  It gives you the chance to explore your story and get to know your characters before you set out on a journey of a hundred pages with them.  If you embrace the treatment process and craft a solid framework for your story, it will help serve as your roadmap to a successful first draft.

Keep writing and keep the faith!

Scriptcat out!

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This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling

“Most writers can’t tell at the premise stage whether they’ve got a good story because they don’t have the training to see the deep structural problems in the idea before writing it as a script.”—John Truby

Most directors do not want to rewrite the script. They have more pressing commitments on the sound stage. The writer’s best insurance against a rewrite is to have an understanding of the directorial problems. Write a scene that can’t be played, no matter how beautiful the words or thoughts, is begging for a revamp.”—Jerry Lewis

“One of the things that young writers falsely hope exists is inspiration. A lot of young writers fail because they aren’t putting in the hours. I had a great, great editor, Hiram Haydn, who had many children and was a novelist. Toward the last years of his career, the only time he could write was Sunday morning. He would write four hours every Sunday morning. And he would get books done. It would take him years, but I think it’s crucial that we have some kind of rhythm. Whether you can write all day every day, or whether you can write four hours on Sundays, whatever it is, you have to protect that time.”—William Goldman

First drafts—how long should they take?

June 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

write onI get asked this question from many beginning screenwriters: “How long should a first draft take?”  If you’ve been screenwriting for a while, you’ll be able to estimate how fast you can write a first draft of a screenplay. That’s important because when you start working professionally, you will need to work under a contracted deadline and deliver the goods on time at the top of your game. This is why I recommend that beginning screenwriters to always set their own realistic writing schedules when writing their specs so they’ll be training for the day when a professional opportunity arrives.

You may labor over your spec for six months or longer because there is no deadline and your life keeps getting in the way.  Once screenwriting becomes your job, and it is a job, you’ll need to have the stamina and focus to write six or more hours per day to meet a deadline. If you haven’t already, you need to set up a regular, uninterrupted writing schedule and protect it at all costs. If the forces of interruption get in the way, you’re productivity and success will be severely hampered.  An important element in writing is consistency and if you skip one day, and then two, you’ll find yourself losing the vital focus to keep your script on track. As you’ve probably found out already, there is always something else to do then write. It’s important to finish out a day writing, no matter the page count, and get right back to it the next day while it’s fresh in your mind. This builds consistency and a regular schedule.

If you’re working under a WGA union contract, the minimum time for a first draft is usually twelve weeks. You can guarantee the producer or executive will start calling your agent or manager in about four weeks, sniffing around to see how you are progressing. In my contract for my recent screenwriting assignment that I completed a few weeks ago, I agreed to a four week schedule to turn in my first draft. I completed the script in 25 days and turned in my 105 page script early. It wasn’t impossible because I was working from a solid story treatment that I crafted and it was authorized by the producer and production company. I’ve also worked under a contract that allowed eight weeks for a first draft. When you’re working on assignment jobs, producers will not allow you to start the script until the story treatment or step outline is completely fleshed out. This way your screenwriting will be a breeze as you have a solid road map to follow. It’s such a creative high when you complete a solid day of writing and leave it where you can’t wait to get up the next morning and start again.

My fastest time for writing a first draft was twenty days. That was five pages a day, every day to get the job done. When I finish early, I go over the script again by myself for a polish before I turn it in to the producer. I believe too much time can harm the process because every project has a deadline, otherwise nothing would get into development or be produced. You should work on your spec story treatment for a longer time, because about seventy-five percent of the work should go into the story development of the script. The script itself?  I think two months would be a huge amount of time. If you’re working six to eight hours a day, you should be able to write five or more pages on a normal day. You also have to remain fluid because you never know how the experience will develop and every time out it’s different. I once had to write 26 pages in 24 hours because the German investors were coming into town!

If you want to eventually work professionally, as I’m sure is your goal, you will need to work efficiently under a deadline, and at the best of your ability. It’s basically working quickly at the best of your creativity on a schedule and under a deadline. The only way to get to this place is to always set your own deadlines and meet them every time with your spec screenplays. If you’re not practicing this writing schedule now, I’d suggest starting it on your next project.

Keep filling your blank pages and keep the faith.

Scriptcat out!

Did you just complete your latest screenplay and need in-depth consultation? Check out my services by clicking on the blue icon below for more information and the link to my website.

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“Mark Sanderson gives fantastic advice on surviving Hollywood as a working writer.” —Script Magazine                                                                                                                  
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“One of the things that young writers falsely hope exists is inspiration. A lot of young writers fail because they aren’t putting in the hours. Whether you can write all day every day, or whether you can write four hours on Sundays, whatever it is, you have to protect that time.”—William Goldman

“… a basic “must” for every writer: A simple solitude—physical & mental.”—Rod Serling

“Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”—Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson

This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling

More Quotes for screenwrites

Communiqué from the front lines: Following disciplines to stay on target…

June 8, 2014 § 3 Comments

completing a scriptIt’s nice being back in the swing of things—having just completed the first draft of my twenty-seventh feature-length screenplay. It’s a movie for television and my twelfth paid screenwriting assignment of my career.  The longer you write you will find that every screenplay has its unique set of issues—pleasant and unpleasant surprises and continued learning experiences so you must remain fluid at all times during the adventure. Also every new working relationship with your producer or executive will be different and bring its own set of unique issues. This time around for me was an enjoyable experience.

The life of a working screenwriter is not the romanticized ideal life you may read about with fame and fortune—it’s a job and nice work when you can get it. Once the producer or executive unleashes you, it can be a bit lonely because it’s just you and the blank page until it’s done.  Strict disciplines are vital during this period because the pressure is on to deliver the goods under a specific deadline.  When the production company signed off on the treatment after a development process, it was my job to craft a screenplay that went beyond the story treatment and became the movie they wanted to make. As always, my trusty entertainment lawyer negotiated my contract and it was a relatively quick and painless experience followed by signatures and getting the green light to go to work.

The producer required me to craft a solid story treatment before I could go to pages.  This is a standard requirement from almost all producers or production companies. It’s understandable as they want to know where you will be going with the script and they do not want any surprises when you turn it in.  It also helps you to stay on target with regards to the story and your deadline.  I completed the first draft in twenty-five straight days (a few days early from my four-week requirement) and it was only possible because of my solid ten page story treatment. The screenplay should be a relative breeze to write if you’ve crafted a solid story in your treatment to follow. Again, protecting your precious writing time is also vital to the process. The forces of procrastination know when you’re writing and they will do their best to seduce you to clean the house or surf the net.

Once they accepted the treatment and it was locked, I was given the green light to start the script. Even after twenty-seven screenplays, I still get the jitters and that nervous stomach facing the blank page. It’s a blank slate and I always expect it to turn out great, but you never know until you type FADE OUT – THE END and wait for notes. No matter credits or experience, we’re all equal when we sit in front of that blank page and channel the muse.  If you think you’re bigger or better than your craft you will be humbled.  I guarantee it.  That is why I respect the process every time up to the plate because I know too well the pitfalls and roadblocks that can spring up during the adventure. And trust me, you don’t want your back up against the wall when you’re working under a contracted deadline and your reputation that got you the gig is at stake.  You must do everything possible to clear the decks and make your process work for you by following your trustworthy disciplines and using your screenwriting tools kept in your toolkit.

time warp in Hollywood

This time out, much to my dismay, I discovered that my writing schedule was a bit off.  I of course figured out my daily page count to see how much I needed to write every day if I was to make the four-week contracted deadline to turn in my first draft.  That averaged out five pages a day—not impossible and my usual clip when I’m up and running.  But, this time I stumbled a bit out of the gate and the first few days were not great. I recall the first day only writing two pages.  Okay.  No worries.  I’m settling in, right?  Day two was only three pages.  Okay, stay on target.  Seven days into the adventure, I found myself on page seventeen and now I started calculating how many days I was behind—seven days in my target is page thirty-five and I’m not there…I’m three days behind… okay, deep breaths and focus… and as you can see, this can become a vicious circle if you fall too far behind.

Okay, I didn’t panic, but utilized my experience and disciplines to fall back on and this allowed me to stay on target regardless of page count and catch up in a matter of days.  I knew that I had to wake up every day and attack this project because it’s my job. Slowly, three days behind became one day ahead of schedule.  This is the necessary training many aspirants are not doing by setting up their own deadlines and sticking to them.  Many believe it will be a leisurely breeze once they score an assignment—the same cool breeze it was for years writing their specs.  Once in the real working world, that belief will get writers in deep trouble when suddenly they wake up and find themselves twenty pages behind as their deadline looms.

rewritingAs far as writing schedule, I found the mornings getting away from me and after reading news websites, taking care of my e-mails, Tweets, other social media, the odd phone calls, it was suddenly mid-afternoon and I would start writing.  This went on for the first four days and I started to panic. This type of schedule would require me to work until at least midnight and sometimes into the wee small hours of the morning. My usual writing schedule was always starting work at around 10 AM and working until about 6 PM. The usual time required to write a feature-length script in four weeks.  So, instead of fighting against it every day, I just accepted the fact that maybe this twenty-seventh time up to the plate, my writing schedule would start in the mid-afternoon and go into the night—so be it.  As long as the pages get done, no one cares how or when you write.

As I mentioned before, the more screenplays you write, you’ll discover that each experience is unique and this was no exception.  I started hitting my stride about page forty-five and couldn’t wait until the next day to continue channeling my characters. The best comment I’ve received back so far about the script from the producer was that I nailed the characters and really had their voice down.  That made me feel good because I was feeling that during the writing.  These characters really came alive and the drama and conflict really allowed me to explore their relationships and keep pushing the story forward.

Mission accomplished as I turned in the screenplay this week and await any notes to push it closer to a production date later this year.  Again, if you do score an assignment gig, do everything possible to make your process work for you by following your trustworthy disciplines and using your screenwriting tools kept in your toolkit.  It’s go time and what every screenwriter has dreamed of—getting paid to write and getting a movie made.  It’s still a creative high and feeling of accomplishment when I finish a new screenplay. This one is no different and I look forward to starting my next assignment sometime in the near future.

Keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages.

Scriptcat out!

Did you just finish your latest screenplay and need in-depth consultation?  Check out my services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website and more information.  You never get a second change to make a first great impression with your screenplay. Make the time to get it right.

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“Luck is a prepared screenwriter who meets an opportunity and delivers the goods.”—Scriptcat

“It is no small feat to get a movie made, on any subject, on any screen.” — JJ Abrams

Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”—William Falukner

“One of the things that young writers falsely hope exists is inspiration. A lot of young writers fail because they aren’t putting in the hours. Whether you can write all day every day, or whether you can write four hours on Sundays, whatever it is, you have to protect that time.”—William Goldman

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu

“… a basic “must” for every writer: A simple solitude—physical & mental.”—Rod Serling

script fight

 

 

What’s your idea of “making it” as a screenwriter?

May 22, 2014 § 2 Comments

spotlightsSure, everyone wants to be on the A-list at the top levels of Hollywood. It that realistic?  Who knows?  You have to shoot your dreams to the moon to even reach half way there, but know that Hollywood is a tough business to achieve any level of success.  Your idea of success can’t always be about making a big sale or climbing to the A-list overnight. You won’t survive over the long haul journey if you have an “all or nothing at all” attitude. I’ve known people who would only consider themselves a success if they became an A-list talent. It wasn’t worth the tremendous effort to them to end up only making a living at their craft and not being on top. They only wanted to be superstars and nothing less. When I was pre-teen kid and making films with my friends, I only ever wanted to make a living getting paid to do what I loved to do—make movies. I’m happy waking up in the morning and getting paid to be creative.  That’s my dream come true.

And the longer you’re in the film business with its ups and downs and busy and slow periods, you may change your opinion as to what “making it” is in your mind.  Very few achieve the very top of any field. Shoot for the moon, but it’s not such a bad thing to get paid to do what you love for a living too.

Don’t take any successful step forward for granted because what might appear to be a tiny step forward can actually be a huge successful step in disguise. If you can get your material to assistants for consideration, it’s a new opportunity for you to plant your flag and hold new ground if they like your writing. If they pass on your script but like your writing it might feel like a failure now, but it’s something that will pay off down the road. It’s a little success and positive step forward to celebrate. Even a tiny step like meeting an assistant and keeping in touch as a new contact is a successful step.

Back in the day when I was shopping my spec around Hollywood and getting rejected at every turn, I met an assistant through a mutual contact and that assistant got his boss interested in my spec enough to option and later buy it and produce it into a movie. The assistant went on to become the president of the production company and hired me to write movies for them and later became an independent producer and hired me again for more assignment work. You never know where the tiny successes will lead, but they do add up and help you establish your experience and eventually a career.

Before I was blessed to be a working screenwriter, I entered my fifth spec script in various screenwriting contests and it ended up being a semi-finalist in the Nicholl Fellowship that year. It placed in the top 3% of all entries worldwide and was in the top twenty scripts overall, but did not end up as one of the eight finalists. I could have looked upon this as a complete failure, but I used my script’s advanced placement as a successful step forward and convinced producers to read it because of my achievement. I eventually found a producer who saw my script’s potential and his new production company bought my project and produced it into a movie.

Be aware of your negative thoughts about your self-worth as it relates to your screenwriting success or failure. The more negative thoughts you have, the more it becomes an emotion and then it’s hard to separate your thoughts from your emotions. You can actually start to believe a reality that isn’t true. Many times it’s not always about the sale or the immediate final result of a project. A rejection or “pass” now can actually be an open door later and another project because they like your writing and want to see more of your material. What seemed like a failure at first might really be a successful step because you started a new relationship with a producer or executive and now their door is open to you. This is why you must work on your next project because the key to a successful career is building these relationships with a solid body of material. Don’t be depressed when your script doesn’t sell the first time out because most aspiring screenwriters rarely sell their first screenplays.

Scriptcat out!

Did you just complete your latest screenplay and need in-depth consultation? Check out my services by clicking on the blue icon below for more information and the link to my website.

Screenplay consultation services

“It is no small feat to get a movie made, on any subject, on any screen.” — JJ Abrams

“Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed.  It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye.  Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work.  In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

“Always dream and shoot higher than you know you can do. Don’t bother just to be better than your contemporaries or predecessors. Try to be better than yourself.”—William Falukner

“Ultimately, we all have to decide for ourselves what constitutes failure. But the world is quite eager to give you a set of criteria if you let it. [F]ailure means a stripping away of the inessential. I stopped pretending to myself to be anything other than what I was, and began to direct all my energy into finishing the only work that mattered to me. Had I really succeeded at anything else, I might never have found the determination to succeed in the one arena where I believe I truly belonged. [R]ock bottom became the solid foundation on which I built my life.” ~ J.K. Rowling

 

 

 

 

How many screenplays will it take?

May 15, 2014 § 3 Comments

script oddsScreenwriting aspirants always ask how many scripts will it take to sell one?  If anyone gives you that answer they don’t know what they’re talking about. It’s different for every writer and every journey is unique. Rarely does a screenwriter sell a first script… or a second or a third. Sure it can happen, but it’s like winning the lottery. If you continue to write a better and better screenplay, the early ones will serve their purpose as good training until you start writing at a professional level and move to a different plateau.

When I graduated from film school, my sole focus was the same as my fellow aspiring scribes—to write and sell our original spec screenplays—for truckloads of money.  Anyone could write a spec screenplay and this was the era when Hollywood didn’t hesitate to spend a million bucks just to take a spec script off the market.  These were good times and it’s nice work if you can get it.  I knew a few who did with mid-six to seven-figure paydays.  The rest of us slogged through spec after spec hoping to make some noise and get lucky with our first screenplay sale. Hollywood has changed dramatically as well as the global marketplace.

The longer you’re in the screenwriting game you’ll have to accept the harsh reality that many scripts that you write will not move into production. In fact, even if a producer or studio buys your script and it goes into the next stop of development, there is no guarantee it will make it to production.  This is especially true if you move into screening assignment work—the bread and butter of a working screenwriter.

I just completed the first draft of my 12th screenplay assignment job and I await notes from the producers. This script was my 27th feature-length screenplay since my first spec in college. I’ve had five films produced from my assignment work and one spec produced. The rest of the assignment scripts are stuck in “development” —but at least I was paid to write them all.

One assignment screenplay that hasn’t been produced yet recently came to life after four years on the shelf as the production company is now actively looking for financing. That’s good news.  No project is ever dead, but the reality is that so much is out of your control that you need a large volume of work to make sure even a few slip through for even a shot at production. Some scripts will make it across the finish line and be produced, others will stumble out of the gate and never be more than a writing experience, others will get stuck in development hell. That’s the hard reality. Accept it now and you’ll survive to write another day in the trenches.

My first “official” spec in film school was a comedy and looking back it wasn’t very good—but my professor picked it to be in the film school’s screenwriting library for other writers to read as a solid example of a script. I had written shorter scripts since I was eleven years old when I was making my own films and even through college the short scripts were never as long as a feature.

spec scriptsIt wasn’t until my fourth feature-length spec that I started to make some noise.  It was a big-budget action movie co-written with my friend who was the personal assistant/driver to the biggest action producer in Hollywood.  While the producer was in Europe shooting a mega-budget film with an “A list” star, my friend’s job was to man the production company’s offices for when they called and needed something from the European set. We decided to properly use our writing time and meet in the offices on the Warner Brothers lot at night and write through until the morning.  I would work at night as a waiter and when I got off from my shift, I’d drive over to the studio, the guard would let me through the gate, and I would meet my friend in the production company’s offices and we would write all night until the morning.

Those were long nights working on the script, but the offices had a complete kitchen stocked with food, so we ate our fill and made coffee to fuel the writing.  The studio guard would stop by a few times during the night and ask us “how things were going.”  It was a blast driving to Warner Brothers studios every night to write our own big budget spec. We even sat at the producer’s desk in his office and behind the desk on a shelf were the leather-bound script copies of some of the most successful action movies in Hollywood.  That fueled our passion to complete our script and get it to my writing partner’s boss when he came back from Europe.

My writing partner pitched the movie one night to his boss the producer at a read light when he was driving him to a nightclub. His comment was, “Big movie, expensive movie.”  Nothing ever materialized with his boss, but we soldiered on.  After several drafts, we garnered the interest from a big A list movie star at the time and took a meeting with him at this production offices.  He was considering three action scripts and ours was one of them. We even met with his agent at CAA about the script but unfortunately, we didn’t have representation at the time and were out winging it by ourselves.  Looking back, the concept of our script was strong, but the writing could have been better.  No regrets.  You can only be as good of a writer as you are at this moment in time—no better or worse.  You only become a better writer by writing and continuing to learn and grow.  Experience takes time, hard work and unwavering determination.

It wasn’t until my fifth spec that moved me farther along on the field— it nearly won the Nicholl Fellowship at the Academy and placed in the top 3% (a top 20 script) out of thousands. That was good enough to get producers and agents to read my script. Eventually, it found a producer and a new production company that wanted to make my movie.  That was six years out of film school when I received my first option on that script.  The options continued, renewed with payments every six months until 18 months later the production company executed the option and they purchased my script. It took a year after that to actually go into production. A long, long process. You never know the journey of every script that you write.

Also ask yourself the honest and hard question: WHY am I writing the story of my latest spec? Is it to chase marketplace trends? Forget it. The films this summer were written over a year ago and might have been in development for years before. Next summer’s films are moving into production now, so you can never follow “trends.”  That’s not to say don’t pay attention to what is being produced and if you decided to write the little story of your grandmother’s first date with your grandfather, don’t be surprised if it’s a hard sell and might take years to find a producer interested—if ever.  My belief is that you should never just write a spec without first knowing how it will benefit your overall career goals. A spec for spec’s sake is a waste of time.

  • Specs burn time.  Precious time with the hopes the script will move your career forward by selling, getting you meetings, or assignment work.  It’s always a necessary gamble, but know the thankless lack of rewards a poorly executed spec could offer.
  • Ideas are constantly floating around in the ether.  You can spend a tremendous amount of time on your spec, only to find out a very similar idea is in development or production.   Storytelling though the ages breaks down into seven basic plots using Aristotle’s Six Elements of Drama.  So, considering screenwriters register 50,000 ideas/scripts with the WGA every year, the odds your spec is similar to another is pretty good.  It’s hard to compete if you don’t have a track record of credits and your competition has big name talent attached. Trust me it sucks to find out your precious spec will never move forward because someone else beat you to production.
  • If your spec is similar to a movie that did not do well at the box office—Hollywood will avoid it completely. Who wants to sink money into an idea that filed? Nobody.
  • Is your spec even a good idea for a movie?  A half-baked idea will undermine any potential for a spec to succeed no matter how well you write it. Many aspirants always say, “But I have a great idea for a movie.” Uh-huh. Think hard before you write that spec.
  • You may have poorly executed your spec and nothing can save a bad spec from being a doorstop or thrown into the recycling dumpster. It’s all about the execution. Don’t fool yourself—Hollywood is filled with great ideas—it’s the development process and poor execution that kills many great original screenplays. Their dismantled as the drafts continue and more producers and executives put their imprint upon it and ruin it.

You may write a half-dozen specs that don’t sell before one of them secures you an assignment job from a producer or studio.  Keep writing and finding your unique voice, keep mastering your craft, and really think about why you are writing your spec. What you write about is as important as how you write it.   You never know the perils that await you on your pathway to success, but the road is definitely paved with your spec screenplays—it just might take a half-dozen or more.

Keep filling your blank pages and keep the faith!

Scriptcat out!

If you just completed your new screenplay and need in-depth consultation check out my services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website and more information.

Screenplay consultation services

 

Check out the first thirteen minutes for free of my new webinar where I ask the first important question: “Do You Have What it Takes to Become a Working Screenwriter?”  It’s a way to check in and ask yourself the hard and honest questions about your career aspirations. Click on icon below for link to free video:

checklist

This is, if not a lifetime process, it’s awfully close to it. The writer broadens, becomes deeper, becomes more observant, becomes more tempered, becomes much wiser over a period time passing. It is not something that is injected into him by a needle. It is not something that comes on a wave of flashing, explosive light one night and say, ‘Huzzah! Eureka! I’ve got it!’ and then proceeds to write the great American novel in eleven days. It doesn’t work that way. It’s a long, tedious, tough, frustrating process, but never, ever be put aside by the fact that it’s hard.”—Rod Serling

“Most writers can’t tell at the premise stage whether they’ve got a good story because they don’t have the training to see the deep structural problems in the idea before writing it as a script.”—John Truby

“Luck is a prepared screenwriter who meets an opportunity and delivers the goods.”—Scriptcat

“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu

Yes, aspirants… you will need to spend money on your career…

May 11, 2014 § 2 Comments

treatmentAs you pursue a career as a professional screenwriter in Hollywood you will discover the harsh reality that many aspects of a career are out of your control. You can’t control if an agent or manager likes your material enough to sign you as a client. You can’t control if your screenplay will sell and even if they buy it, there is no guarantee of production as it might die in development hell or never get financed. Even if you have a film produced, you can’t control if it will be a success or failure. Instead of worrying what you can’t control, a better use of your energy is focusing on what is what you can do like writing every day and becoming a master screenwriter.

One important decision within your control is being willing to spend money on building your career. I find too many aspirants reluctant to pay for software, books, workshops, webinars, seminars, script consultants or anything else that costs money to learn their craft. How important is your career to you? If it’s not important enough to spend money on learning your craft you shouldn’t waste your time pursing a screenwriting career. You’ll end up failing and blame everyone else but yourself. Any career pursuit will cost money and time and you need to spend both for a shot at any chance of success. Yes there are positive steps you can take that do not cost money, but will cost you something else that is even more precious—your time.  You can find a professional screenwriter or filmmaker and mentor under them to learn.

Of course you should spend your money wisely.  I’ve never been a fan either of “paying to pitch.” It reminds me of the “pay to play” clubs on Sunset Strip in Hollywood where anyone’s band can play for a price.  That’s okay, but in Hollywood, you want producers or executives to listen to you BECAUSE they are interested in your idea—not solely because you are paying them to listen and paying for a meeting.  And professional agents and managers will never ask you to pay them to send out your script. They only collect their commission when they help push a deal through and then—and only then will collect their fee.  Walk away from any producer, agent, manager or executive who asks you for money to help move your script along.  They are bottom feeders—avoid them at every turn.  Think about it, you’ve paid already with your most precious commodity when writing your script on spec—your time.

the long journey of a screenwriterIf you think you can “go it alone” and have your friends and family give you notes on your screenplays—or you can save money by using “free software” and never have to buy a book, a script, take a workshop or attend a class—good luck. One of my biggest expenditures in the pursuit of a filmmaking career was paying for college and attending film school. And over the years money has been spent on computers, software upgrades, books, movies, more books, workshops etc. and it tapers off when you land work as a screenwriter and you’re too busy as you have moved to professional status. BUT—spending the money doesn’t end once you become a professional either. You’re always doing something to learn and further your knowledge and experience.

I’m not saying that it’s a necessity to attend film school, but I’m trying to point out that you will need to spend money to have access and further your career as you study and become a better screenwriter. It’s more of an attitude than anything else. Yes, professionals who teach workshops want and need to be paid for their time like anyone else. Everyone’s time is precious. So, those who complain about why professionals charge money for consultation/reading scripts or offering workshops—it’s because they’re sharing valuable experience and their time is valuable as well.

Another pet peeve of mine is dealing with aspirants who don’t want to invest the money in professional screenwriting software recognized by the film industry. This is a blatant disrespect of the craft and immediately shows me they’re not serious about their career. Buy the proper screenwriting software and never use something that you formatted yourself. I recently turned down a script consultation job from a screenwriter who told me that she formatted her script in Microsoft Word and I told her use the money she would have paid me to buy the proper screenwriting software. After graduating from film school my first and only screenwriting software purchase was Final Draft and I’ve used it and loved it ever since. There are other good screenwriting software programs on the market of course, but do your research to see what best suits you before you spend the money. Also remember that screenwriting software is a business expense that you can write off on your yearly taxes.

BoulderFlatSpend the money! Don’t be cheap when it comes to your career and your process of learning. Do some websites, script competitions, pitch fests and “consultants” exist for the sole reason of looking to make money off from the huge volume of aspirants trying to get a break in Hollywood?  Sure.  Do some organizations, competitions and consultants who really care about giving back and helping the aspirant exist?  Of course they do. As with anything, you must do your research, check out those who have been vetted and seek their knowledge and help to become a better and more experienced screenwriter.  No, you can’t go it alone.  Your journey will involve many people who you will meet and will share their invaluable knowledge with you—both paid and free. But don’t try to go it alone just to save money.

Now get back to screenwriting and fill your blank pages!

Scriptcat out!

“It is one thing to study war and another to live the warrior’s life.”—Telamon of Arcadia, mercenary, 5th Century B.C.

“Deliberate practice, by its nature, must be hard. When you want to get good at something, how you spend your time practicing is far more important than the amount of time you spend. Regular practice simply isn’t enough. To improve, we must watch ourselves fail, and learn from our mistakes.”—Florida State University’s Anders Ericsson

“… That’s why an artist must be a warrior and, like all warriors, artists over time acquire modesty and humility.  They may, some of them, conduct themselves flamboyantly in public.  But alone with the work they are chase and humble.  They know they are not the source of the creations they bring into being.  They only facilitate.  They carry.  They are the willing and skilled instruments of the gods and goddesses they serve.”—Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

“We all have the tendency to want to take the quickest, easiest path to our goals, but we generally manage to control our impatience; we understand the superior value of getting what we want through hard work. For some people, however, this inveterate lazy streak is far too powerful.”—Robert Greene, “Mastery”

 

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