Consider screenplay contests as just another tool in your arsenal to get noticed—not a guarantee of a career.
July 19, 2017 § 1 Comment
Over the last decade there’s been an explosion of screenwriting contests that dangle the possibility of winning the grand prize and your big chance at exposure to some of the top players in Hollywood. Every year the top contests are filled with thousands of entries all vying for the grand prize. It seems like the more people who pursue a career in screenwriting, the more contests spring up to meet the demand for a chance at exposure. In my opinion there are only a handful of top contests worth the money because they are recognized industry-wide as legitimate and the readers and judges involved are real industry professionals of merit.
The top screenwriting contests are extremely competitive with entries from around the world. If you do win, it’s almost like winning the lottery, but you don’t always have to win the top prize to have it help your career. If you don’t win the top prize and place as a runner-up, it’s better to place in one of the top five industry recognized competitions and not in some unknown smaller contest that doesn’t garner the same credibility. It’s the difference between having your film win some award at a small, unknown festival or placing as a runner-up in Sundance or the NY Film Festival. Even placing in more recognized contests will help to get your script read. Remember—not all contests are equal.
As I’m sure you’ve discovered, every screenplay contest charges an entry fee with some upwards of $50 to $75. This is why you must do your research, read blogs, and find out as much about the contest before you send off your treasured project and hard-earned money. Anyone can start a screenwriting competition with offers of money to the winners and a chance to meet Hollywood insiders. Three months later you receive a form letter that says you didn’t win, but thanks for entering and hopes that you enter again next year. This means nothing. In fact, the rejection can be very unsettling to a writer’s psyche especially when you’ve paid money to enter and placed your trust in the contest only to have no idea who read your script. Did the contest advertise “working professionals in the film industry” as the panel of experts judging the scripts? Did they list these pros? I might take the rejection a little easier if the opinion came from someone respected as a working professional with credits. A mysterious rejection form letter and not knowing who read my script would leave me empty and wondering if it was even read at all.
I was shocked to read an online ad looking for “script readers” to help with a major screenwriting contest. I thought only industry professionals were diligently sorting through these scripts to find the best ones but apparently not. If they are using free readers, anyone with an opinion is reading your script and who knows their qualifications to spot great material. If you want that kind of consideration you can always have your friends read your script (also not a good idea). Some of these contests receive thousands of entries and the more scripts entered, the more they need a small army of readers to sort through the work. It’s your hard-earned money you might be wasting on a second-rate contest, only to get back a form letter telling you, “thanks and please enter again next year.” Ah, the dangling carrot for a shot at success.
Always make sure to read the entry forms very carefully and especially the fine print. Some contests claim rights over your work and some contests are actually companies that produce films and claim rights over the development if you win. Always protect your project by knowing what you are signing and if you don’t like the terms do not enter.
A short time after graduating from UCLA film school, I entered my fifth spec script in few competitions with the dream of winning or even placing. The competition is always fierce and the year I entered the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship there were 3,541 entries worldwide (for 2017 it was 7,102 scripts!). Back in the day, my script made it as far as the semifinals and placed in the top 1% of all entries. I received a call from Greg Beal the coordinator who told me that my script was in the next dozen scripts after the eight who received the fellowship. My script placed in the top twenty out the thousands of entries and he gave me notes and suggested that I enter again the following year.
It was then I really knew I had written something special and worthy of continuing to send out to producers. Amazingly, a year later my script was under option and then purchased thus making me a professional and making too much money to enter again.
I then entered a comedy screenplay in the Chesterfield Writers Film Project created by Paramount Studios and Steven Spielberg where my script placed in the top 50 out of thousands. Again, this was another example to show I was on the right track with my writing. The same script that nearly won the Nicholl was also one of four runners-up in the John Truby Writers Studio screenwriting contest back in the day out of hundreds of entries. I knew something good was brewing with my screenplay and it was just a matter of time to find the right producer. It’s always about timing and having your project find the right home.
At the time, the pedigree of placing in the semifinals of the Nicholl Fellowship helped to bring credibility to my script and it got me read by agents and managers. Many times it made the difference between someone reading and not reading it. Winning the fellowship would have been nice, but I was much happier that my script went on to be produced into a movie and distributed globally. I was now a professional screenwriter and sold my first spec (my fifth overall script written at the time) and it’s what launched my screenwriting assignment career.
What happens if you continue to place in screenplay contests, but you don’t win and can’t seem to use your achievements as a way to further your script’s chances of being read by producers, agents and managers? The reality is there are no guarantees, even if you do win a screenplay contest, but it certainly helps and brings validity to your talents in the eyes of the film business. The reality is that you’ll still have to fight and claw for every inch of forward movement down the field to plant your flag. You might be taking a huge step through the door by winning a screenplay contest, but the key is staying in the game and having a solid body of work to offer and being a workhorse screenwriter. You’ll realize that once you achieve some any type of success, you have to do it again, and again for it to be considered a career.
Look at contests as another tool in your arsenal to some noise, but don’t put all of your hopes and dreams into them. Get out into the world and make those necessary film industry contacts to start getting your work noticed by producers, agents, managers, and executives. Find a way to go directly to the talent if you can like actors, directors, and producers. Always consider creative ways to break through Hollywood’s gates, but don’t keep trying the same methods over and over again if they are returning the same results. That wastes precious time and helps to drive you crazy. If your specs aren’t moving your career forward, consider writing an original TV pilot or creating your own web series as a proof of concept. Think outside the box.
The top screenwriting competitions are a great way to gain much-needed exposure for beginning writers, but don’t look to them as the only way to further your career goals. If you can’t win a contest, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to land representation or your first writing job in Hollywood. Make sure to do your research on the contests, pick the more legitimate ones the industry recognizes, and read the fine print on the entry forms.
As always, keep the faith, your eye on the big picture, and keep filling your blank pages.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
My top suggested screenwriting contests (in no special order):
*The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships (I was in the semi-finals—the top 1%)
*Final Draft Big Break Contest
*Page International Screenwriting Awards
*Disney Writers Fellowship
*Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship
*Sundance Writers Lab
*Warner Brothers Writers Workshop
*Screen Craft’s Screenwriting contests
*BlueCat Screenplay competition
*American Zoetrope (Francis Ford Coppola)
*Slamdance Writers Competition
*Austin Film Festival
“Keep screenwriting and the winner is… YOU!”—Scriptcat
“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
“It’s such an exhausting thing, you know, facing that empty page in the morning.”—Billy Wilder
“For the warrior, there is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’; everyone has the necessary gifts for his particular path.” — Paulo Coelho
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July 5, 2017 § Leave a comment
Screenwriting is usually a solitary endeavor as we primarily sit alone at our keyboards, sometimes late at night, and peck away at our precious screenplays. It can get lonely because a writer must get away from the constant distractions of the day and escape alone into the world of characters on the page. Many times you’ll throw around ideas with a friend and end up saying, “That’s a great idea. Let’s write the script.” Your excitement may cloud your better judgement and cause you not to ask the serious questions before you both sit down and type FADE IN. You have to remember that it’s a creative and business relationship—both writers will sink or swim together. This is why you need a fully engaged partner on your team and not someone who half-asses their way through the experience.
If you’re thinking about working on a project with a screenwriting partner and never had one before, you have to ask yourself some important questions first.
1. Do you both share the same work ethic and seriousness about the craft?
This is vital to the success of your screenplay and your collaboration. You might find that your “writing partner” allows everything else in his or her life to get in the way of your writing time. If both writers are not “on the same page,” it’s going to be a bumpy ride and you’ll waste your time. It’s not fun and games. Time is precious and there are plenty of screenwriters out there who are serious and can the job done.
2. Is this partnership for one project or are you becoming a writing team?
You should have a talk about your situation before you begin. You could work on one screenplay to see how you like or dislike the experience and later decide to go off on your own. Either way, always know each other’s intentions before you start on the journey together.
3. Do you both have the same creative sensibilities?
This is vital to a successful collaboration. If you’re writing a thriller and your writing partner doesn’t know anything about the genre, why are you working together? It’s a team, but you work together as one voice. When agents, mangers, executives, and producers start reading your work, you will have one voice—the team. If you’re doing all of the work, why are you writing with a partner? Each person will have strengths and weaknesses and you both should compliment each other with regards to this.
4. What happens if your project sells? Is your partner willing to collaborate with producers to make changes and execute notes?
You don’t want to finally make it into “the room” and learn that your writing partner is difficult and combative with producers when they want to make changes. This will lose you the job faster than anything else.
5. If you decide to become writing partners on all of your projects, what happens if you don’t sell anything right away? How much time will your partner give to “make it?
This is important because you don’t want to find out that after three screenplays, dozens of meetings, and no writing jobs offered, your partner decides to quit and leaves you dangling alone. The screenplays that you wrote together will become useless for you to show as an example of your talent because producers, agents, or managers will not be able to read your particular “voice” not knowing who contributed what in the script. Now going forward alone, you’ll have to start over and establish yourself as a solo screenwriter. It’s definitely a major blow to your forward movement.
Remember… this is serious. It’s not just fun and games. You must stick to a writing schedule and share everything fifty-fifty—especially the work.
If you decide to become a writing team, you both must also share a bigger vision about where you both see yourselves as business partners. It’s also a business relationship and you both must agree on every decision because it now affects both of your careers and your finances. You’ll both either swim or sink together and during the rough times, you’ll need a partner who will do everything he or she can to save you and back you up as you would do the same.
My overall experience with having a screenwriting partner was very positive, but I’ve heard stories where friendships have ended because egos and the business got in the way. I’ve had a handful of writing partners over the years and together we worked on spec TV pilots and features, but my last and longest writing partner worked with me for nearly eight years. We met working together as waiters in a restaurant — he was an actor with credits and I was a screenwriter who graduated film school and a few feature specs under my belt. We shared the same comedic sensibilities, work ethic, and were both extremely serious about pursuing a career as screenwriters. We were blessed to have crossed paths when we did.
When he asked me to join a brand new sketch comedy troupe, I jumped at the opportunity and it gave me the chance to also become a live performer. It was our invaluable experiences together writing, performing, and producing the live show and subsequent pilot that helped to solidify our writing and business partnership. We also became closer friends as a result.
After our live show ran for many years, we co-wrote and co-produced an independently financed feature film that starred an Academy Award acting nominee and that experience brought our working relationship to an entirely new level. After that successful experience, we both decided that we wanted to focus on writing feature screenplays. We landed a literary manager who then found us an agent at a mid-level agency and we were off to the races. During this period, I also sold a spec script of my own that went into production the following year. But now they sold us to Hollywood as a “writing team” and our handlers constantly sent out our specs and set up dozens of pitch meetings.
As a writing team, we laid the foundation for producers to get to know our work and consider us for writing assignments or rewrites. Our scripts were always “high concept comedies” that were heartfelt and uplifting. This was perfect as the producers we were meeting made those types of movies and wanted to read our scripts. Many times, these producers brought our scripts to the studio level for consideration and we always felt with every positive step forward we moved closer to our big breaks. It always seemed like just one script away.
We knew each other so well that it was like having my other half with me in the pitch meetings. And trust me, I’ve pitched alone and when it goes badly, it’s nice to have your writing partner there to back you up and vice versa. We were mature enough to know our weaknesses and both allowed each other to use our creative strengths to help the overall project. We took all ego out of the creative relationship.
As a team, it felt like family and we were like brothers looking out for each other as family. We always seemed on the same page with regards to the bigger picture. He always had some vivid wild dream and would come to me and pitch it, we’d work it out, and it would become our next project. I’d instantly see it in my mind and we’d structure the story, pitch it to our manager, and then write it. We’d usually complete a spec in a month and take notes from our handlers and quickly execute those notes. They liked that we worked fast and were so productive with multiple solid projects they could inject into the marketplace.
After our live sketch show ended, as a writing team we co-wrote and co-produced a feature film, completed seven feature scripts, took dozens of pitch meetings, and co-wrote and did voices for a Showtime pilot. We had a good run. He eventually decided to start a family, leave the film business, and open three very successful restaurants. I soldiered on alone.
For me personally, I’m so thankful to have had a writing partner during those creative years and I know we had more output together than if I had worked alone. Remember that when managers and agents send you out, you will be a writing team and from then on it will be difficult for you to work on your own as well. If you become successful and hook a writing job together, they will want the writing team and no just you alone. At the time, I recall my manager not really wanting to push my solo projects, as I was part of a writing team now and that was her focus.
If your writing partner is a friend and your business relationship goes sour, you could lose your friend and the project in the process. What if your partner decides to go another direction and quit the writing team because you aren’t selling anything? What if your partner hates to execute notes and doesn’t get along with producers? Be sure about the person you decide to include in your own career path. Also remember that any money you make will be split between you as well. That big $100,000 script sale really means $50,000 each minus agent, manager, lawyer, and taxes. It’s half the work, but also half the money.
A writing partner needs to be the right fit for the long haul because the team’s every success and failure will affect both of your careers. Like any relationship, it’s a give and take, so you have to seriously weigh the pros and cons of having a writing partner or choosing to go it alone. Choose wisely my friends.
Here’s a classic example of writing partners not working out from ‘Billy Wilder: The Art of Screenwriting No. 1’. Interviewed by James Linville in The Paris Review, 1996.
I understand your collaboration with Raymond Chandler was more difficult?
Yes. Chandler had never been inside a studio. He was writing for one of the hard-boiled serial magazines, The Black Mask—the original pulp fiction—and he’d been stringing tennis rackets to make ends meet. Just before then, James M. Cain had written The Postman Always Rings Twice, and then a similar story, Double Indemnity, which was serialized in three or four installments in the late Liberty magazine.
Paramount bought Double Indemnity, and I was eager to work with Cain, but he was tied up working on a picture at Fox called Western Union. A producer-friend brought me some Chandler stories from The Black Mask. You could see the man had a wonderful eye. I remember two lines from those stories especially: ‘Nothing is emptier than an empty swimming pool.’ The other is when Marlowe goes to Pasadena in the middle of the summer and drops in on a very old man who is sitting in a greenhouse covered in three blankets. He says, ‘Out of his ears grew hair long enough to catch a moth.’ A great eye . . . but then you don’t know if that will work in pictures because the details in writing have to be photographable.
I said to Joe Sistrom, “Let’s give him a try.” Chandler came into the studio, and we gave him the Cain story Double Indemnity to read. He came back the next day: “I read that story. It’s absolute shit!” He hated Cain because of Cain’s big success with The Postman Always Rings Twice.
He said, “Well, I’ll do it anyway. Give me a screenplay so I can familiarize myself with the format. This is Friday. Do you want it a week from Monday?”
Holy shit, we said. We usually took five to six months on a script.
“Don’t worry,” he said. He had no idea that I was not only the director but was supposed to write it with him.
|Double Indemnity (Directed by Billy Wilder)|
He came back in ten days with eighty pages of absolute bullshit. He had some good phrases of dialogue, but they must have given him a script written by someone who wanted to be a director. He’d put in directions for fade-ins, dissolves, all kinds of camera moves to show he’d grasped the technique.
I sat him down and explained we’d have to work together. We always met at nine o’clock, and would quit at about four-thirty. I had to explain a lot to him as we went along, but he was very helpful to me. What we were doing together had real electricity. He was a very, very good writer—but not of scripts.
One morning, I’m sitting there in the office, ten o’clock and no Chandler. Eleven o’clock. At eleven-thirty, I called Joe Sistrom, the producer of Double Indemnity, and asked, “What happened to Chandler?”
“I was going to call you. I just got a letter from him in which he resigns.”
Apparently he had resigned because, while we were sitting in the office with the sun shining through, I had asked him to close the curtains and I had not said please. He accused me of having as many as three martinis at lunch. Furthermore, he wrote that he found it very disconcerting that “Mr. Wilder gets two, three, sometimes even four calls from obviously young girls.”
Naturally. I would take a phone call, three or four minutes, to say, Let’s meet at that restaurant there, or, Let’s go for a drink here. He was about twenty years older than I was, and his wife was older than him, elderly. And I was on the phone with girls! Sex was rampant then, but I was just looking out for myself. Later, in a biography he said all sorts of nasty things about me—that I was a Nazi, that I was uncooperative and rude, and God knows what. Maybe the antagonism even helped. He was a peculiar guy, but I was very glad to have worked with him.
Copyright 2017 written by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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“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”
“Writing is very hard work, and having done both writing and directing, I can tell you that directing is a pleasure and writing is a drag… but writing is just an empty page—you start with absolutely nothing. I think writers are vastly underrated and underpaid. It’s totally impossible, thought, for a mediocre director to completely screw up a great script.”— director Billy Wilder
You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.”—Ernest Hemingway
“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
“Life in the movie business is like the beginning of a new love affair. It’s full of surprises and you’re constantly getting fucked.”—David Mamet
“The time we have alone; the time we have in walking; the time we have in riding a bicycle; are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.”—Ray Bradbury
June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
The big three... criticism, rejection, and failure. How have you been dealing with them? Do you bristle at every note or suggested change to your screenplay? Are you defensive about your screenwriting? If you start working professionally with this attitude, you will be branded as “difficult” and probably will find it hard to work again. What about rejection? Nobody likes to have their hard work rejected, but let’s face it… it’s a competitive business and that’s why it’s called the “film business.” It’s a business with all of the concerns and planning that any business requires. And how about failure? Who likes to fail? Especially at something we love to do like screenwriting. Failure is the Yin to the Yang of success. You can’t have one without the other, so get used to the ups and downs that a screenwriting career brings.
Screenwriting is a sweat equity task as you write your specs, but it changes to financial equity when you get paid professionally. The only way to become an excellent screenwriter is to take the criticism, rejection, and failure and learn from it. If you stay open and want to grow, you will use these perceived setbacks as opportunities to learn and come back stronger the next time. You’ll have to overcome these hurdles and others if you want to pursue a screenwriting career in Hollywood. As you suffer the blows from responses like “no,” you also will also hear “maybe” and that can lead to a “yes.”
No one said this journey was going to be easy. The 2016 Scoggins Report listed only about 70 specs selling to Hollywood last year. That’s out of the 50,000 or so projects registered with the WGA every year. And don’t forget that half of those WGA writers don’t report any income in any given year. Horrible odds, right? I don’t write this to scare you away from your dream, but to humble you and show you the need for respecting the craft and the journey.
Don’t take criticism personally and realize that it’s part of the process. If you’re going to play in the majors, you’re competing with the best and you must accept that sometimes you won’t find the validation you need. Many times feedback on your script is disappointing and your high expectations become squashed. Your ego’s bruised, beaten to a pulp and you to doubt your talent and chances for success. This is not a business for the thin of skin or anyone who can’t handle the struggles of a screenwriting career.
You can’t think that just because you sit down and write a screenplay that anyone cares. You have to make them care by writing something truly unique and amazing. A screenplay that stands out from the piles of crap that bounce around every year looking for a home. You may be an excellent screenwriter with superb screenplays. Good. That’s the starting point these days. Good isn’t good enough to compete—you have to be excellent and even then you have no guarantee of success. There are about ten thousand other excellent professional screenwriters in the WGA who can also write a superb screenplay. If you add those who are struggling to become a professional, it’s probably tens of thousands of screenwriters. It’s your job to build your connections, keep writing, always have a game plan, and fight to secure that first job or your next.
When you start working professionally, it’s all about executing the notes. Don’t take the criticism personally, because feedback is a rite of passage necessary for the growth of any aspiring screenwriter. If you want to survive over the long haul of a career, you’ll need to toughen up and build your courage to endure disappointment criticism, rejection, and failure. Learn how to filter the good notes from the bad and ugly notes. As you embrace this process, you’ll begin to look at constructive feedback as a positive experience that helps make your script better, helps push it closer to something a producer wants to produce, and teaches you how to collaborate as a team player so you can work again.
That’s always been my goal—to work professionally and get paid for something I love to do. I’ve been blessed to achieve my goal seventeen times with paid assignments and one spec sale. It hasn’t been easy, but I learned early on that criticism comes with the job. Hell, my spec sale screenplay was rejected by the most powerful agency in Hollywood at the time, but it went on to find the right producer who made the film that starred an Academy Award nominated actor. You never know. Get a handle on the criticism, rejection, and failure because if they stop you from writing and you give up, you’ll never know just how close you came from a break that opened the door to success.
Keep on writing and detach from your work. It makes the journey much easier over the long haul.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE.
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“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen”—Joseph Campbell
“Screenwriting is such a very special branch of literature. In some ways, it’s closer to the poetic form than it is to the dramatic. A lot of writers think that they write down to an audience if they do a motion-picture script.”—John Huston
“When I first meet with the scriptwriter, I ask him what is the story about—what do you see—what was your intention?”—Sidney Lumet
“There are two kinds of scenes: Pet the Dog Scene & Kick the Dog scene. The studio always wants a “Pet the Dog” scene so everybody can tell who the hero is.”—Paddy Chaydfsky
June 24, 2017 § 2 Comments
It’s time again for a guest blogger here on MY BLANK PAGE! Appearing for his third time with another superb contribution about screenwriting in the trenches… let’s welcome back U.K. screenwriter Niraj Kapur.
“Overcoming the disappointments a screenwriting journey can deliver.”
By Niraj Kapur
In 2012, my movie Naachle London was released in cinemas across England.
Written in 2004, it won a writing award in 2006 and was optioned in 2007. Eventually, I sold it to a producer who changed it from a fun British romantic comedy into a Bollywood Family Drama Musical.
Although I only recognised 30% of the final movie as mine, it was an honour to spend a day on set receiving warm wishes from the cast and crew, attend a red carpet screening in London and have my name on the movie poster and trailer which you can see on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftwUGemp6Jw
I told hundreds of agents and producers about the premiere, convinced that after 20 years of options, commissions, setbacks and “almost making it” I would finally get my big break.
Not a single agent or producer turned up. Not a single job offer came in.
I was devastated.
After months of self-pity, my wife recommended Hollywood, since most of my favourite writers, directors and movies are American.
18 months after hiring an industry screenwriting coach and two script editors, I flew to L.A. to attend conferences and pitching events, armed with two screenplays.
The biggest regret in my career is that I never invested enough in learning, so I re-read the classics — Michael Hauge, Syd Field and Robert McKee, attended valuable classes from Pilar Alessandra, Jen Grisanti, Lee Jessup and pitched managers, agents or producers (MAP) at exciting events like Story Expo, Great American Pitchfest, and Fade In.
I pitched about 80 MAP and got 27 requests.
Eclectic Pictures, producers of Olympus Has Fallen and Lovelace, asked me into the offices after my first event to pitch the team and a deal was in place to buy my action screenplay.
My dreams were coming true.
The screenplay contract could be cancelled within 30 days of signing and on day 28, Eclectic Pictures cancelled due to internal issues.
18 out of 26 MAP didn’t read my scripts, despite me sending thank you cards and waiting several weeks before following up. Months after my emails weren’t returned, I tried phoning.
My calls were not taken. I even heard one producer say, ”Tell him I’m not there”.
The remaining 8 MAP said, “It wasn’t what they’re looking for” which offers no help whatsoever.
Having sacrificed holidays, a big promotion in my 9-5 job, time with my wife and daughter and taking a bank loan and credit cards worth £15,000 (approx. $20,000), I was devastated.
Dorothy Parker once said, “Hollywood is the only place in the world you can die of encouragement”.
The one smart thing I did was form a writing group who have been incredibly supportive. When you get rejected, fellow artists understand you better than anyone else.
Trying to figure out what went wrong, I paid for mentoring sessions through Stage 32 with Circle of Confusion and an executive at Lionsgate. Both were helpful and advised me to stop writing commercial Hollywood movies. Be unique, write something small and personal in England and get recognised that way.
Having spent 3 years learning to write big budget commercial projects and Americanise my language, it was back to basics.
Belfast Son — a father/son drama with a twist and Till Death Do Us Part, a female-driven horror movie are the results from the last 16 months.
I had to swallow a lot of pride, experience discomfort, endure sleepless nights and miss the glorious sunshine of L.A., although this made me a better writer.
My Hollywood career hasn’t worked out the way I planned, however, I didn’t give up on my dreams, I’ve simply changed how I got there.
Of course, let’s see how the industry reacts…
Written by Niraj Kapur
Niraj Kapur worked as a writer-for-hire on several kids shows on British TV with numerous screenplay commissions and options. His first movie Naachle London was released in 2012. Find him online: www.nirajkapur.com
June 20, 2017 § Leave a comment
Summer is finally here! Time for script contests, pitch fests, writing conferences, and a definite change in the weather. I hope you’ve made some noise with your screenplays so far this year and pushed yourself closer to establishing a career. As you know, you’ll need to create a solid body of work to standout in this very competitive marketplace. In addition to this blog, I also offer nuggets of advice on Twitter (@scriptcat) and my screenwriting Youtube Channel . Dig in on this blog, as I’ve written over 200 articles with screenwriting advice, I have a new book available on Amazon called “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success,” and I also broadcast live on PERISCOPE.
Okay, here are three more tips to help you through the summer screenwriting season…
TIP #1 ACT LIKE A PRO—ALWAYS!
This goes without saying — but I’ll say it anyway: Act like a professional even if you’ve never been paid. As a screenwriter, you must consider writing a job, and this helps you to think of yourself as a professional. As with any job, it comes with deadlines, requirements and expectations, so it’s good practice to follow professional disciplines as you prepare for the time when you do get paid to write. If you train yourself to work under a deadline, it’s not a shock when the producer requires you to complete a script by a certain date. It’s no longer the romanticized dream of spending endless time working on your spec to get it just right—it’s “go time” and you’re now playing in the big leagues—exactly where you belong. The producer or executive expects greatness from you and you generally have six to eight weeks to deliver the first draft and its excellence will decide if they keep you on to write a second draft, or fire you. This is not the time for a “vomit draft.” If you start meeting your own deadlines when writing your specs, it will be easier later when they pay you under contract to meet a deadline.
TIP #2 IT’S A LONG JOURNEY. ENJOY THE LITTLE SUCCESSES ALONG THE WAY.
Sometimes, the only nourishment we have in this barren wasteland of screenwriting is our faith and the anchor of the small achievement. No matter how small. Maybe you finished your script? That’s a major achievement. Maybe you finally got a producer to give it a read? That’s another successful achievement. The ingredients of a big success are usually a range of small successes all leading up to that sale or screenwriting job that jump starts a “career.” It’s the little successes that keep us going through the rough times. I know for me personally, what gets me through is seeing results from my forward movement and creating new material. Every screenplay opens up new opportunities. Always be moving forward, even if it’s a few steps at a time. Sure, you’ll stumble and experience failure during your journey, but avoid falling into the self-doubt pit where the darkness of fear overshadows your burning desire to make it as a screenwriter in Hollywood.
TIP #3 YOUR FIRST DRAFT IS DANGEROUSLY IMPORTANT.
Do not fool yourself into thinking your first draft has to be shit or you first need to produce a “vomit” draft. It’s just the opposite—your first draft is extremely important because the DNA of your story and characters lives in this precious first pass. I love this quote from six-time Academy Award nominee screenwriter Ernest Lehman (Sabrina, Sweet Smell of Success, North by Northwest, The Sound of Music, Who’s Afraid of Virgina Wolf?): “Good screenwriting is about carpentry. It’s a juggling of beginnings, middles and endings so they all inevitably seem to be moving correctly together. Your first draft is dangerously important. Don’t ever kid yourself into thinking, “It’s okay, it’s just the first draft.” Beware of that thought, because it’s ten times more difficult to go in a certain direction once you’ve gone in another direction.”—Ernest Lehman. It’s true. I know from experience that it’s difficult to totally rewrite a first draft from page one into something new. Sadly, too many times it ends up becoming a jumbled mess as the foundation of the story is being altered underneath the story. My advice is to make your first draft your best possible work at the time. When writing it, act as if you’ll never get another chance to touch the screenplay. You should use your specs as training to turn out a superb first draft to prepare you for the day when you’re hired on assignment. This pays off in many ways, most importantly when you’re working for a producer and your solid first draft secures the interest of investors, a director, and actors. A solid first draft will also keep you on the assignment and not replaced by another screenwriter. Make sure your screenplay suffers the fewest amount of changes during the development process. Trust me, you don’t want your script to get bogged down in development hell. It’s hard to climb out of that pit and many times projects die a tragic death from too many drafts over a long period of time.
Keep writing and filling your pages because if you stop you’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success. Remember, this is a business with no guarantees even when you do sell a screenplay.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson – originally published on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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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
“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
“If you’re worried about failing, you ought to get into a different business, because statistics will tell you that sixty or seventy percent of the time you’re going to fail. By fail I mean that the movie won’t make money. Just do the best you can every time. And if you’re going to stay in the movies, and you like movies—and I love them—you’d better love them a lot, because it’s going to take all of your time. If you want to be in the movies, it’s going to break your heart.“—Richard Brooks, director of Blackboard Jungle, Sweet Bird of Youth, In Cold Blood, Looking for Mr. Goodbar
“If there ever was one analogy for what a screenwriter must accomplish, it’s this: To create a source of life, to find the bedrock of a given idea, to prevent most of the work from evaporating.”—FX Feeney
June 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
It’s easy to fall victim to the mistakes below as beginning screenwriters navigate their way through Hollywood’s trenches. The key is to realize the journey is not a sprint, but a long haul marathon that may take years to achieve any level of success. On the journey, many pitfalls can harm a writer’s pursuit to establish a career, and you have to be aware of the common mistakes to avoid making them. Here are my “Top 5 Mistakes Beginning Screenwriters Make on Their First Screenplays.”
1.) They are desperate for a career but don’t want to put in the time or work necessary. They underestimate the craft and the competition believing that one screenplay (their first) will jump-start their career. It’s going to take three or four screenplays and many rewrites just to get a handle on the craft and discover a style.
2.) Before they commit to an idea, they don’t consider “why” they are writing their particular story or who is their audience. I’ve heard too many times, “I thought it would be a good idea for a movie.” That’s not a good enough of a reason in today’s marketplace.
3.) They don’t create a solid story treatment or outline before starting to write pages. This comes back to haunt them when they reach the middle of ACT 2 and their story goes off the tracks. Over half of the work should go into the story and that includes the characters, back story, theme, central idea, and plot.
4.) They believe that every screenplay they write is going to sell for a million dollars. The sad truth is that most of what you write is not going to sell. If a script opens a door or secures a job—that’s considered success. A screenwriter usually does not sell only specs during a career. Most working writers thrive on rewrite or assignment jobs.
5.) They eagerly rush through their script and present it to Hollywood before it’s ready. This will harm the project and a writer’s professional reputation. Patience is the key to working a screenplay into a marketable project. Anything less is wasting everyone’s time.
Your attitude and work ethic are equally as important as your talent on the screenwriter’s journey—especially at the beginning. Do your best to avoid the mistakes that can derail any screenwriter’s splendid career plans.
Keep writing and keep the faith.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE.
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“A great book for anyone who ever aspired to become anything; Sanderson reminds us how important it is to have a life passion, how important it is to work hard at it, and how that, in itself, is a victory.” — J. J. Abrams, writer/producer/director
(Mission Impossible III, Star Trek: Into Darkness, Star Wars: The Force Awakens)
“I have known Mark my entire life, and he is absolute living proof of the grit and tenacity it takes to make it as a writer in this business. Take your first steps toward your own career by reading the words of this true fighter.”— Matt Reeves, writer/director
(Cloverfield, Let Me In, Dawn Of The Planet of the Apes, War For The Planet of the Apes)
“Mark’s work as a screenwriting guru is as thorough, as painstaking, and as insightful as his actual screenwriting was on Tides Of War, our submarine drama. As aspiring writers soon learn it’s a complex, changeable, lonely field of endeavor, so Mark provides not only valid professional advice but also meaningful emotional support for all those who stare into the abyss of an empty page. Read Mark, and your keystrokes will accelerate.”
— Brian Trenchard-Smith, producer/director
(Dead End Drive In, BMX Bandits, Drive Hard, and 40 others)
“Starting tonight, every night in your life before you go to sleep, read at least one poem by anyone you choose. Poetry and motion pictures are twins.”—Ray Bradbury
“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
“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
“The well is where your “juice” is. Nobody knows what it is made of, least of all yourself. What you know is if you have it, or you have to wait for it to come back.”—Ernest Hemingway
“Dramatic economy, which includes the ability of a writer to cut what at one point he might have considered to be his best work ever, is one of the most important skills a writer can have. It is learned only through much experience, combined with a ruthless attitude and utter lack of sentimentality.”—Alexander MacKendrick, “Sweet Smell of Success”