How many feature scripts will you write without success until you consider a new direction?

February 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

pile-of-scripts-copy“Specs! We must write and sell feature specs! All specs, all the time! It’s the ONLY way! We’re going to sell feature spec screenplays for huge paydays—like we read about in Variety!” This is what my fellow film school friends and I believed back in the day as we started pursing our dreams. Yes, feature specs are a necessary component to your learning and training as a screenwriter, but you have to put the process in perspective.

So, you want to be a feature screenwriter? How many spec screenplays have you written that are solid samples and can compete in a very crowded marketplace? It will take time to create a solid body of material that properly represents you as a professional. Maybe a few of your specs placed in competitions? Obviously, it’s better to win, but if you placed in the semi-finals or closer it’s worth a mention. Okay, but are you also pursuing agents and managers? Sending out query letters?  Are you networking with assistants and other lower level players who will be your entry into the system? What if you don’t live in Hollywood? It makes it more difficult to have your ear to the ground and meet those people necessary to help with your screenwriting journey.

charlie_chaplin02Did you write a handful of specs… and rewrite them… and rewrite them with various notes from friends, contests, or professional feedback? Are your specs scattered in different genres? Are you building a reputation in a particular genre, or are you spending your time trying to be prolific in multiple genres? Comedy is difficult and some screenwriters are not good at comedy. That’s okay if you figure that out early. It’s not okay if you’re not good at comedy and waste your time writing six specs that end up going nowhere. Other writers are great with action while some might be horrible at horror. You have to find a genre that drives your passion, otherwise you’re scattering yourself thin and you’ll find that it’s hard to be prolific in all genres. And most likely the first spec you sell will dictate the genre you’ll be writing from then on.

Screenplay contests are a great way to judge your writing against hundreds or potentially thousands of other writers—but it’s still a protected bubble. It’s not the “real” world of Hollywood where estimates say around 50,000 projects bounce around yearly. Unless your script wins or places in the top percentage of screenplay contest entries, it doesn’t really mean anything. Sure, it can help you judge your writing if that’s what you need, but is it worth the continual expense year after year? Last year maybe you placed in the top 1,000 and this year you placed in the top 750? What does that actually mean? You’re marching closer to success? If you just write your script better this next pass, you just might place in the top 500 next year? It’s madness and chasing an elusive dragon.

A good friend of mine landed in 3rd place in one of the biggest screenplay contests around, but it did nothing for his career. He didn’t get any press from the contest and never even took a meeting as a result. Even “winning” a contest doesn’t guarantee instant success. Sure, you might receive money and some meetings, but you still have to convince someone to buy your screenplay or hire you to write one. The work never ends with “winning.” It just begins.

smash head in wallRita Mae Brown in her book Sudden Death said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again but expecting different results.” It’s the same as going to the hardware store every day for bread. You hope that someday, they will stock bread and the accusations of your insanity will be proven wrong. Similarly, writing script after script and hoping to sell one could be called insanity. Sure, it’s what screenwriters need to do, but how long are you willing to write feature screenplays without any real evidence of forward movement? Five scripts without a sale or being hired for an assignment? Ten specs? Fifteen? As many as it takes?

A few honest questions:

  1. Are you only writing huge budgeted specs and chasing Hollywood’s ten-pole dreams?
  2. Are you hitting a higher wall every time out?
  3. Are you writing simpler, more indie ideas that are lower budgeted and could actually get made?
  4. Do you have a limit on the number of feature specs you don’t sell when you’ll change direction and write something else—or are you going to continue on the same routine, year after year, without a change or adaptation?
  5. Faith and optimism are necessary, but can you be realistic about the film business, the odds, and if your pursuit of a career is really gaining momentum or not?
  6. Are you willing to consider writing TV pilots, hour and half hour, or a web series on spec in addition?

Time passes fast as you pursue a career and life can get in the way. Writing other mediums could create more opportunities for work. I’ve been blessed that most of my writing work comes from feature-length assignments, so my sole focus was on feature screenplays until about five years ago when I started to craft spec original TV pilots with show bibles. I started to get the hang of the writing for half hour and hour episodic TV and even dabbled writing the first season of an original web series with nine episodes. Later, I turned that web series into an hour pilot. I started to take TV pilot pitch meetings too that opened up  new opportunities. One of my spec comedy TV pilots actually landed me a paid writing assignment with a producer who hired me to write a half hour comedy pilot and the show bible. She asked for a writing sample that was similar in humor to what she wanted, so I gave her my original spec comedy half hour pilot. She loved the writing and my sample got me the job.

It all comes down to cost of time vs. benefit. If you find that feature screenplay writing is taking up all of your time with little to show as a result, maybe writing in another medium could be the answer. You never know when your different works will open new doors that lead to paid work.

Either way, keep writing and getting better. What’s the alternative to not writing? You’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success. At least with a solid body of material you practice your craft and create opportunities—the rest is timing and the right project getting to the right producer.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.

Look for my new book “A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success” coming in March to Amazon.com

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“Take a person like Picasso, you know, who does double profiles and has gone through cubism and God knows what, but he knows every muscle in the human body. If you ask him to draw the figure of a man or a woman, there wouldn’t be a muscle out of place. You’ve got to know your craft in order to express the art.”—Alfred Hitchcock

“What’s unique about screenwriting is that it’s an act of prophecy. The screenwriter is a bit of the Gypsy with a crystal ball. You say, I’m writing this on a page and it’s going to be blown up on a screen so damned big that you believe it, with actors I don’t know if anybody’s going to get, in settings I don’t know where and how they can be done; and it’s going to turn out this way…” You’re guessing. There’s a big of Gypsy in you. An act of prophecy.”—Robert Towne

“Masters and those who display a high level of creative energy are simply people who manage to retain a sizable portion of their childhood spirit despite the pressures and demands of adulthood.”—Robert Greene, “Mastery”

“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

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Does your idea fit into Hollywood’s business model?

February 14, 2017 § Leave a comment

scan4If you’ve ever pitched your ideas to producers and executives, you quickly learn there is a huge difference between art and commerce. It’s a given your ideas must be creative and artistic, but do they fit into the business model of the producer or executive you are pitching? As they listen to your ideas, they will be primarily be thinking if they can take your idea to their bosses, and does their parent studio or network make your kind of movie or series? You need to know this going into the meeting so you don’t waste their time with ideas that are completely off the mark. The same goes for your spec screenplays. It’s a hell of a lot easier to pitch an idea and have it rejected, than working on a script for six months that ends up rejected because of the story. You can easily tweak a pitch, but a screenplay will need to be rewritten. Time passes quickly as you pursue a career. You must learn how to use time efficiently for the biggest result. Don’t toil away on a screenplay that is taking you nowhere. What’s the point?  Move on to another. If you’re writing screenplays that are not selling or opening the necessary doors, maybe it’s time to reconsider what you’re writing. It’s as important as “how” you write it.

rewritesWhen you start screenwriting on assignment, you will be very aware of the difference between “art” and Hollywood. Yes, there is room for artistic merit, but the screenplay has to match the notes from a variety of people above your pay grade. Everyone from the producers, executives, a director, and the buyers. Sure, you probably would have written the screenplay differently as your spec, but you don’t have that luxury now—you are under a contract and a mandate to follow a story treatment that either you created or it was given to you. This is a “work for hire” job and most screenwriters who actually do work for a living do so with screenplay assignment jobs. If that’s a harsh reality for you, remember that you can protect your lofty ideals by staying at your day job and watching other screenwriters live out their dreams.

You also need to know the type of movies or series that were recently picked up or are in development. If you are pitching a movie, make sure it’s not something that is in development or in production especially with a big name talent attached. Your idea will also have a much tougher time to make it through and you’ll waste precious time. Years ago, my then writing partner and I wrote a movie on spec based on a true story. Our manager sent it out only to learn that an “A-list” actor had a similar project set up at a major production company. Apparently, he had always wanted to play this real character and was taking the steps to do just that. Do you think our script moved forward? A script from two unknown writers? No, but the production company actually requested to read our script, probably to see their competition . It didn’t help for our sale and our script quickly became a writing sample.  You can’t win every time out, but you try with solid material.

You also don’t want to pitch ideas that are similar to movies or TV series that did not do well. Imagine you pitch your idea to a company that just had a movie bomb or a series get cancelled and your idea is very close to their last nightmare. I doubt you’ll get another shot with that company as there are plenty of other writers who did their homework and will pitch ideas they need. This is why knowledge is precious currency in Hollywood.

I pitched a producer who has direct openings at two networks. She loved my idea and wants to take me to the networks to pitch, but enlightened me about what each network would look for in my story and where I need to focus on those elements in my pitch. This is invaluable information. An example is that one network is looking for stories to have a “feature movie” feel and a bigger scope but done on a budget. My story needs to have that feel otherwise no matter how good my idea, it won’t be a good fit into their business model and most likely they will pass. You have one shot up to the plate and you’d better do your homework on your potential buyers before you enter the game.

I immediately fixed my pitch to highlight each network’s interest in my particular type of story and will highlight those elements when I go into the meetings. It’s the same story, but now with a bit of tinkering, it fits each network’s mold.   The producer also informed me what parts of my story might be a turn off, so I took out those elements and will be pitching a story that will attract and not detract. There are subtle differences to every producer’s needs and it’s an ebb and flow based on if their last movie or series was a success or failure.

Hollywood producers can be extremely picky about what they buy to develop. Production companies and networks have a very narrow scope of the material they would produce and you must bring them ideas, stories and scripts that fit their business model. Always have your ear to the ground, read the trades, read online entertainment sites, and talk to your contacts because information is king. It can mean the difference between scoring a job or losing out.

pile-of-scripts-copyAs a working writer you constantly need to come up with new ideas and write more scripts even if nothing gets produced. The goal is to keep getting better as a screenwriter. If you’re frustrated that your genius idea is being changed after you sell it… welcome to the film business. You can fight if you want… or you can make the best of the situation and establish a reputation as a team player and collaborator. Your calling cards are your screenplays that can get you in front of the producers and executives to show them you’re the writer they need for that open assignment. The more you write and receive feedback the better you become as a screenwriter. Equally as important, the more you are out pitching and making the necessary contacts, it’s then only a matter of time when you will snag a writing job and start your career as a working screenwriter.

“A.B.W.” – Always be writing! And rewriting!

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE blog.

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“International box office now accounts for nearly 80% of a theatrical release’s total take. If you want to play with the big boys and girls in the studios, you’ll have to write scripts that play to a global audience.”—Scriptcat

Just write every day of your life. Read intensely. Then see what happens. Most of my friends who are put on that diet have very pleasant careers.”—Ray Bradbury

“The motion picture made in Hollywood, if it is to create art at all, must do so within such strangling limitations of subject and treatment that it is a blind wonder it ever achieves any distinction beyond the purely mechanical slickness of a glass and chromium bathroom.” —Raymond Chandler

“If a writer stops observing, he is finished.”—Ernest Hemingway

“… I am interested only in the fact that as a result of it there is no such thing as an art of the screenplay, and there never will be as long as the system lasts, for it is the essence of this system that it seeks to exploit a talent without permitting it the right to be a talent. It cannot be done; you can only destroy the talent, which is exactly what happens – when there is any to destroy.” — Raymond Chandler

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Are your feature specs hitting a wall? Change up your writing to expand your chances of success…

February 12, 2017 § Leave a comment

smash head in wallOnly focusing on one writing medium can be extremely limiting to a screenwriter. It can eventually feel like you’re banging your head against a wall. You write a spec, rewrite it, and hope it’s the “one.” You send it out and it receives some positive feedback, but no sale or assignment job. You write another feature spec and go through the same process again hoping this time it’s what the studios are looking to produce. That spec doesn’t sell or gain momentum, so you start on yet another spec, and chase the same dragon again and again. Yes, specs do sell. I’m proof. I sold a spec and it opened the door to fifteen assignment jobs since. It was spec number five of my journey. Now I’ve completed my 31st script with half of those being paid assignments and half of those being produced.

The odds are astronomical to sell any feature spec especially from an unknown screenwriter with no credits. The Scoggins Spec Market Scorecard for 2016 estimated around 70 specs selling and it was an eight year low for sales. It’s also estimated that 50,000 projects bounce around Hollywood every year. It’s like stepping up to the plate and hoping for a grand slam home run every time out. Difficult at best and impossible most of the time. And the odds become worse to secure any work if a screenwriter cuts out the entire business of television or the web. I don’t mean to discourage you with these odds, but it’s to put a perspective on what you’re actually up against as you pursue a career.

Back in the day when I started pursuing my career, those working in features looked down on television as lowbrow and all of us eager film school grads focused on selling our million-dollar spec like we read about in Variety every week. I went to UCLA Film School and our alum writer/director Shane Black (Ironman 3) had sold a little script he wrote called Lethal Weapon for huge money and then he went on to a $4 million sale with The Long Kiss Goodnight.

Looking back, I should have gotten into television, as I had close friends who were running shows, but alas I focused on features and time marched on.The story of my own personal screenwriting journey? I started screenwriting back in the days when the lines were clearly defined for the mediums—either you wrote features or you wrote television. The feature agents during that period would always say, “I don’t know many people in television.” It was also a time when the networks and studios didn’t blur the lines either between the mediums or talent. A feature film actor would not be caught dead on a TV series as it would be looked as a demotion. If you wrote for both mediums, a rep would make you choose which one you wanted to pursue—but never both at the same time.

pile-of-scripts-copyAfter I graduated film school, I solely focused on writing feature screenplays on spec and my agent (s) at the time only went out to those producers and companies in the feature film world. That was fantastic, but only if you eventually did sell your specs. Otherwise it was like banging your head against a wall each time—taking a few steps forward and then falling on your face, only to go back and do it again and again only to experience the same results. I believe they call that “insanity.”

Thankfully, the business has changed and now writers are free to work in television, features, video games, and the web without being pigeonholed into just one medium. Many agree that television is going through a new golden age where the most interesting ideas and series are causing the big talent in the feature world to take notice and many enjoy doing both features and television.

Many of the biggest Hollywood directors like JJ Abrams, Ridley Scott, Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, Ron Howard and Josh Whedon are now working in television and producing shows. And many of them actually go their start in television, transitioned into features and now are back working in TV. It’s no longer considered a demotion. This is why as a screenwriter trying to break into Hollywood you need to diversify your talents. Don’t just focus on writing features alone. So why keep banging your head against the wall in only one medium where your projects are not selling—for a myriad of reasons beyond your control?

scripts 2You must diversify as a screenwriter if you want to stay in the game over the long haul. Write a web series, write a half hour and hour pilot for television, or write short comedy sketches. I’ve been blessed during my career to get paid to write for all mediums: Indie feature films, TV movies, a web series, a game show, sketch comedy for a live show, and both a half hour and hour pilots for television. Many years ago, I made a decision to write projects in these different mediums and create solid specs that eventually would get me hired for coveted assignment jobs. This has allowed me to work on a regular basis because I have my material out into these worlds—not limiting myself to only the world of feature scripts where the business has changed dramatically. It’s more difficult than ever to sell an original spec given there are fewer films being made and Hollywood’s obsession is producing big-budget tent-poles that are remakes or properties they already own. It’s a huge gamble for a studio to buy a spec from an unproven writer and the idea does not have built-in global audience recognition.

So if you’ve stalled and crapped out with your feature specs, trying to get agents, managers, executives, and producers interested and finding yourself with the same results every time out, maybe you should consider changing your writing medium? It’s important to have writing experience in different mediums because if you happen to go up for a job, you’ll need the experience and a solid sample to represent you. It also opens up more possible places to work. Don’t cut yourself out of the television world or the web.

I had never written a web series before until I met a director and producer who had a fantastic idea and we formed a company to create this new project. I wrote nine episodes of the first season and the project is out to investors. It was an invaluable experience for me as a screenwriter to now have this experience and it’s a solid project that opens up even more opportunities for writing. I also just finished writing a TV sitcom pilot on assignment for a producer and luckily I had done my spec work over the years and had solid samples in that medium to represent me. My samples got me the gig because of the similar humor and tone the producer wanted and my specs showed that I could deliver.

BoulderFlatAs you probably have experienced, it’s a long slog journey to reach any level of success in this business as a screenwriter. Don’t limit your writing to only one medium because you hamper your chances to secure any writing job in this very competitive marketplace. Yes, you can excel in different mediums because you are a writer and that’s what writers do—write. Of course it will take time to prepare solid samples in the different mediums, but it will be worth the effort when you secure a job in one that leads to another. Eventually it becomes necessary to become a multi-hyphenate so you can have more creative control over your material and not just be a “hired gun” every time out. But baby steps at first—study your craft, become a solid writer, and keep writing solid material in different mediums to expand your chances for any success.

Keep writing and keep the faith because if you stop you’re guaranteed never to have any shot at success.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.

Follow me on Twitter/Periscope: @scriptcat

Did you just complete your latest screenplay or maybe finish your third draft? Is it time for in-depth consultation? Check out my services by clicking on the icon below for the link to my website

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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

“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”

“There is only one way to avoid criticism: say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”—Aristotle

“Give me a good script, and I’ll be a hundred times better as a director.” – George Cukor

“I’m convinced that fear is at the root of most bad writing. Dumbo got airborne with the help of a magic feather; you may feel the urge to grasp a passive verb or one of those nasty adverbs for the same reason. Just remember before you do that Dumbo didn’t need the feather; the magic was in him.”— Stephen King

The importance of your screenwriting momentum…

February 7, 2017 § Leave a comment

smash head in wallIt happens to all screenwriters eventually. You’re working along on at a good clip, maybe writing five or more pages a day, and then a giant barrier drops in your way. Your writing comes to a crashing halt and you’ve lost that precious momentum.

You know the positive feeling momentum can bring. It’s when you have to shut down your writing for the day, but you can’t wait until the next morning to get back to work. It feels like your characters are waiting for you to get them into the next scene and they are frozen until you do. This day-to-day schedule and working in the zone to finish is momentum—the force that propels your writing forward and enables you to complete your screenplay on a schedule. Never underestimate the energy that comes with screenwriting momentum. You reconnect with the material the next day and the next and this is how you complete a project quickly.

The problem comes with life gets in the way of your schedule. You skip one day of writing… and this leads to two days… and three… you get the idea. When you’re finally able to get back to the writing, it can be difficult to put yourself back into that creative space and “see” the movie again that you’re writing. If you allow barriers to block your precious writing time, you will derail the project and may never finish. I know many aspiring screenwriters who are still trying to complete their first screenplay after years of stops and starts. There is always something else to do than write—especially when it gets difficult.

time warp in HollywoodOnce you start working professionally, you can also lose momentum on a project when the producer or production company takes longer with their notes than you expect. This can derail your splendid career plans but also your creative process. If you want to work as a professional screenwriter and keep your sanity, you have to accept that Hollywood runs on its own schedule. Yes, your contract will have provisions about when your script is due and the producer’s reading period for notes, but the process can take longer than you’re used to when you wrote your specs alone. Don’t allow this shift in momentum to throw you off your game. Your ability to jump back onto a project and execute notes will show producers that you are a professional who can deal with any screenwriting situation.

I have a project in development and I’ve done three drafts on it, but I have not heard from the producer in five months to find out if it’s moving forward or not. When I eventually have to do another draft, I’ll need to acquaint myself with the script again because it’s been so long between the rewrites. This loss of momentum is hard to deal with unless you have experienced it before. I prefer when it’s only a few weeks between drafts and that allows me to keep sharp on the script that I’m writing.

When writing your specs, this is your training ground to keep up your momentum. This also goes for the pursuit of your career. Every day, do something that contributes to moving farther down the field where you can plant your flag. It’s all about gaining new ground with contacts and new projects. Most of the time, this will involve creating a solid body of work to standout, but it also includes networking and learning.

If you slip and allow a barrier to derail your scheduled writing time, procrastination and distractions will keep you from completing your pages. You want to see concrete results and feel like you’re constantly moving forward toward your end goal—becoming a working screenwriter. Momentum is a precious energy that screenwriters need to not only complete their screenplays but also to establish their careers.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.

Did you just complete your latest screenplay or a new draft? Did you need a second opinion about your writing? Check out my screenplay consultation services by clicking on the blue icon below for the link to my website. 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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“I’ve often been asked why the film industry hasn’t generated more acting talent. The answer is simple: the men at the top do not care. They live on the basis of product being made today. There is a sad but true saying in the industry: “Is it good?” “No, but we’ll have it Friday.”—Jerry Lewis

“… In fact, when the camera is in motion, in the best-directed scenes, the audiences should not be aware of what the camera is doing. They should be following the action and the road of the idea so closely, that they shouldn’t be aware of what’s going on technically.”—John Huston

“Not only do you attack each scene as late as is possible, you attack the entire story the same way.”—William Goldman, Adventures in the Screen Trade.

“Just tell the story, physically and visually. Don’t censor. Let the final form come last.”—director Carol Reed

“Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”—Ray Bradbury

“I don’t think of it as an art. When it works it’s skill & craft & some unconscious ability”—Ernest Lehman

think it takes and really takes

What you think it takes — and what it takes to reach any level of success.

 

Three more tips to help you navigate your screenwriting journey…

February 3, 2017 § Leave a comment

megaphoneI hope you’ve made some noise with your screenplays 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 Youtube Channel . Dig in on this blog, as I’ve written over 200 articles with screenwriting advice. I also broadcast live on PERISCOPE.

Okay, here are three more tips…

TIP #1     ACT LIKE A PRO—ALWAYS!

MARK4Act like a professional even if you’re an aspirant writing your specs. 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           ENJOY THE LITTLE SUCCESSES ALONG THE WAY.

scan4Sometimes, 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.

fade inDo not fool yourself into thinking your first draft has to be shit. 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 too 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.

Scriptcat out!

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

 

If you can’t handle criticism, rejection, and failure… don’t type FADE IN…

January 30, 2017 § Leave a comment

rejectionYou’ll do yourself a big favor by dealing with rejection, criticism, and failure at the start of your journey because you’ll have to deal with these big three your entire career. The process doesn’t get easier even when you finally do become a working professional either. It actually gets more difficult, as there is more at stake because you’re getting paid and it’s your career with credits and a reputation on the line. The expectations are much higher and your “failure” at this professional level could cost you the job, a lot of money, and your reputation.

This is why early in your screenwriting journey, you must recognize the only part of this crazy business that you really do have control over is the process of your screenwriting. Only you control if you sit down and create new material or not and much of everything else is out of a screenwriter’s control. Even if you do sell a project, there are a myriad of scenarios out of your control that can kill it from moving forward: Lack of financing, a change in the marketplace, the executives get fired and the company loses interest, talent pulls out to do something else, or the producers change their minds about moving forward. So much can happen before a script goes into production. It’s a business with “No guarantees”—even with a contract and a start date.

Insecurities and fear still creep in, but you learn to deal with these negative emotions because you’ve been writing for years and know your strengths and weaknesses. Expectations are high of professionals, so you learn how to write under a deadline at the top of your game and deliver quality material. You’ll become a team player, an expert at delivering rewrites efficiently and fixing the script without ego. The professional writer can’t be upset about criticism or rejection—those emotions can’t get in the way of the process of screenwriting—there’s just too much at stake.

script oddsYou also need to accept the hard reality that you may toil away writing scripts for years that no one will ever buy. I’m not trying to be a killjoy, but alert you to the reality of the business. Many beginning screenwriters believe their journey will be different—they will sell their first script and end up with a three-picture deal without much effort and they won’t have to write for years to become a master at their craft. That may happen, but the odds are against you and the film business has a funny way of humbling screenwriter’s with unrealistic attitudes.

It’s a competitive and crowded marketplace with nearly 50,000 scripts bouncing around Hollywood in any given year and only 5,159 professional screenwriters in the WGAw reported any income last year—the other half did not work. Much of your early material will probably not sell but help build and establish you into an excellent screenwriter. Even when you do manage an option or sale, the project could languish in development hell where you get paid, but doesn’t make it to the big or small screen. Every script you complete makes you a better writer, even if it doesn’t sell. Your goal is a continual mastering of your craft. Knowing these pitfalls will help you survive the journey for the long haul.

pitchWhen you do receive feedback and it’s very critical or brutal, don’t look at it as failure and become insecure. Don’t allow yourself to go to a dark place feeling, “Look at the amount of notes. It proves that I’m a horrible writer and I’ll never work or sell a script.”  Use the experience at motivation to fix the script or move to writing your next project. Most likely your first screenplay will be a bit of a mess and that’s okay. It may take you five or six scripts to even discover yourself as a screenwriter—exploring your strengths, weaknesses, and your style. I didn’t make any noise until my fourth spec script and looking back on it now, I cringe at my beginner’s mistakes and poor choices. It wasn’t until six years out of film school and my fifth spec script that finally put me on the map with my first sale and eventual produced film.

As a screenwriter you will also have to stay open to constructive criticism. You will always receive notes as a screenplay is an ever-changing blueprint for a movie—even more in the development process. Once producers, a director and actors get involved there will be many changes and you should welcome the creative input from your co-creators on a project. You’ll need to be a team player and “ultimate collaborator” in the true definition of the word and this is the opportunity to show everyone your value to the project. There still is a good chance that the project can get dragged down by so many changes and you become frustrated and feel like throwing in the towel. Stay positive and work through these harrowing times. Stay focused and persistent at executing the notes and turning in a better script. Find the passion you had for the first draft and put that energy into shaping a new draft that will please not only yourself, but the talent it will eventually attract and keep interested.

As for rejection and failure, embrace them because there is no escape from it on your screenwriting journey. The times when you fail are tests to see if you really have what it takes to endure the long slog of establishing a career as a working screenwriter. Failure and success is the Yin and Yang of any artistic journey. We can only cherish the hard work it takes to achieve success, because we’ve been able to take the punches and body blows that failure delivers. If you listen to any successful person, they will discuss the many failures they’ve experienced, perhaps years of failure to get to the success you see from them today.

smash head in wallStare failure down and do not be afraid of it. Every “failure” is a chance to learn and ultimately it’s all your point of view about it anyway, right? You may see that not selling your script as failure, but what if it became a solid writing sample that got you a screenwriting assignment job? How would that original “failure” look to you now? When “failure” does come, and it will, you’ll be ready and take the blows and you’ll get back up, stare at the blank page and start the process all over again.  Failure loves to knock out screenwriters, it hates those who get before a “ten count” and start screenwriting again.

As you navigate this crazy film business, know that your screenwriting journey is a long marathon to any type of success and forging a career usually doesn’t happen overnight. If you are in this for the long haul, it will require tremendous patience and endless tenacity. You’ll have to learn how to deal with rejection, criticism, and failures along the way to your successes. Even becoming a better writer does not happen overnight and requires you to continually write, learn and create projects that will ultimately not sell.

Your journey as a screenwriter will be a series of failures and mistakes, triumphs and successes, and when added up will hopefully lead to a career as a working screenwriter in Hollywood. The process will be long and difficult, but if you have patience and respect for your craft and the challenges ahead, you can focus on your love for the craft and your projects and not the urgency of success.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 Written by Mark Sanderson on blog 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

“There are no minor decisions in movie making. Each decision will either contribute to a good piece of work or bring the whole movie crashing down around my head many months later.”—Sidney Lumet

“People come to you and say, “Boy we love your work. We love this and we want to buy it.” Then, as soon as they buy it, the teeth come out. You become not the father of the work, but the stepfather. All of a sudden, you’re an outsider, a villain. I have often said to people, “Look, I’ll do the script for free for you if you’ll shoot my mistakes instead of yours. My mistakes are better.”—Ray Bradbury, interview in Conversations with The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute.

Accept new screenwriting challenges and push yourself out of your comfort zone…

January 24, 2017 § Leave a comment

BoulderFlatAs screenwriters, we constantly need to challenge ourselves and not be afraid of criticism, rejection, and failure. This is how we’ll grow as writers. Even after working as a screenwriting professional for the last twenty years, I was recently reminded of this when I faced my own professional challenge. I was hired as a script doctor to do a page one rewrite of an existing screenplay that is going into production in a month. The gig required me to complete a new first draft in less than two weeks. My fastest record before was twenty days, so I asked myself if I could finish this new script in less time? Regardless, it was the contracted job and I accepted the challenge. I wanted to push myself and really stretch my abilities. This was my 31 st feature screenplay that I’ve written on my journey to date, and the one thing I’ve learned is that every time up to the plate is a different experience. I never forget this and it keeps me humble at the enormity of the craft and I respect it completely.

The longer you write, the more tricks you learn, but you still have to fill the blank page. This new gig required me to put in eight to ten-hour days and writing a minimum of ten pages a day—and one day I even wrote fourteen pages. I managed to complete this new screenplay in twelve days—a major accomplishment for me. And it was a solid first draft that received positive feedback from the buyers and the executives. I just completed the rewrite and it’s moving out of development and into pre-production.

We as writers need to constantly take chances and push ourselves out of our comfort zone. It’s easy to get comfortable and not take risks or accept bigger challenges. Don’t become a lazy screenwriter. Avoid this at all costs. This is particularly important with regards to the material you write. Take chances with your material and don’t fear rejection or failure. Never stop challenging yourself because this will keep you growing as a screenwriter.  If you fail miserably, use the experience to learn and get better the next time.

salvador-dali-by-willy-rizzo-1In addition, a full and interesting life is a vital part of any screenwriter’s ongoing journey. If you’re not observing life and have your creative radar set to detect even subtle events in the real world, how are you doing to write with honesty? You never know when you’ll observe a person or an interaction that will spawn an idea for a project or maybe another one in the future. Don’t just regurgitate what you’ve seen in other movies and television—experience life first hand and bring back real stories from your fantastic adventures. When you’re out in the world, listen closely to how people speak, study how they act  and react, and constantly record your findings. I collect my observations and write them into a small notebook that I call my “writing arsenal.” I carry it in my briefcase with my laptop and I record various thoughts, ideas, and lines of dialogue that might end up in my current projects or another script some day. My own life experiences also get logged into my writing arsenal.

The journey of any artist is a lifelong adventure and a huge part of the creative process is pushing yourself, accepting challenges, and experiencing life—the good and the bad. You can’t write honestly unless you’ve really lived with the ups and downs. The great Orson Welles, in conversation with Peter Bogdanovich in the book This Is Orson Welles said, “The great danger for any artist is to find himself comfortable. It’s his duty to find the point of maximum discomfort, to search it out.”

If you stop learning and being curious, you are finished.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on blog MY BLANK PAGE.

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The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.  The big question is whether you are going to be able to say a hearty yes to your adventure.” — Joseph Campbell

“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

“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

“There are some things which cannot be learned quickly and time, which is all we have, must be paid heavily for their acquiring. They are the very simplest things and because it takes a man’s life to know them the little new that each man gets from life is very costly and the only heritage he has to leave.”—Ernest Hemingway

 

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When you type FADE OUT – THE END, then it will be time for you to go.

 

 

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