Simple techniques within your control to survive in the screenwriting trenches…

April 6, 2014 § 4 Comments

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

One important decision within your control is spending money on your career. I find too many aspirants reluctant to pay for software, books, workshops, webinars, seminars, script consultants or anything else that costs money to learn their craft. How important is your career to you? If it’s not important enough to spend money on learning your craft you shouldn’t waste your time pursing a screenwriting career. You’ll end up failing and blame everyone else but yourself. Any career pursuit will cost money and time and you need to spend both for a shot at any chance of success.

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

Okay, you’ve finished your script and you are ready to unleash it upon Hollywood. Congratulations. You’ve read it several times, made your own changes, even took notes from other writers you trust, and maybe even done a polish. You’re feeling confident and ready for professionals to read your genius. So, like 50,000 other writers do every year, it’s time to register your script or treatment with the Writers Guild of America for protection. It’s the standard in the creation of legal evidence for the protection of your work.

Too many new screenwriters are paranoid that someone will steal their precious script. Lose the fear and be brave as outright theft is rare and it’s also stupid because no company would want to raise money and go through production only to have a lawsuit against them for theft. Chances are it’s the specter of similar ideas and out of those thousands of projects floating around every year in Hollywood, many of them will have similar stories because tens of thousands of films and television shows have been produced before you ever started writing. The odds are that many stories will be similar because of the sheer volume of material that has already been produced. It’s the specific execution of these similar ideas that matters.

It’s a good idea to register your script with the Writers Guild before submitting it to agents, managers, or producers, so you can document your authorship on a given date should there be unauthorized usage. The cost to register it with the WGA is $20 for non-WGA members and $10 for members and it’s registered for five years. You can register a script in person, by mail or on the WGA’s website. Now that you’re protected, you don’t want to ruin your chances and have your hard work end up in the dustbin of broken dreams do you? Of course not.

Follow this important tip: Do not write your WGA registration number on the title page of your script. I know you’ll be tempted, but please don’t because it screams that you’re an amateur and shows you’re afraid someone is out to steal your precious script. It’s as if you built a new house and posted signs around the yard that read: “No Trespassing—We Shoot Looters”. Even when you don’t list your WGA script registration number, it’s pretty much assumed industry wide that your script is either registered with the WGA or with the copyright office because professionals take care of their business.

The only situation where a screenwriter owns his or her script is when it’s written as an original spec. However this ownership is short-lived because when a studio or production company buys your spec they become the legal owners of the material and it becomes a “work for hire.” This is why it’s unnecessary in my opinion to copyright your screenplay because once you sell it to a production company, they will make you transfer the rights to them and you no longer own it. If you do copyright your script, not only is it a lengthy process, but also an unnecessary waste of money. A simple way of protecting your script is to mail it to yourself and never open it. The postmark is a way to prove your script was in existence on that date.

script oddsHere’s another screenplay tip that is within your control: If a producer, agent or manager requests to read your script, do not write the title of your script on the spine. Unfortunately I did this many years ago when I first started on my journey when my then agent requested five copies of my script so he could send it out. He grimaced and politely explained that writing the title on the spine indicates the script has been already read. I’m sure you’ve been in a producer’s office and noticed a bookshelf full of scripts with their handwritten titles on the spines? That’s because they were already read and logged into their system. Now, my agent couldn’t send out my scripts as fresh copies because they looked as if they had been read. I was totally embarrassed and it was a rookie mistake.

Another technique within your control is keeping track of your script submissions. When you send out your script, it’s important to keep a submission log of where it’s being read and who is reading. Also keep track of the companies where you pitch and the name of the person you’re meeting. List the production company’s information, the contact person, and when they received the script or listened to your pitch. After you follow-up, indicate if they “passed” on the script or if they wanted to schedule a meeting. A detailed submission log helps protect you if any problems arise in the future with regards to ownership of your screenplay.

If an agent or manager wants to sign you or take out your script, your log will be an invaluable source of information to better target new contacts so they don’t submit to places that already passed on your material. These simple techniques are within your control so make them standard practice to help you stand out as a screenwriter who deserves the respect of having your script considered by top professionals.

Keep the faith and keep filling your blank pages.

Scriptcat out!

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

Screenplay consultation services

“You can’t get to wonderful without passing through alright.” —Bill Withers

“Act without expectation.” —Lao Tzu

“This is the other secret that real artists know and wannabe writers don’t. When we sit down each day and do our work, power concentrates around us. The Muse takes note of our dedication.  She approves.  We have earned favor in her sight.  When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.” ― Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”

The reward of suffering is experience.”—Aeschylus, Ancient Greek Dramatist known as the founder of Greek Tragedy

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

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

“The professional also “dedicates himself to mastering technique not because he believes technique is a substitute for inspiration but because he wants to be in possession of the full arsenal of skills when inspiration does come.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”




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§ 4 Responses to Simple techniques within your control to survive in the screenwriting trenches…

  • emilybolcik says:

    Such great, practical advice. Thanks.

  • I never fail to be amazed by would-be screenwriters who refuse to shell out for Final Draft or similar, but will pay four figures to do a Masters in screenwriting – talk about your false economies!

    Honestly, wouldn’t they rather be devoting all their creative energies to the writing, not the formatting? Sheesh.

    Then again, I’ve written for three different BBC series and only one of them would accept scripts in Final Draft! The rest required me to write in Microsoft Word as those in charge wouldn’t pay out to buy their script editors FD. Madness, utter madness…

  • Donna Abreu says:

    I always enjoy reading your columns, Mark. Interesting, useful and most of all…appreciated! I notice that a number of people use Final Draft, but I had started with Movie Magic and stayed with it. Hope it doesn’t cause any issues when my script is ready for consultation and feedback.

    • scriptcat says:

      Thank you for the kind words and reading. It’s gratifying to know I can help with advice in some tiny way. I’m sure Movie Magic will be fine. It’s only a problem when you DON’T use professional software and they know it. Like if you used a Word document. You’re on the right track.

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