Five important questions to ask before you start working with a screenwriting partner…

July 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

hemingwayScreenwriting 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.

sullivans-travels-052After 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.

INTERVIEWER
I understand your collaboration with Raymond Chandler was more difficult?

BILLY WILDER
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.

film stockScriptcat out!

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

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Scriptcat’s summer tips for your screenwriting journey…

June 20, 2017 § Leave a comment

DSCN2560Summer 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!

MARK4This 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.

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 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.

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

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Top 5 mistakes beginning screenwriters make on their first screenplays…

June 8, 2017 § Leave a comment

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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.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE.

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It’s been many years in the making, but finally my new screenwriting survival book is available on Amazon. Click on the book cover for the link to Amazon and preview the first chapter.

Master CoverR2-4-REV2A 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.”
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(Dead End Drive In, BMX Bandits, Drive Hard, and 40 others)

 

RESPECT THE CRAFT

“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”

 

 

 

 

 

Learn how to execute screenplay notes effectively and stay on the project…

April 17, 2017 § Leave a comment

rewritesIt’s vital that when you’re writing your specs to also be training yourself to effectively execute screenplay notes because producers will keep you on the project if you’re able to continue help them push it through development. I’ve recently experienced this again when I completed two assignment jobs in a row for a producer. They were page one rewrites of scripts because the previous writers could not generate a production ready screenplay and the projects were stalled. I was able to execute the notes effectively and greatly reduced the development time allowing the scripts to receive a green light. One of the projects completed production and the second script was just accepted last week and sent to the network. It’s a huge jump forward toward production.

When a company has a slate of films they are scheduled to produce, they do not want anything to stand in way of the forward movement toward production. If you can be the screenwriter who executes notes and delivers production ready drafts, they will hire you again. This is your opportunity to shine and establish your professional reputation. You should realize that most of screenwriting is not the romanticized image you might have of parties, huge paydays, and premieres. It’s a job and tremendous work. Put your ego aside and get the work done. The goal when you are working is to finish the screenplay as contracted, receive your payment, and your credit. Most of my jobs on assignment have come from producers who I have worked for before. These relationships will help you establish your screenwriting career.

Writing your own spec script is one thing, being hired for a script assignment and rewriting an existing screenplay, or working from a treatment you didn’t create, and then executing script notes, is an entirely different talent. It’s an ability that you must have if you want to stay on a project and eventually see your name in the credits.

So, when you are writing your  spec, use this precious time as training for your long haul journey. Now is the time to make mistakes and write badly so that you can learn and avoid this when you finally get a professional writing assignment. If you haven’t experienced it yet on your first few screenplays, writing is all about the execution of a great story and rewriting to get it right. Even after thirty–three feature screenplay, I’m still rewriting drafts, but usually the first few drafts are solid enough and only need light polishing. This is where you want to be with your screenwriting ability if you desire to work professionally in Hollywood.

Keep writing on a regular schedule and keep the faith. It’s all talent, timing, and luck — a prepared screenwriter who meets an opportunity and delivers the goods.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on blog My Blank Page.

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“A good style must, first of all, be clear. It must not be mean or above the dignity of the subject. It must be appropriate.”—Aristotle

“A good writer should know as near everything as possible. Naturally he will not. A great enough writer seems to be born with knowledge. But he really is not; he has only been born with the ability to learn in a quicker ratio to the passage of time than other men and without conscious application, and with an intelligence to accept or reject what is already presented as knowledge. 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

“… 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

“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, interview in Conversations with The Great Moviemakers of Hollywood’s Golden Age at the American Film Institute.

 

What should you do with your old spec screenplays that don’t sell?

March 18, 2017 § Leave a comment

old specs collecting dust

Spec screenplays. We need to write them, but the reality is that most specs you write will never sell. I’m not being negative but giving you a dose of reality so you won’t flounder and become frustrated that some big Hollywood script sale has passed you by. 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 last year was an eight year low for sales. It’s also estimated that 50,000 projects are registered with the Writers Guild every year and bounce around Hollywood trying to get noticed. 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 writing 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.

I’ve only sold one spec in my career, but the sale opened the door to sixteen paid screenwriting assignments to date. Yes, I’ve written many other specs, but now I will only write a spec if it’s a true passion project because I’m generally too busy working. I’ve also collaborated on specs with directors for no pay, but as it’s our project, I’m contracted to also be a producer if it goes. I took the risk because I considered the cost/benefit was a good gamble. So, what becomes of your spec screenplays that don’t sell or get optioned for development?

1.  They collect dust and become a memory.

2.  They end up as kindling in a producer’s fireplace in Aspen.

3.  They become excellent writing samples.

I hope you answered number 3 above.  I believe a solid spec that never sells is never dead—so, what does happen to your old spec screenplays? My ex writing partner and I would always joke when a producer agreed to read our spec, we’d envision him going to Aspen for the weekend with his pile of reads. He’d snuggle down on a bearskin rug in front of the fireplace with his Playboy model girlfriend and they’d drink wine and get cozy.  Strangely enough there would be no firewood next to the fireplace, only his large pile of twenty scripts.  He would tell his girlfriend, “honey it’s getting cold in here… put another script on the fire.”  And she would take a script from the pile and toss it into the fireplace.  Oh, the horror.  My ex writing partner and I would have a good laugh, but sadly this might have been the fate of our specs.

If you’ve exhausted the viable options for your spec, and the process hasn’t moved you or the project down the road to production… set your old spec screenplay aside for a while and later take a fresh look. I’m sure some of your old scripts that are solid projects are in need of a good polish. This is exactly what I did last year with three of my old chestnuts.

scripts 2I always loved these scripts, but I couldn’t find anyone else to loooooove them enough to buy them. That’s okay. I knew the writing was solid, so I took the time and gave them a fresh nip and tuck — and it’s paid off in spades as solid writing samples.  Last year when I pitched a family film idea to a producer who loved the concept, she needed a comedy writing sample to read before she would take me into the network and pitch.  As I had worked on a polish of my comedy last year, my old spec was ready to go and in the best shape ever.  She wanted to read it right away and because it was ready, I didn’t need to take a few weeks to polish it.

This also happened when I met with another producer who needed a writer to write her idea into a TV pilot with a show bible. I gave her two of my original spec TV comedy pilots as examples of my work, and she responded to the writing and thought it had the same comedic sensibilities that she was looking for in her project. My old specs got me hired for the job.

script oddsYou’ll always need solid writing samples in your bag of tricks and these may end up being your specs that didn’t sell. I know it seems like the end of the world if a spec doesn’t sell, but you can get meetings from your script and it can become an important writing sample.  Producers, agents and managers will always need to read your material to see if you can actually write a screenplay.  If your spec doesn’t sell but lands you an agent, manager or an assignment job, it was worth the effort. In fact, writing a script and finishing it can never be diminished, because you always gain precious writing experience every time you make it through and type “THE END”.

I suggest always have your old specs ready to read as writing samples. If you’re on this screenwriting journey for the long haul, you will write many scripts that don’t sell and others that do.  It’s the nature of the game. Selling a spec script is like winning the lottery. I know it’s possible because I’ve sold a spec, but the odds are not good and the Hollywood spec landscape has changed dramatically in recent years. This is why you must use your spec scripts as way to push your career farther down the road so you can advance and hold new ground.

You never know where your project may end up years later. This is why I believe old specs that don’t sell, never die if they are viable concepts that are well written. Ultimately, they become what you make of them. If you work your old material into the best shape possible, you’ll be ready when new opportunities arise. Who knows, years later your old spec script may find new life with a producer who responds to the material and wants to produce it into a movie or hire you to write on assignment.

Keep writing. Every day. Fill your blank pages by any means necessary, keep learning, don’t be afraid to fail, remain humble, and let your passion drive you through the ups and downs.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE blog.

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“Time stays long enough for those who use it.”—Leonardo da Vinci

“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

“Hollywood is Hollywood. There’s nothing you can say about it that isn’t true, good or bad. And if you get into it, you have no right to be bitter—you’re the one who sat down, and joined the game.” —Orson Welles

“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”

“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

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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.

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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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Communiqué from the trenches: Starting the year with a new gig and a challenge…

January 10, 2017 § Leave a comment

script revision photo copyI was blessed to end last year busy with two screenwriting jobs—one was a script doctor job doing a rewrite on a project that went into production in December and wrapped—and the other was a page one rewrite of a screenplay that I just completed this week. It was nice to have back-to-back jobs from a production company and producer whom I’ve worked for before. This is why your professional reputation is so vital to your longevity of your career. You want to be the “to go to” writer for a producer or production company who trusts you to deliver the goods on time. This timing of this particular job fit nicely into my schedule and a great way to start off the new year.

hang onI accepted the second job knowing it was going to be a huge challenge for me. Time was not on my side. Firstly, it was to completely rewrite a new draft of a screenplay and not use any of it—commonly called a “page one rewrite” and have it done within two weeks. Even after completing thirty-one feature-length screenplays, I still get anxious before every new project. It’s that feeling of the unknown and setting off on a new adventure that didn’t exist before. The longer you write the more tricks you know, but you still have to fill the blank page and slog through ACT TWO. I’ve been doing this long enough to practice humility in the face of the craft. I know from experience there are always unexpected surprises both good and bad. The bad ones can derail you if you allow them—and the good ones make you want to get up the next morning and get back to writing.

I signed the contact and went off to work in my workshop. This is when the shit gets real. It requited me to put in eight to ten-hour days writing a minimum of ten pages a day—and one day I even reached fourteen pages. I managed to complete this new screenplay in twelve days and beat my old record for a first draft of twenty days. It was screenplay number thirty-one on my journey to date. This latest assignment was a huge challenge for me as I’m generally not a fast writer. When I’m on an assignment, I like a pace of about five pages a day and that ends up with a screenplay in about twenty days. This assignment required me to really use my disciplines and focus every day without any distractions to meet ten solid pages. If I dropped below my page minimum for a day, I’d have to make it up the next day to meet my contracted deadline. This is why I always recommend that when you write your specs, you should always set a self-imposed deadline to train you for the time when you do get hired to write. It doesn’t hurt to train now for your future assignment jobs.

There were a few days when the writing became difficult. I couldn’t “see” the scenes and I really had to sit with the material and hunker down to focus. It’s so tempting to become distracted, leave the keyboard and venture off to do something else. I found myself being tempted daily to do this and I had to really force myself to never leave my seat. When the times got rough, I sat with the material and eventually the characters would lead the way or answer a question for me as they do every time. I would get up every morning and go back to work as if I was channeling the project. The disciplines worked for me as I turned the script in on schedule and the notes for the second pass should be coming soon.

Every job where you get paid is another step in establishing your career. If a produced film with a writing credit comes from it, so much the better. Take the work when you can get it, as there are a limited number of jobs out there and no limit on the number of screenwriters eager to do them. If you land a gig, consider yourself lucky. If you land two gigs back-to-back, consider yourself blessed and you’re doing something right.

There are no guarantees in the screenwriting game. Many projects that you write will never go through development or make it to production. This is why you need multiple projects going in the marketplace at all times for any chance that one or more will make it all the way. A project that I wrote on assignment last year was supposed to go into production in late 2016 and then it got pushed until this month. The recent news is that it has yet to get the green light and I’ll probably have to do another draft. It’s stalled right now in development hell as we call it. This is no fault of mine, but it doesn’t take the sting out of the reality that it may lapse into not being made for reasons out of my control.

So, the lesson here is don’t put all of your hopes and dreams into one project. Keep writing and creating new material so eventually one script will open a door and get you an assignment job that will keep you on the fast track of a career.

Scriptcat out!

Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson written on blog My Blank Page. http://www.scriptcat.wordpress.com

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“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

“Because so much of directing is just getting the script right. Getting the beats to play, and knowing what to emphasise. To me, screenwriting isn’t just exit, enter, speak your lines. It’s really about establishing a rhythm, and directing on paper, to some extent.”—Shane Black

“As an artist, you are always striving toward an ultimate achievement but never seem to reach it. You shoot a film, and the result could have always been better. You try again, and fail once more. In some ways I find it enjoyable. You never lose sight of your goal. I don’t do my job to make money or to break box office records, I simply try things out. What would happen if I were to achieve perfection at some point? What would I do then?” — Woody Allen for The Talk, 2012.

“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

“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

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