July 30, 2017 § Leave a comment
Maybe you’ve heard of this dilemma and have yet to experience it, but if you work as a screenwriter long enough in Hollywood you will not escape the disappointing clutches of development hell. If you’re lucky enough to sell your spec script or score a paid screenwriting job, what happens after the first draft could determine if your script languishes in a constant state of development or moves into production. There are many reasons why a script becomes stuck in development hell with seemingly endless rewrites. Many times, the producers or executives are not clear about what they want, so they’ll tinker with the script until they find their vision. Changes in casting can also extend the development process because the script is rewritten to tailor the new casting choice. Even changes with the film’s location can drag out the development process because if the story takes place in the tropics and the producer changes it to a winter climate with snow, you’ll have another rewrite on your hands and possibly more development. The longer a project is in development, the greater the chances for outside forces to come along during the process and derail the entire operation.
Other times the project itself can stall because of financing issues, global distribution shifts, changes in what the buyers want, and lack of a distribution deal. This is why it’s called development hell—it’s either the hell of endless rewrites or your project being stalled from moving forward. Yes, it’s truly frustrating and disappointing. Hopefully, you’ll be paid for every draft but it’s little consideration if the movie never gets produced.
One of my writing professors in film school complained that she spent her entire professional screenwriting career in development hell because she was paid to write scripts, but the projects never ended up being produced. I’ve experienced this when a production company hired me to write a detailed story treatment and then the screenplay. After I turned in my first draft, the executive responded with twelve pages of notes. I was dumbfounded because I had worked closely with the company on the story treatment and once it was to their liking, they allowed me to write the screenplay. As the dutiful screenwriter, I moved forward and executed their twelve pages of notes and eventually completed a second draft. Five years later, the script has yet to go into production because the company has dramatically changed and is making fewer films focusing on lower-budgeted productions. These scenarios are the most frustrating because screenwriters’ contracts involve step deals that pay the writer an upfront sum to write the script and successive drafts, but the larger production bonus only is paid when the script actually begins principal photography. That means no production date—no production bonus. Again, another example of how so many aspects of the film business are out of a screenwriter’s control.
I also experienced the bitter sting of development hell when a producer hired me to rewrite another screenwriter’s script. The previous writer had done three drafts and the producers felt she was “written out” and could no longer execute their notes effectively. They brought me on the project with a contract and pay, and I eventually did another five drafts working closely with the director as I executed his production specific notes. It was a long process that stretched on for nearly two years. The bad news is the script remains in “development” and I can’t get a straight answer as to why. I have to let it go because it’s never going to be produced. I certainly hope someday the producers pull the trigger on making the project, but it’s out my control. You have to move on.
Conversely, I’ve also been lucky to write a fast-tracked film during February of one year that went into production eight months later in October of the same year. This was one of two films that I had go into production during a ten-month period, so you never know the fate of your completed screenplay. This is especially true when you’re not on the front lines producing the project. Currently I have five screenplays in development, all production ready screenplays. Why they are not moving forward is out of my control. When you start on a new screenplay, you’ll never know the journey it will ultimately take. Sometimes you end up lucky and have a slate of steady work. I completed three screenplay assignments this year and all three have gone into production. The latest script just started production last week, it’s my eleventh produced film and my 33rd completed screenplay that I’ve written on my journey. So, as you can see, you never know. The key is being a prolific workhorse and turning out solid material that will hopefully open doors to screenwriting assignments.
After I started working professionally in Hollywood, the hardest reality check that I quickly learned to accept was that even when you do finally get paid to write a screenplay or sell a spec, not every one of your projects will make it into production. This is why you’ll constantly need to create a solid body of work and have as many viable screenplays out in the marketplace as possible. There is no real way to avoid development hell and it happens on every level of the film business. If you want to feel empowered, you should focus on your next project and always do your best work every time up to the keyboard.
Keep filling your blank pages because if you stop writing you’ll never have any chance at success.
Copyright 2017 written by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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July 25, 2017 § Leave a comment
Many aspiring screenwriters have huge dreams of success on Hollywood’s pantheon of A-list screenwriters. Why not shoot for the highest levels? It’s easy—they did it, right? The reality is that it’s a tough business to achieve any level of success. While knowing this, many aspirants still believe that it’s going to be easy to forge a successful career and pursue it completely unprepared. This will lead to frustration, rejection, and a huge waste of precious time. It’s easy to piss away five years due to disrespecting the craft and the level of work it takes only to end up having nothing of merit to show for your effort. Preparation is vital to staying in the screenwriting game. This starts with self-reflection and asking the hard questions that must be answered.
Are you willing to do what it takes and spend the time, maybe years of work and sacrifice, to craft a solid body of work to compete? Are you a collaborator and team player? Are you writing, reading, and learning so you’ll become an excellent screenwriter? Do you have the drive and tenacity to weather the storm of criticism, rejection, and failure during the years it may take to secure even one successful job?
Remember that no one forced you to choose this screenwriting dream. It’s yours and you must be responsible for it. No one else can go after it for you. Being a screenwriter is not for the thin-skinned or for those looking for a shortcut to success. Ask yourself the honest questions about why you are pursuing a career in screenwriting. Realize that you must stay in the game over the long haul to have any shot at success. It’s a fool’s endeavor to seek fame and fortune, but if screenwriting is your life’s work and passion, you will find a way around any obstacles to succeed.
And what about time? It’s your greatest asset or your worst enemy. It depends on how you use your precious time to write uninterrupted and become productive. That’s why I ask aspirants if they have an artist’s mentality — or the insanity to believe that even as they stare into the dark void of the unknown, their burning passion will guide them across yet another hurdle.
It’s a numbers game at best and you’ll burn through a pile of specs before one finally either sells or lands you a screenwriting assignment. This is why it’s so important to always have many projects in various stages of writing, development or the idea and pitching stage. The urgency we feel as writers for a read or to sell scripts is always pushed back by the reality of the film business and the bizarre amount of time it takes for anything to happen. Any movement on your projects will always take longer than you ever expected. A career will probably take many years to forge. This is why you never want to stake your future on just one project because the odds selling anything are rare. You don’t need to put yourself in a the horrible position where you need to sell a script to get you out of debt or to save you from a day job that you hate.
As you travel on your screenwriting journey, the image that you project is extremely important and you should keep up an image of success. You do this by being busy and creating a solid body of material to show prospective agents, managers, producers and executives that you are a work horse with something to offer. Never give them a chance to think of you as a diva who believes he or she is God’s gift to cinema. It’s the team player and collaborator who always works again. The pain in the ass gets branded as “difficult” and wonders why the work has dried up.
Also remember, after you finish your spec screenplay, unleashing it upon Hollywood becomes the most important driving force in your life — unfortunately unless it’s an assignment job where the producer is waiting for you to deliver the project, no one cares. They just don’t give a sh*t. I’m not being cynical, just honest. You’re now part of the other 50,000 scripts registered at the Writers Guild every year and without representation, you too must figure a way to catapult it over the wall and into someone’s compound for a read. This entire process of writing, rewriting, to finding representation takes a long time and requires tremendous patience. Especially if you’re working a day job you hate and you see your script as your way out and into the life of a working screenwriter. I don’t suggest putting this kind of heavy pressure on yourself, as it will make you stressed and even more impatient.
It’s a long road to becoming a working screenwriter and forging a career usually doesn’t happen overnight. My personal journey took me six years after film school to secure my first professional writing job and seven years until my fifth spec sold and was produced. I talk about this, my start in the film business, and details about my new screenwriting book on the fantastic new podcast Eclipse the Script. If you are in this for the long haul, it will require tremendous patience. Even becoming a better writer does not happen overnight and requires you to continually write, learn and create projects that you will sadly discover will ultimately never sell. It also helps once reach a professional plateau not to become lazy. Always push yourself out of your comfort zone as this is the only place where growth happens.
Make sure before you start your journey, that you ask yourself the honest questions about why you’re screenwriting. Prepare to meet the challenges that will come your way on your journey as a screenwriter. They will be a series of failures and mistakes, triumphs, and little successes that when added up will open a door that hopefully leads to a steady career as a working screenwriter in Hollywood. The process will be long and difficult, but if you have patience, you do the work necessary and respect for the mountain you’re climbing, you’ll focus more on your love for the craft and not the urgency of success.
Keep filling your blank pages and keep the faith.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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“Any good director gets a professional family when he starts a film. They immediately check him out to discover how much information he possesses. They also want to know if he has balls. They will challenge him the first day and every day until the wrap-s-unless he proves he knows what he’s doing.”—Jerry Lewis
“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
The main thing for a writer is to find out who you are. Now, that’s not going to please everybody. You have to discover what your real talent is—what really interests you as a writer. That’s really the thing. Not how popular you can be. But what really is your metier.”—Horton Foote
July 24, 2017 § Leave a comment
It’s time again for a guest blogger here on MY BLANK PAGE! Appearing for his fourth time with another superb contribution about screenwriting in the trenches… let’s welcome back U.K. screenwriter Niraj Kapur.
In 1991, at the tender age of 19, I decided to be a screenwriter. Like most people, I thought writing was easy.
My first screenplay was an Irish love story called Secret Love and it sold after contacting only two producers.
Naturally, I thought writing was the easiest job in the world and flew to London from my small town in Northern Ireland.
My next script didn’t sell and the director of Secret Love wasn’t impressed by my attempts to rewrite, so he dropped the project. I was too embarrassed to tell my parents and friends who I swore I would never return home to until I won the Oscar.
So, I went on the dole, the American equivalent of welfare. Worst time of my life. I became a hermit and lived like a pauper on £33 a week, approx. $40 a week.
After a year, my father flew over and was shocked at my lifestyle. Freezing tiny flat, crime-ridden area and a large rat who would occasionally run around the kitchen uninvited.
Dad advised me that to be successful in any profession, I needed training.
Writing is no exception.
He kindly gave me $2,000 — so I invested in Michael Hauge and Robert McKee seminars, bought screenwriting books, went to every networking event and invested in a good script editor.
In 1998, I signed a development deal. For an unknown British writer to have one was unique. It was Rory Bremnar’s company, Vera. Had the opportunity to meet so many talented producers, directors and agents, write full time and get paid.
A year later, Vera decided to work on other projects. That’s how the business works. It’s nothing personal. Priorities change.
Nobody returned my calls or wanted to meet me. I went back to full-time office work, feeling sorry for myself since my dream had died. Then my wife told me she was pregnant.
Being a father gives you a positive view on life and lots of writing material. I spent months writing sample kids shows and after a year of calling every kids tv producer, I found work writing for CBBC, Nick Jnr, and Channel 5. Over 17 pilots were written, got paid for several of them and was hired to write for other shows, working to tight deadlines and producers’ notes, an invaluable lesson.
In 2004, I had the confidence to go back to screenwriting and wrote a female comedy that would change my life, Knights in Shining Armour.
In 2006, it won a writing award. Then three different producers wanted to option it in 2007.
It was important this movie got produced, and producers rarely guarantee that, so I sold it to Neville Rashid who had an idea to make it into a Bollywood family drama musical with a guarantee to produce it in five years.
Neville worked his guts out to raise the money. It was shot in London, I was invited on set, was treated wonderfully by cast and crew, and went to the red-carpet premiere. I only recognised 30% of the movie as mine. It was released in 2012. Here’s the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftwUGemp6Jw
Naachle London broke even and played in cinemas across the UK. Seeing your name on a movie poster is a dream come true. Seeing it on the big screen was simply awesome.
Every agent, producer and director was invited. Nobody in the industry turned up.
Unable to find work, I turned my back on the UK and spend a few years flying to LA which you can read about here: https://scriptcat.wordpress.com/2017/06/24/overcoming-the-disappointments-a-screenwriting-journey-can-deliver/
Many valuable lessons were learned, just as important today as they were many years ago.
- Treat your writing like a career and invest in it like a degree.
- Don’t think you know everything.
- Writing is writing, no matter what genre or what platform.
- Never give up. If I can make it, anyone can.
As Jeffrey Katzenberg once said, “if you they throw you out the front door, go in the back door. If they throw you out the back door, go in through the window.”
by Niraj Kapur
Niraj Kapur worked as a writer-for-hire on several kids shows on British TV with numerous screenplay commissions and options. His first movie Naachle London was released in 2012. Find him online: www.nirajkapur.com
Consider screenplay contests as just another tool in your arsenal to get noticed—not a guarantee of a career.
July 19, 2017 § 1 Comment
Over the last decade there’s been an explosion of screenwriting contests that dangle the possibility of winning the grand prize and your big chance at exposure to some of the top players in Hollywood. Every year the top contests are filled with thousands of entries all vying for the grand prize. It seems like the more people who pursue a career in screenwriting, the more contests spring up to meet the demand for a chance at exposure. In my opinion there are only a handful of top contests worth the money because they are recognized industry-wide as legitimate and the readers and judges involved are real industry professionals of merit.
The top screenwriting contests are extremely competitive with entries from around the world. If you do win, it’s almost like winning the lottery, but you don’t always have to win the top prize to have it help your career. If you don’t win the top prize and place as a runner-up, it’s better to place in one of the top five industry recognized competitions and not in some unknown smaller contest that doesn’t garner the same credibility. It’s the difference between having your film win some award at a small, unknown festival or placing as a runner-up in Sundance or the NY Film Festival. Even placing in more recognized contests will help to get your script read. Remember—not all contests are equal.
As I’m sure you’ve discovered, every screenplay contest charges an entry fee with some upwards of $50 to $75. This is why you must do your research, read blogs, and find out as much about the contest before you send off your treasured project and hard-earned money. Anyone can start a screenwriting competition with offers of money to the winners and a chance to meet Hollywood insiders. Three months later you receive a form letter that says you didn’t win, but thanks for entering and hopes that you enter again next year. This means nothing. In fact, the rejection can be very unsettling to a writer’s psyche especially when you’ve paid money to enter and placed your trust in the contest only to have no idea who read your script. Did the contest advertise “working professionals in the film industry” as the panel of experts judging the scripts? Did they list these pros? I might take the rejection a little easier if the opinion came from someone respected as a working professional with credits. A mysterious rejection form letter and not knowing who read my script would leave me empty and wondering if it was even read at all.
I was shocked to read an online ad looking for “script readers” to help with a major screenwriting contest. I thought only industry professionals were diligently sorting through these scripts to find the best ones but apparently not. If they are using free readers, anyone with an opinion is reading your script and who knows their qualifications to spot great material. If you want that kind of consideration you can always have your friends read your script (also not a good idea). Some of these contests receive thousands of entries and the more scripts entered, the more they need a small army of readers to sort through the work. It’s your hard-earned money you might be wasting on a second-rate contest, only to get back a form letter telling you, “thanks and please enter again next year.” Ah, the dangling carrot for a shot at success.
Always make sure to read the entry forms very carefully and especially the fine print. Some contests claim rights over your work and some contests are actually companies that produce films and claim rights over the development if you win. Always protect your project by knowing what you are signing and if you don’t like the terms do not enter.
A short time after graduating from UCLA film school, I entered my fifth spec script in few competitions with the dream of winning or even placing. The competition is always fierce and the year I entered the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship there were 3,541 entries worldwide (for 2017 it was 7,102 scripts!). Back in the day, my script made it as far as the semifinals and placed in the top 1% of all entries. I received a call from Greg Beal the coordinator who told me that my script was in the next dozen scripts after the eight who received the fellowship. My script placed in the top twenty out the thousands of entries and he gave me notes and suggested that I enter again the following year.
It was then I really knew I had written something special and worthy of continuing to send out to producers. Amazingly, a year later my script was under option and then purchased thus making me a professional and making too much money to enter again.
I then entered a comedy screenplay in the Chesterfield Writers Film Project created by Paramount Studios and Steven Spielberg where my script placed in the top 50 out of thousands. Again, this was another example to show I was on the right track with my writing. The same script that nearly won the Nicholl was also one of four runners-up in the John Truby Writers Studio screenwriting contest back in the day out of hundreds of entries. I knew something good was brewing with my screenplay and it was just a matter of time to find the right producer. It’s always about timing and having your project find the right home.
At the time, the pedigree of placing in the semifinals of the Nicholl Fellowship helped to bring credibility to my script and it got me read by agents and managers. Many times it made the difference between someone reading and not reading it. Winning the fellowship would have been nice, but I was much happier that my script went on to be produced into a movie and distributed globally. I was now a professional screenwriter and sold my first spec (my fifth overall script written at the time) and it’s what launched my screenwriting assignment career.
What happens if you continue to place in screenplay contests, but you don’t win and can’t seem to use your achievements as a way to further your script’s chances of being read by producers, agents and managers? The reality is there are no guarantees, even if you do win a screenplay contest, but it certainly helps and brings validity to your talents in the eyes of the film business. The reality is that you’ll still have to fight and claw for every inch of forward movement down the field to plant your flag. You might be taking a huge step through the door by winning a screenplay contest, but the key is staying in the game and having a solid body of work to offer and being a workhorse screenwriter. You’ll realize that once you achieve some any type of success, you have to do it again, and again for it to be considered a career.
Look at contests as another tool in your arsenal to some noise, but don’t put all of your hopes and dreams into them. Get out into the world and make those necessary film industry contacts to start getting your work noticed by producers, agents, managers, and executives. Find a way to go directly to the talent if you can like actors, directors, and producers. Always consider creative ways to break through Hollywood’s gates, but don’t keep trying the same methods over and over again if they are returning the same results. That wastes precious time and helps to drive you crazy. If your specs aren’t moving your career forward, consider writing an original TV pilot or creating your own web series as a proof of concept. Think outside the box.
The top screenwriting competitions are a great way to gain much-needed exposure for beginning writers, but don’t look to them as the only way to further your career goals. If you can’t win a contest, that doesn’t mean you won’t be able to land representation or your first writing job in Hollywood. Make sure to do your research on the contests, pick the more legitimate ones the industry recognizes, and read the fine print on the entry forms.
As always, keep the faith, your eye on the big picture, and keep filling your blank pages.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
My top suggested screenwriting contests (in no special order):
*The Academy’s Nicholl Fellowships (I was in the semi-finals—the top 1%)
*Final Draft Big Break Contest
*Page International Screenwriting Awards
*Disney Writers Fellowship
*Nickelodeon Writing Fellowship
*Sundance Writers Lab
*Warner Brothers Writers Workshop
*Screen Craft’s Screenwriting contests
*BlueCat Screenplay competition
*American Zoetrope (Francis Ford Coppola)
*Slamdance Writers Competition
*Austin Film Festival
“Keep screenwriting and the winner is… YOU!”—Scriptcat
“You have to be very productive in order to become excellent. You have to go through a poor period and a mediocre period, and then you move into your excellent period. It may be very well be that some of you have done quite a bit of writing already. You maybe ready to move into your good period and your excellent period. But you shouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a very long process.”—Ray Bradbury
“It’s such an exhausting thing, you know, facing that empty page in the morning.”—Billy Wilder
“For the warrior, there is no ‘better’ or ‘worse’; everyone has the necessary gifts for his particular path.” — Paulo Coelho
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July 5, 2017 § 1 Comment
Screenwriting is usually a solitary endeavor as we primarily sit alone at our keyboards, sometimes late at night, and peck away at our precious screenplays. It can get lonely because a writer must get away from the constant distractions of the day and escape alone into the world of characters on the page. Many times you’ll throw around ideas with a friend and end up saying, “That’s a great idea. Let’s write the script.” Your excitement may cloud your better judgement and cause you not to ask the serious questions before you both sit down and type FADE IN. You have to remember that it’s a creative and business relationship—both writers will sink or swim together. This is why you need a fully engaged partner on your team and not someone who half-asses their way through the experience.
If you’re thinking about working on a project with a screenwriting partner and never had one before, you have to ask yourself some important questions first.
1. Do you both share the same work ethic and seriousness about the craft?
This is vital to the success of your screenplay and your collaboration. You might find that your “writing partner” allows everything else in his or her life to get in the way of your writing time. If both writers are not “on the same page,” it’s going to be a bumpy ride and you’ll waste your time. It’s not fun and games. Time is precious and there are plenty of screenwriters out there who are serious and can the job done.
2. Is this partnership for one project or are you becoming a writing team?
You should have a talk about your situation before you begin. You could work on one screenplay to see how you like or dislike the experience and later decide to go off on your own. Either way, always know each other’s intentions before you start on the journey together.
3. Do you both have the same creative sensibilities?
This is vital to a successful collaboration. If you’re writing a thriller and your writing partner doesn’t know anything about the genre, why are you working together? It’s a team, but you work together as one voice. When agents, mangers, executives, and producers start reading your work, you will have one voice—the team. If you’re doing all of the work, why are you writing with a partner? Each person will have strengths and weaknesses and you both should compliment each other with regards to this.
4. What happens if your project sells? Is your partner willing to collaborate with producers to make changes and execute notes?
You don’t want to finally make it into “the room” and learn that your writing partner is difficult and combative with producers when they want to make changes. This will lose you the job faster than anything else.
5. If you decide to become writing partners on all of your projects, what happens if you don’t sell anything right away? How much time will your partner give to “make it?
This is important because you don’t want to find out that after three screenplays, dozens of meetings, and no writing jobs offered, your partner decides to quit and leaves you dangling alone. The screenplays that you wrote together will become useless for you to show as an example of your talent because producers, agents, or managers will not be able to read your particular “voice” not knowing who contributed what in the script. Now going forward alone, you’ll have to start over and establish yourself as a solo screenwriter. It’s definitely a major blow to your forward movement.
Remember… this is serious. It’s not just fun and games. You must stick to a writing schedule and share everything fifty-fifty—especially the work.
If you decide to become a writing team, you both must also share a bigger vision about where you both see yourselves as business partners. It’s also a business relationship and you both must agree on every decision because it now affects both of your careers and your finances. You’ll both either swim or sink together and during the rough times, you’ll need a partner who will do everything he or she can to save you and back you up as you would do the same.
My overall experience with having a screenwriting partner was very positive, but I’ve heard stories where friendships have ended because egos and the business got in the way. I’ve had a handful of writing partners over the years and together we worked on spec TV pilots and features, but my last and longest writing partner worked with me for nearly eight years. We met working together as waiters in a restaurant — he was an actor with credits and I was a screenwriter who graduated film school and a few feature specs under my belt. We shared the same comedic sensibilities, work ethic, and were both extremely serious about pursuing a career as screenwriters. We were blessed to have crossed paths when we did.
When he asked me to join a brand new sketch comedy troupe, I jumped at the opportunity and it gave me the chance to also become a live performer. It was our invaluable experiences together writing, performing, and producing the live show and subsequent pilot that helped to solidify our writing and business partnership. We also became closer friends as a result.
After our live show ran for many years, we co-wrote and co-produced an independently financed feature film that starred an Academy Award acting nominee and that experience brought our working relationship to an entirely new level. After that successful experience, we both decided that we wanted to focus on writing feature screenplays. We landed a literary manager who then found us an agent at a mid-level agency and we were off to the races. During this period, I also sold a spec script of my own that went into production the following year. But now they sold us to Hollywood as a “writing team” and our handlers constantly sent out our specs and set up dozens of pitch meetings.
As a writing team, we laid the foundation for producers to get to know our work and consider us for writing assignments or rewrites. Our scripts were always “high concept comedies” that were heartfelt and uplifting. This was perfect as the producers we were meeting made those types of movies and wanted to read our scripts. Many times, these producers brought our scripts to the studio level for consideration and we always felt with every positive step forward we moved closer to our big breaks. It always seemed like just one script away.
We knew each other so well that it was like having my other half with me in the pitch meetings. And trust me, I’ve pitched alone and when it goes badly, it’s nice to have your writing partner there to back you up and vice versa. We were mature enough to know our weaknesses and both allowed each other to use our creative strengths to help the overall project. We took all ego out of the creative relationship.
As a team, it felt like family and we were like brothers looking out for each other as family. We always seemed on the same page with regards to the bigger picture. He always had some vivid wild dream and would come to me and pitch it, we’d work it out, and it would become our next project. I’d instantly see it in my mind and we’d structure the story, pitch it to our manager, and then write it. We’d usually complete a spec in a month and take notes from our handlers and quickly execute those notes. They liked that we worked fast and were so productive with multiple solid projects they could inject into the marketplace.
After our live sketch show ended, as a writing team we co-wrote and co-produced a feature film, completed seven feature scripts, took dozens of pitch meetings, and co-wrote and did voices for a Showtime pilot. We had a good run. He eventually decided to start a family, leave the film business, and open three very successful restaurants. I soldiered on alone.
For me personally, I’m so thankful to have had a writing partner during those creative years and I know we had more output together than if I had worked alone. Remember that when managers and agents send you out, you will be a writing team and from then on it will be difficult for you to work on your own as well. If you become successful and hook a writing job together, they will want the writing team and no just you alone. At the time, I recall my manager not really wanting to push my solo projects, as I was part of a writing team now and that was her focus.
If your writing partner is a friend and your business relationship goes sour, you could lose your friend and the project in the process. What if your partner decides to go another direction and quit the writing team because you aren’t selling anything? What if your partner hates to execute notes and doesn’t get along with producers? Be sure about the person you decide to include in your own career path. Also remember that any money you make will be split between you as well. That big $100,000 script sale really means $50,000 each minus agent, manager, lawyer, and taxes. It’s half the work, but also half the money.
A writing partner needs to be the right fit for the long haul because the team’s every success and failure will affect both of your careers. Like any relationship, it’s a give and take, so you have to seriously weigh the pros and cons of having a writing partner or choosing to go it alone. Choose wisely my friends.
Here’s a classic example of writing partners not working out from ‘Billy Wilder: The Art of Screenwriting No. 1’. Interviewed by James Linville in The Paris Review, 1996.
I understand your collaboration with Raymond Chandler was more difficult?
Yes. Chandler had never been inside a studio. He was writing for one of the hard-boiled serial magazines, The Black Mask—the original pulp fiction—and he’d been stringing tennis rackets to make ends meet. Just before then, James M. Cain had written The Postman Always Rings Twice, and then a similar story, Double Indemnity, which was serialized in three or four installments in the late Liberty magazine.
Paramount bought Double Indemnity, and I was eager to work with Cain, but he was tied up working on a picture at Fox called Western Union. A producer-friend brought me some Chandler stories from The Black Mask. You could see the man had a wonderful eye. I remember two lines from those stories especially: ‘Nothing is emptier than an empty swimming pool.’ The other is when Marlowe goes to Pasadena in the middle of the summer and drops in on a very old man who is sitting in a greenhouse covered in three blankets. He says, ‘Out of his ears grew hair long enough to catch a moth.’ A great eye . . . but then you don’t know if that will work in pictures because the details in writing have to be photographable.
I said to Joe Sistrom, “Let’s give him a try.” Chandler came into the studio, and we gave him the Cain story Double Indemnity to read. He came back the next day: “I read that story. It’s absolute shit!” He hated Cain because of Cain’s big success with The Postman Always Rings Twice.
He said, “Well, I’ll do it anyway. Give me a screenplay so I can familiarize myself with the format. This is Friday. Do you want it a week from Monday?”
Holy shit, we said. We usually took five to six months on a script.
“Don’t worry,” he said. He had no idea that I was not only the director but was supposed to write it with him.
|Double Indemnity (Directed by Billy Wilder)|
He came back in ten days with eighty pages of absolute bullshit. He had some good phrases of dialogue, but they must have given him a script written by someone who wanted to be a director. He’d put in directions for fade-ins, dissolves, all kinds of camera moves to show he’d grasped the technique.
I sat him down and explained we’d have to work together. We always met at nine o’clock, and would quit at about four-thirty. I had to explain a lot to him as we went along, but he was very helpful to me. What we were doing together had real electricity. He was a very, very good writer—but not of scripts.
One morning, I’m sitting there in the office, ten o’clock and no Chandler. Eleven o’clock. At eleven-thirty, I called Joe Sistrom, the producer of Double Indemnity, and asked, “What happened to Chandler?”
“I was going to call you. I just got a letter from him in which he resigns.”
Apparently he had resigned because, while we were sitting in the office with the sun shining through, I had asked him to close the curtains and I had not said please. He accused me of having as many as three martinis at lunch. Furthermore, he wrote that he found it very disconcerting that “Mr. Wilder gets two, three, sometimes even four calls from obviously young girls.”
Naturally. I would take a phone call, three or four minutes, to say, Let’s meet at that restaurant there, or, Let’s go for a drink here. He was about twenty years older than I was, and his wife was older than him, elderly. And I was on the phone with girls! Sex was rampant then, but I was just looking out for myself. Later, in a biography he said all sorts of nasty things about me—that I was a Nazi, that I was uncooperative and rude, and God knows what. Maybe the antagonism even helped. He was a peculiar guy, but I was very glad to have worked with him.
Copyright 2017 written by Mark Sanderson on his blog MY BLANK PAGE.
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“Seeking support from friends and family is like having your people gathered around at your deathbed. It’s nice, but when the ship sails, all they can do is stand on the dock waving goodbye. Any support we get from persons of flesh and blood is like Monopoly money; it’s not legal tender in that sphere where we have to do our work. In fact, the more energy we spend stoking up on support from colleagues and loved ones, the weaker we become and the less capable of handling our business.” —Steven Pressfield, “The War of Art”
“Writing is very hard work, and having done both writing and directing, I can tell you that directing is a pleasure and writing is a drag… but writing is just an empty page—you start with absolutely nothing. I think writers are vastly underrated and underpaid. It’s totally impossible, thought, for a mediocre director to completely screw up a great script.”— director Billy Wilder
You can write any time people will leave you alone and not interrupt you. Or rather you can if you will be ruthless enough about it. But the best writing is certainly when you are in love. If it is all the same to you I would rather not expound on that.”—Ernest Hemingway
“Most directors do not want to rewrite the script. They have more pressing commitments on the sound stage. The writer’s best insurance against a rewrite is to have an understanding of the directorial problems. Write a scene that can’t be played, no matter how beautiful the words or thoughts, is begging for a revamp.”—Jerry Lewis
“Life in the movie business is like the beginning of a new love affair. It’s full of surprises and you’re constantly getting fucked.”—David Mamet
“The time we have alone; the time we have in walking; the time we have in riding a bicycle; are the most important times for a writer. Escaping from a typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give your subconscious time to think. Real thinking always occurs on the subconscious level.”—Ray Bradbury
June 29, 2017 § Leave a comment
The big three... criticism, rejection, and failure. How have you been dealing with them? Do you bristle at every note or suggested change to your screenplay? Are you defensive about your screenwriting? If you start working professionally with this attitude, you will be branded as “difficult” and probably will find it hard to work again. What about rejection? Nobody likes to have their hard work rejected, but let’s face it… it’s a competitive business and that’s why it’s called the “film business.” It’s a business with all of the concerns and planning that any business requires. And how about failure? Who likes to fail? Especially at something we love to do like screenwriting. Failure is the Yin to the Yang of success. You can’t have one without the other, so get used to the ups and downs that a screenwriting career brings.
Screenwriting is a sweat equity task as you write your specs, but it changes to financial equity when you get paid professionally. The only way to become an excellent screenwriter is to take the criticism, rejection, and failure and learn from it. If you stay open and want to grow, you will use these perceived setbacks as opportunities to learn and come back stronger the next time. You’ll have to overcome these hurdles and others if you want to pursue a screenwriting career in Hollywood. As you suffer the blows from responses like “no,” you also will also hear “maybe” and that can lead to a “yes.”
No one said this journey was going to be easy. The 2016 Scoggins Report listed only about 70 specs selling to Hollywood last year. That’s out of the 50,000 or so projects registered with the WGA every year. And don’t forget that half of those WGA writers don’t report any income in any given year. Horrible odds, right? I don’t write this to scare you away from your dream, but to humble you and show you the need for respecting the craft and the journey.
Don’t take criticism personally and realize that it’s part of the process. If you’re going to play in the majors, you’re competing with the best and you must accept that sometimes you won’t find the validation you need. Many times feedback on your script is disappointing and your high expectations become squashed. Your ego’s bruised, beaten to a pulp and you to doubt your talent and chances for success. This is not a business for the thin of skin or anyone who can’t handle the struggles of a screenwriting career.
You can’t think that just because you sit down and write a screenplay that anyone cares. You have to make them care by writing something truly unique and amazing. A screenplay that stands out from the piles of crap that bounce around every year looking for a home. You may be an excellent screenwriter with superb screenplays. Good. That’s the starting point these days. Good isn’t good enough to compete—you have to be excellent and even then you have no guarantee of success. There are about ten thousand other excellent professional screenwriters in the WGA who can also write a superb screenplay. If you add those who are struggling to become a professional, it’s probably tens of thousands of screenwriters. It’s your job to build your connections, keep writing, always have a game plan, and fight to secure that first job or your next.
When you start working professionally, it’s all about executing the notes. Don’t take the criticism personally, because feedback is a rite of passage necessary for the growth of any aspiring screenwriter. If you want to survive over the long haul of a career, you’ll need to toughen up and build your courage to endure disappointment criticism, rejection, and failure. Learn how to filter the good notes from the bad and ugly notes. As you embrace this process, you’ll begin to look at constructive feedback as a positive experience that helps make your script better, helps push it closer to something a producer wants to produce, and teaches you how to collaborate as a team player so you can work again.
That’s always been my goal—to work professionally and get paid for something I love to do. I’ve been blessed to achieve my goal seventeen times with paid assignments and one spec sale. It hasn’t been easy, but I learned early on that criticism comes with the job. Hell, my spec sale screenplay was rejected by the most powerful agency in Hollywood at the time, but it went on to find the right producer who made the film that starred an Academy Award nominated actor. You never know. Get a handle on the criticism, rejection, and failure because if they stop you from writing and you give up, you’ll never know just how close you came from a break that opened the door to success.
Keep on writing and detach from your work. It makes the journey much easier over the long haul.
Copyright 2017 by Mark Sanderson on MY BLANK PAGE.
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“You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen”—Joseph Campbell
“Screenwriting is such a very special branch of literature. In some ways, it’s closer to the poetic form than it is to the dramatic. A lot of writers think that they write down to an audience if they do a motion-picture script.”—John Huston
“When I first meet with the scriptwriter, I ask him what is the story about—what do you see—what was your intention?”—Sidney Lumet
“There are two kinds of scenes: Pet the Dog Scene & Kick the Dog scene. The studio always wants a “Pet the Dog” scene so everybody can tell who the hero is.”—Paddy Chaydfsky
June 24, 2017 § 2 Comments
It’s time again for a guest blogger here on MY BLANK PAGE! Appearing for his third time with another superb contribution about screenwriting in the trenches… let’s welcome back U.K. screenwriter Niraj Kapur.
“Overcoming the disappointments a screenwriting journey can deliver.”
By Niraj Kapur
In 2012, my movie Naachle London was released in cinemas across England.
Written in 2004, it won a writing award in 2006 and was optioned in 2007. Eventually, I sold it to a producer who changed it from a fun British romantic comedy into a Bollywood Family Drama Musical.
Although I only recognised 30% of the final movie as mine, it was an honour to spend a day on set receiving warm wishes from the cast and crew, attend a red carpet screening in London and have my name on the movie poster and trailer which you can see on Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ftwUGemp6Jw
I told hundreds of agents and producers about the premiere, convinced that after 20 years of options, commissions, setbacks and “almost making it” I would finally get my big break.
Not a single agent or producer turned up. Not a single job offer came in.
I was devastated.
After months of self-pity, my wife recommended Hollywood, since most of my favourite writers, directors and movies are American.
18 months after hiring an industry screenwriting coach and two script editors, I flew to L.A. to attend conferences and pitching events, armed with two screenplays.
The biggest regret in my career is that I never invested enough in learning, so I re-read the classics — Michael Hauge, Syd Field and Robert McKee, attended valuable classes from Pilar Alessandra, Jen Grisanti, Lee Jessup and pitched managers, agents or producers (MAP) at exciting events like Story Expo, Great American Pitchfest, and Fade In.
I pitched about 80 MAP and got 27 requests.
Eclectic Pictures, producers of Olympus Has Fallen and Lovelace, asked me into the offices after my first event to pitch the team and a deal was in place to buy my action screenplay.
My dreams were coming true.
The screenplay contract could be cancelled within 30 days of signing and on day 28, Eclectic Pictures cancelled due to internal issues.
18 out of 26 MAP didn’t read my scripts, despite me sending thank you cards and waiting several weeks before following up. Months after my emails weren’t returned, I tried phoning.
My calls were not taken. I even heard one producer say, ”Tell him I’m not there”.
The remaining 8 MAP said, “It wasn’t what they’re looking for” which offers no help whatsoever.
Having sacrificed holidays, a big promotion in my 9-5 job, time with my wife and daughter and taking a bank loan and credit cards worth £15,000 (approx. $20,000), I was devastated.
Dorothy Parker once said, “Hollywood is the only place in the world you can die of encouragement”.
The one smart thing I did was form a writing group who have been incredibly supportive. When you get rejected, fellow artists understand you better than anyone else.
Trying to figure out what went wrong, I paid for mentoring sessions through Stage 32 with Circle of Confusion and an executive at Lionsgate. Both were helpful and advised me to stop writing commercial Hollywood movies. Be unique, write something small and personal in England and get recognised that way.
Having spent 3 years learning to write big budget commercial projects and Americanise my language, it was back to basics.
Belfast Son — a father/son drama with a twist and Till Death Do Us Part, a female-driven horror movie are the results from the last 16 months.
I had to swallow a lot of pride, experience discomfort, endure sleepless nights and miss the glorious sunshine of L.A., although this made me a better writer.
My Hollywood career hasn’t worked out the way I planned, however, I didn’t give up on my dreams, I’ve simply changed how I got there.
Of course, let’s see how the industry reacts…
Written by Niraj Kapur
Niraj Kapur worked as a writer-for-hire on several kids shows on British TV with numerous screenplay commissions and options. His first movie Naachle London was released in 2012. Find him online: www.nirajkapur.com