Some of you may know me from my postings on screenwriting websites over the last several years, perhaps you’ve read (or heard) some of my Internet interviews. I may even have done screenplay critiques/evaluations for a few of you. To all, a hearty welcome to my new blog!
I’d like to make something very clear: I do not profess to be an all-knowing screenwriting guru. I’m merely a guy who’s been in the screenwriting game a long while and has a pretty decent handle on what it’s all about. I’m fortunate to be able to call myself a working screenwriter. It’s been a long, tough road—and, for the most part, it continues to be—but I’ve managed some nice successes. And had a lot of fun along the way. The most important thing is, I’m doing what I want to do.
To me, there’s nothing better than the movie business. I've wanted to be a part of it since I was a kid. So, when I’m battling it out with a producer or director, or when I’m fighting traffic to get to some umpteenth script meeting on time, or when I’m on that roller-coaster ride called “Development,” I still never forget how lucky I am, to be doing what I’m doing.
I hope you’ll stick around and check out other segments of this blog, such as:
Jim Who?, where you'll learn a little bit about me...
Questions & Answers, where I’ll answer some of the most frequently asked questions from those new to screenwriting…
Fatal Flaws (of the Novice Screenwriter), where I address some of the biggest mistakes made by most pre-pro scribes.
Q & A: THE WORKING SCREENWRITER: THE BOOK!, where you’ll learn about my informative new book, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter...
So, whether you’re a first-time screenwriter, or already written a script or two, I’m sure you’ll find this space on the Net a valuable resource. That’s my goal.
Thanks again—and enjoy your visit to The Working Screenwriter 2!
Absolute Write (May 2003)
Two Adverbs Interview (July 2007)
Movie Geeks Podcast Interview (August 19, 2007)
BackStage.com (September 2007)
JUST FOR FUN:
KING VICTOR PRODUCTIONS
HOUSE AT THE END OF THE DRIVE - THE OFFICIAL MOVIE SITE
To visit my official blog—the miscellaneous rants, raves, musings, adventures (and misadventures) of a working Los Angeles screenwriter—please go to:
The Working Screenwriter Blog!
Also...if you're looking for the Official Izen-Vines website I had up for a few years, well, it's now defunct. Sorry. But it sure was fun while it lasted. The good news is...our #1 fan, Nezi Nevins, has a tribute page over at MySpace. Feel free to check it out at myspace.com/nezinevins.
Q: I want to write screenplays, but I don’t know where to begin. What’s the best way to get started?
A: My best advice would be to spend some time immersing yourself in studying the art, craft, and process of writing a screenplay. Read a few how-to books (yes, my book would be one excellent choice!), then read a handful of scripts that have been successfully produced. (Go to this site for a good selection.) Also, watch the movies that were made from these scripts. Then, re-read some (or all) of these scripts. But just don’t read them, study them. By this point in time, you should have absorbed enough information to give you a good push toward starting your first script. Finally, sit your rear end down in a chair—and write. No, I’m not going to tell you to write an outline (more on this later), and I’m not going to tell you to write on a computer, or with pen and pad. Some things you’re gonna have to figure out for yourself. Trial and error. Learn from your mistakes. Discover what works for you and what doesn’t.
DO THE WORK. It’s the only way you’ll truly learn.
Next, you need to slog your way through the first draft of a script. Any script. Any genre. Just get that first draft done. Don’t worry about getting it perfect. (As a famous writer once said, “Don’t get it right, just write.”)
When this draft is completed, give it to three or four trusted, intelligent friends and get some opinions. Find out what worked for them and what didn’t.
Did any scenes drag on too long?
Was the dialogue realistic?
Were any characters unrealistic or one-dimensional?
Armed with this feedback, slog your way through a rewrite. Again, how you do this is entirely up to you. Figure it out. Some writers work only on their computer. Some, as I do, always print a clean copy of their script and attack it with a red pen, then transfer the changes on the computer version. Maybe this process will work for you and maybe it won’t—but that’s for you to discover. That’s what screenwriting is all about—discovery. No two screenwriters have the exact same method. Whatever works. Don’t get it in your head that you’re writing your first script with the intent to sell it. The chances of selling any script ain’t high and the chances of selling the first script you ever write are...well, virtually nil. First scripts are for learning purposes only. It could take 2, 3, 6, 8, 10 scripts before you write one that’s saleable. Chances are pretty decent that you’ll never write a saleable screenplay. Screenwriting is both an art and a craft and not everyone is equipped to be an artist or a craftsman. I wish I could draw pictures, but I can’t. I can barely scratch out a decent stick figure. But that’s life. Problem is, screenwriting has become the new sporting event and everyone’s jumping onto the field. Everyone’s got a computer, everyone can get a scriptwriting program, and everyone has seen a movie and said, “I could write a better movie than that!” Can you?
So, give this screenwriting thing your best shot—work your rear end off and write, write, write...and see where your journey takes you.
Q: I’m brand new to scriptwriting. What are some good “how-to” books to help get me started?
A: You’re not going to learn how to write a marketable screenplay just by reading how-to books. Read two or three, get a good handle on it all, then start writing (see above). For me, those books have always been more simply a source of inspiration, than anything else. (I’m a huge fan of 101 Habits of Highly Successful Screenwriters, by Karl Iglesias, and Stephen King’s On Writing.) So, other than my own highly inspirational book, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter, I’d like to suggest two that give a great nuts-and-bolts overview and will help immensely in getting your script written properly. They are David Trottier’s Screenwriter’s Bible, and Screenplay: Writing the Picture, by Robin U. Russin and William Missouri Downs. I can also suggest The Writer’s Journey: Mythic Structures for Writers, by Christopher Vogler, and The Screenwriter’s Workbook, by Syd Field. (May 2007 update: I also very highly recommend Real Screenwriting, by Ron Suppa.)
Q: How long should it take me to write a feature-length screenplay?
A: Somebody once said, "It takes as long as it takes—and not a moment longer." For the most part, I’d agree. But, if you're taking two years to complete just one screenplay, I think there's a problem. (However, if you've turned out something akin to Gone with the Wind, or Raiders of the Lost Ark, at the end of those two years, then it was time very well spent!) Also, if you're writing a spec that nobody is actually waiting to read, then taking your sweet time is fine. But, if you get an assignment (i.e., work-for-hire) and if a producer gives you a deadline to meet ("I need the new draft by 5PM tomorrow!"), then the leisurely pace you've established for yourself will be unacceptable. So, the upshot here is it’s good to be able to work quickly and efficiently.
Q: Should I outline my script before starting the actual screenplay?
A: I’m sure you’ve heard it a bazillion times before, but I’ll say it again here: It’s like going on a cross-country trip without a road map. You might—might—end up in the same destination, but with the map, you’ll save yourself a lot of gas (not to mention headaches).
Over the last several years, I’ve had numerous conversations with first-time writers, and many have said, “I’m stuck on page thirty and don’t know where to go.” I’ll ask them, “You didn’t outline your script, did you?” Nope, not one of them did. That’s what happens. You get this great idea, you come up with a solid start, maybe a bit of the second act, then—BLURP—it just falls apart.
As far as I’m concerned, outlining is where the real work comes in. It’s where you test-drive the story and determine if it’ll all work. It’s where you work out all the pivotal details, where you track characters, where you plot the twists and turns. It’s where you work out the subplots and get a feel for timing and flow.
So, yeah, I feel outlining is an integral part of the screenwriting process and I wouldn’t start any script without some type of semi-detailed outline.
I always hear people say, “But if I write an outline, it stifles my creativity.” I’m not sure I understand this. The outline is where you’re supposed to explore your creativity! Go crazy, try things, see what’s gonna work. Believe me, it’s far less aggravating making those inevitable storyline changes and reworking those twists and turns in a 20-page outline, than in a 110-page screenplay.
But go ahead, write your script without the outline, and see if you can get across the finish line with a coherent story. However, if you get in the general vicinity of page 30 and say, “Um, now what do I do now?” you might want to consider an outline.
Q: How long should it take me to write an outline?
A: Depending on the story, mine take anywhere from two weeks to two months to sketch out. Once a solid outline has been crafted, the actual scriptwriting process usually proceeds relatively smoothly. Based on my typical writing pace of 2 to 5 hours per day, I usually crank out a workable first draft in 2-6 weeks. Of course, subsequent drafts—which lead the way to the final submission draft—could take a few weeks, to several months longer. But there’s a lot to be said for getting that first draft done. It’s a real psychological boost to have those 100 pages of neatly bound text in your hot little hands. Once this draft is completed, the subsequent ones seem far less daunting.
Q: How long should my outline be?
A: Mine generally run anywhere from 25-35 pages. (I recently sent a producer an outline for a script she hired me to write—and that outline came in at 46 pages.) But I’d say nothing less than 15 pages (12 pt. type, single spaced). In my opinion, anything less than about 15 pages just isn’t detailed enough to do you much good.
Q: Can my script deviate from the outline?
A: Sure. Changes along the way are inevitable and welcomed. If I could put numbers on it, I’d say 85% of your script is based on the outline and 15% is wrought from discovery along the way.
Q: What is a treatment—and do I need to write one?
A: A treatment is a narrative pitch, a document that outlines your script’s story from start to finish, and is generally used to sell the story to executives who have little time to read a complete screenplay. Your goal is to write a treatment that sells your story/concept, something that’ll make the executive request the full script.
Treatments—typically between three to fifteen pages in length—are crafted in a different style than a screenplay and some writers find them difficult to write, but they can definitely be an invaluable sales tool, so you’d better learn to write ‘em. Some fledgling writers work hard to write a slam-bang treatment, hoping this will sell their idea, but neglect to write an actual screenplay. They say to themselves, “Well, it’s so much easier to just write a ten page treatment. I’ll sell the idea, and then I’ll write the script.” I’d like to dissuade you from this tactic. If a producer reads your treatment, likes it and wants to see a full screenplay, are you gonna take the next three months (if you’re lucky) to get it written? NO! You’ll be forgotten about in three months.
Producers want writers they can count on, someone who can deliver the goods, and they don’t want to hear, “I’ve almost got the second act worked out. Just give me another month.” You’ve already made the connection with these people, don’t blow it. Write the script. Write the treatment.
Here are a couple of books that will help:
Writing Treatments That Sell: How to Create and Market Your Story Ideas to the Motion Picture and TV Industry, by Kenneth Atchity & Chi-Li Wong
Writing the Killer Treatment: Selling Your Story Without a Script, by Michael Halperin
Q: I’m always getting writer’s block! How do I get rid of it?
A: As far as I’m concerned, writer’s block is nothing more than a form of total, absolute and complete laziness. Face it, you’re just not willing to sit yourself down, put on your thinking cap and plumb the depths of your creativity. Sorry to be the one to break it to you, but that’s what screenwriting is all about. So, get used to it.
Do whatever you have to do, but force yourself into your writing mode every day. Whatever it takes. And believe me, once you get rolling and ideas are flowing, you’ll wonder what all your apprehension was about. However, if you still find it near-impossible to park yourself in front of that keyboard, and/or if you continually have trouble coming up with ideas, and/or you’d prefer to watch Championship Knitting on C-SPAN rather than crank out script pages, then this might be the universe telling you, “Sorry, pal, you’re not a screenwriter.”
Q: What genres sell the best?
A: I don’t think this should be the deciding factor for which scripts you write. You should probably be writing what you know, understand and have a passion for. That said, comedy, horror and thrillers always seem to be high on the wanted list. So if you’re good with any of these genres, I suggest you start there. If those genres aren’t your cup of tea, then just write a great script of whatever genre you’re comfortable with. A great script is a great script.
Now, a few words about...
Comedy: Someone once said, “Dying is easy, comedy is hard.” Whoever he was, he sure hit the nail on the head with that one. Comedy is super difficult to get right. Sure, I know you might think you’re funny, but chances are, you’re just not. And if you are funny, can you write funny? All I can say is tread extra carefully with this genre.
The “period piece”: This is a story that takes place in a time other than the present (not to be confused with “futuristic”). A typical period piece could take place in the 1970s (Boogie Nights), or the 1930s (The Sting), or the 1860s (Dances with Wolves). Yes, these are all exceptional films, but stories like these can also be very difficult to sell, especially nowadays, when the typical age of the movie-going public is 13 to 24 and the average age of the development executive at your friendly neighborhood movie studio is right around 26. So, if you truly want to write a story about the Kwakiutl Indians of Northern Canada, or a story about president Ulysses S. Grant’s battle with alcoholism, by all means, do so...but know they won’t be an easy sell. Not easy at all.
Q: Which formatting software should I use—and do I even need it?
A: If you can afford a formatting program, I suggest you get one—it’ll make your life a whole lot easier and it’ll make you look more professional. A good majority of the studios and prodcos seem to favor either Final Draft or Movie Magic. For what it’s worth, most of the producers and directors I’ve worked with have used these two formatting programs. If you use another program (Scriptware, Script Wizard, Dr. Format, etc.) don’t worry about it. Most—if not all—scriptwriting programs allow you to convert to a rich text format, and then the prodco can convert into whichever program they are using.
Another thing to consider: It’s becoming more of a necessity to have the ability to email your script as a PDF. Recent versions of Final Draft and Movie Magic give you this option. Also, if you can’t afford a screenwriting program, you can use a simple word processing program (such as MS Word). Remember, it’s all about the words you use, not the computer program.
Q: Where can I find a guide to proper formatting?
A: David Trottier's Screenwriter’s Bible will tell you everything you need to know. You can also go here.
UPDATED INFORMATION (JULY 2012): Other than The Screenwriter’s Bible, I can’t think of a better resource for proper screenplay format than ScriptToolBox.com. Need to know how to format a POV shot? Need to know how to format a split screen shot or a scene containing dual dialogue? Need to know the correct way to format a dream sequence or flashback or a series of shots? If it has to do with correct screenplay format, you’ll find it at ScriptToolBox!
A: What’s the point of using a slug such as LATE MORNING, EARLY AFTERNOON or MIDDAY? How can you tell the difference? It’s either DAY or NIGHT—and if you have to be a bit more specific, DAWN/SUNRISE or SUNSET are fine. If you want to let the reader know it’s high noon or late afternoon, then write that into your scene description: “The sun burns bright directly overhead” or “Late-day shadows stretch across the mass of charred corpses.”
Q: Should I cap the sound effects in my script?
A: Years ago it was the norm to cap all sound effects in a spec screenplay. That sort of formatting seems to be out of fashion these days. If you cap an occasional EXPLOSION or GUNSHOT, it won’t kill ya. Just don’t plaster ‘em on every page. The only things you need to cap are characters when they make their first appearance in the script. Also, if you show a sign in one of your scenes, cap that too (e.g., GRAND AVENUE – NEXT EXIT).
Q: I want to make sure my script is protected. Which should I do, WGA registration or register my copyright with the Library of Congress?
A: People get so worked up over this. I personally don’t think script theft is that much of a problem. I certainly wouldn’t get paranoid about it—and I wouldn’t let it prevent me from sending my scripts out to production companies and studios. WGA registration and registration with the LOC are both relatively inexpensive. I suggest you go to the following websites and do some reading. Writers Guild of America Script Registration and U.S. Copyright Office.
But definitely do one or the other, or do both, and forget about it.
Also, there’s no need to rush out and register your copyright on the first draft of your script. Only register your copyright/work when you decide to send the script out to consultants, contests, agents and/or prodcos. If you do substantial rewrites thereafter, go ahead and re-register your copyright/work. Other than WGA and/or LOC registration, the best way to protect yourself is to keep a paper trail. Keep all correspondence (emails, etc.) and a written log of all individuals and prodcos you contact. Also keep all your notes, outlines, and drafts. Should it become necessary, this material can go a long way to proving your case in a courtroom.
The “Poor Man’s Copyright”: For those of you thinking about putting your script into a sealed envelope and mailing it to yourself: DO NOT DO IT! IT DOES NOT WORK. IT WILL NOT HOLD UP IN COURT. One more time for those who didn’t quite get it: DO NOT DO IT. IT DOES NOT WORK. IT WILL NOT HOLD UP IN COURT.
Q: Should I put the WGA registration number on the title page of my script?
A: There always seems to be a big debate about this one. If you really want to put the registration number on the cover page, then do it. As for myself, I don’t. Why? Because to me it screams, THIS SCRIPT IS REGISTERED SO DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT STEALING IT! Actually, what it really screams is, I AM A NOVICE SCREENWRITER AND I DON’T TRUST ANYONE! Whatever. Do it, don’t do it. Again, if the script is really top-notch, nobody cares about this trivial stuff.
A: So...you’re a newbie writer and you’ve written two or three drafts of a script. The odds are against it being a professional piece of work at this point—but hey, you feel it’s ready to send out to agents, producers, etc. OK, hold it right there!
NEWSFLASH: CHANCES ARE QUITE GOOD THAT YOUR SCRIPT SUCKS. Really sucks.
If you’re a first-time writer, there’s nothing wrong with writing a lousy script. We all gotta start somewhere, right? The problem is when you write that lousy script and say, “Whoa, this is really good—I think I’ll send it to that producer I met six months ago!” This, friends, is where the problems start.
When you’ve been at it a while (usually a long while), you’ll just know when your script is ready to be thrust into the cold, cruel world. Until then, it’s imperative for you to get a professional opinion. No, not your parents, not your best friend, not your English teacher—a professional script consultant. There are many to choose from. Drop by a screenwriter’s bulletin board on the Internet and ask for referrals, or check out the listing put out by magazines such as Creative Screenwriting. Some consultants are relatively inexpensive and some are very expensive. I always cringe when a writer tells me they just spent $800 to $1,000 to have a consultant critique their script. I don’t see the point in this. After all, chances are good you’ll need more than one critique before your script is ready to submit anywhere. Are you expected to pay this type of money three, four times...or more? I’m not saying these consultants aren’t worth what they charge, I’m just saying it seems...well, ridiculous. As far as I’m concerned, I think if you can spend under a couple hundred bucks for an overall review of your script, you’re in good shape.
You might also try getting a pro writer to critique your script for free. You’d be surprised how many professionals are willing to help out an eager-to-learn writer. Posting your script on a peer site (such as TriggerStreet or Zoetrope) can also be a good idea. My only real complaint with these sites is you’re often getting critiques from people who know just as much—or less!—about writing screenplays as you do. So be careful about who you deal with.
And finally...make sure you get your script proofed before you send it to agents and/or prodcos. I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read that contained numerous typos, misspellings, and improper use of punctuation—and these are scripts the writers were on the verge of sending out! Will a few typos and/or misspellings sink your script? No, of course not. But puh-leeze, know the difference between...
You only have one chance to make a first impression. Don’t blow it.
Q: I’ve only written one script. Should I have more than that before I try to market myself as a screenwriter?
A: I think it’s important for managers and agents to know your creative well hasn’t gone dry after penning just one script—and it’s also important to have more than just one script in hand when you start meeting with producers. For instance...not long ago, my manager and I had a meeting at the home of a fairly well-known producer/director. We brought along three scripts that we felt might compliment his abilities.
So we pitched the first script, a comedy. Nope, he doesn’t want to do comedies anymore. A psycho-thriller? Nope, not his cup of tea right now. A creepy horror tale? Bingo! He took the script, promised he'd have it read soon. This sort of thing has happened to me several times. If they don’t like one idea, hit ‘em with another, then another, then another. Nope, I can't imagine having just one or two scripts in my repertoire. If you’re a writer, WRITE!
Q: I don’t have representation. How do I get my script on the desk of a producer?
A: Get out your handy dandy Hollywood Creative Directory (HCD)* and find a couple dozen (or more) production companies that are a good fit for your script (i.e., you have a big action script, you’d probably go to the offices of Jerry Bruckheimer or Joel Silver, etc.), then contact them via email or with a cold call and ask if you can submit your script. If you query via email, keep your pitch ultra-succinct (less than half a page). Make it a hard-hitting, memorable pitch that screams: I AM A MOVIE! If you cold call the production company (“prodco” to us in the biz), be prepared to give a brief pitch over the phone. Nail this pitch. No stammering, no doubling back, no awkward pauses. If the person you’re talking to likes what they hear, they might ask you to send a script. There’s also a good chance you’ll be asked questions about your story (“Why is the main character homophobic?” or “Why does Sheila move back in with Norman?”).
Know your story and be prepared to answer specific questions. Nothing worse than being asked something and saying, “Um, gosh, let me think.” And please…don’t tell whoever you speak to that your script will make a hugely successful movie—a guaranteed blockbuster. Just don’t do it.
A Successful Logline
A Successful Pitch
Most, if not all, larger production companies will insist you submit via representation. If that’s the case, you’re out of luck until you can secure the services of an agent, manager or entertainment attorney. (By the way...prodcos request scripts all the time; calling an agent and saying, "XYZ Productions wants to read my script—can you submit it for me?" won’t be of much interest to them.)
But the best way to get your script read is to network. You need "face time" with the powers that be in Hollywood. They need to know you exist and they need to know you have a product they can potentially profit from. If you’re here in Los Angeles, there are endless opportunities to meet people who can do your career some good. Film clubs, film festivals, special screenings...or just hang out at any Starbucks on the west side of town. The guy sitting at the adjacent table is probably in the film business. If you live outside of L.A., then I strongly suggest you get here. But do yourself a favor and make sure you have at least two really solid screenplays in your suitcase. People say, "If you have a great script, you can live anywhere and make a sale." Yes, that’s true. All I’m sayin’ is...it’s hard enough to get the attention of Hollywood when you’re actually in Hollywood, so why make things that much more difficult by living in Iowa, Michigan ...or the Netherlands? If you’re truly serious about your career as a screenwriter, save a pile of cash and move here for a year or two. Give it a shot.
*The Hollywood Creative Directory can usually be purchased at any book store that sells Movie/Film books. The Writers Store here in Los Angeles would be my first choice (see banner ads all over this site). There is a book for Producers and a book for Representation (entertainment attorneys, managers, agents). These books are a bit on the pricey side (about $60.00), but definitely a worthwhile investment.
Q: How do I get my script on the desk of an agent?
A: As with your search for a producer/production company, finding an agent is all about queries, pitches, and the all-important "face time” with people in the film industry. Yes, you can query agents via email and snail mail...but this is a long shot. If you do go this route, you’ll improve your chances considerably if you send a succinct query that really sells yourself as a screenwriter, as well as your story. Not an easy task. (See previous link to “A Successful Pitch.”) Where to find a listing of agents? Again, the Hollywood Creative Directory is a great resource.
You can also check out the listing on the WGA website. I wouldn’t put all my efforts into querying the big agencies like ICM, CAA, and William Morris. They’re just not interested in you right now. When you’ve sold one or two big scripts, then they’ll take interest. Until then, go after the smaller boutique agencies. As for those querying services (Scriptblaster, etc.), I think prodcos and agents have been bombarded by so many really lousy queries that they don’t pay much attention to them anymore. Face it, if you received 200+ queries each week, would you sit around reading them? People have better things to do. But is it possible to get your query read and your script requested from one of these query services? Sure. Just know the odds.
Q: Which should I go after first, an agent or a manager?
A: Managers seem to be more accessible than agents and are more willing to read work from a new writer. Agents are typically more concerned with nailing the deal, making sure the bases are covered in your contract, while managers are more concerned with a writer’s overall career. But I wouldn’t necessarily target one over the other. Just find someone who can champion your work and help you get it out into the world (which is a huge part of the battle in this game).
ON-LINE LITERARY AGENCIES: Can you say scam? Any "agent" who wants to charge you a fee (and pretty much all on-line agencies do), walk away. There seems to be a troubling frequency of writers paying good money to so-called agencies proclaiming, "We love your script and think it has great potential for a sale. Send us $500 and we’ll get your script to Hollywood’s top producers." All I can say is...hogwash. Most of these scammers have "offices" in places like Arizona , Florida , or Nebraska. If that doesn’t send up a red flag, what does? So please, tread VERY carefully when you come in contact with these jerks. Better yet, just ignore them.
Always remember: WRITERS DON’T PAY AGENTS AN UP FRONT FEE. AGENTS GET PAID WHEN THEY GET YOUR SCRIPT SOLD.
And finally...I think most fledgling writer believe all they have to do is land an agent, then sit back and wait for the jobs to roll in. They’d be wrong. Yes, having an agent and/or manager backing you will certainly make you look more professional, and people will be far more willing to listen to what you have to say, but you’ll still need to do a lot of the dirty work on your own. This is especially true if you have a lower level agent and/or manager. So, until you become Mr. (or Ms.) Hotshot Scribe, you’ll still need to pound pavement, knock on doors, and pitch to anybody who’ll listen. Once you’ve snagged interest, your rep can swoop in and cover your rear end. This is where the true value of an agent, manager and entertainment attorney lies. So, to sum it up: You are in charge of your career, not your representation.
Q: Do I really need representation in order to option and/or sell a screenplay?
A: This is a tricky question...and a tricky answer. Too many variables. I’ll say now, yes, you should have someone covering your back—someone familiar with entertainment law—whenever you go into contractual negotiations with a producer. It’ll cost you some bucks up front, but it might just save you a HUGE headache (and loss of revenue) on the back end. (For low-cost legal assistance, contact Volunteer Lawyers for the Arts, in New York City .)Can you go it alone? Sure you can. But so much depends on which producer or production company you’re dealing with. If an ultra-small production company offers you a very modest amount of money (i.e., let’s say $3,000 up front and another $2,000 when the movie goes into production), then you can probably draft your own contract...and hope for the best. If you do negotiate your own contract, know there’s an awful lot you need to consider: Credit, credit placement, payment schedule, profit participation...and on and on. This stuff can get tricky. Many low-level producers will have you sign a fairly boilerplate deal memo that is usually decipherable by anyone with a high school education. These producers also try to save a dollar whenever possible. (So don’t be surprised if they ask you to split the check when they take you to lunch at Denny’s.) They also know you’d be willing to sign your life away just to have a deal and a few bucks in your pocket. Sure, it’s exciting to have contract shoved in front of you—especially when there’s a check attached to it—but this is what these producers are hoping for. So be careful. There’s no big rush. Have someone look over the contract for you. The deal will still be there in a couple days. If it’s not, well, the producer was probably trying to pull a fast one anyway.
And last, but definitely not least, I strongly suggest you read The Writer Got Screwed (But Didn’t Have To): A Guide to the Legal and Business Practices of Writing for the Entertainment Industry, by Brooke A. Wharton, before you give any thought to handling contracts on your own. The Writer’s Legal Guide and The Screenwriter’s Legal Guide are two other good legal advice books that come to mind.
Q: Whoo hoo! Someone has requested to read my script! But how should I send it—and what should I send with it?
A: First of all, calm yourself. Congrats on getting the request, but it doesn’t necessarily mean much. Sure, they like your pitch and/or your story/concept, but getting them to love your script (then ultimately want to option and/or purchase it) is an entirely different matter. But hey, first thing’s first, right? So, to send your script:
Print a clean copy of the script on 20 lb., 3-hole punched paper.
Check the numbering of your script pages. Are they in sequential order? Are any pages missing? I learned this the hard way several years ago. I sent a script to a well-established producer here in town and the next day I got a call from his assistant: “Where’s page 54?” So I had to scramble and fax the missing page. Not a huge deal, but a tad bit embarrassing. Bind script with two Acco #5 brads. (Fine, use three if you really must.) If you want to use those little washer things, go ahead. I don’t and I don’t recommend it. (They tend to get snagged in copy machines. Trust me on this; I used to work in the copy room at William Morris.) Those Acco brads will hold your script just fine.
Note: The #5 brads fit a 100-120 page script perfectly; if the brads are too small, then your paper is too heavy (i.e., too thick) or your script is too long. And please...
DO NOT use oversized brads and fold them, or worse, cut them. When cut, those things can slice your hand open. Seriously.
NO card-stock cover for the script is necessary. But if you do want to use a card stock cover, use any solid color. Blue, red, gray...nobody really cares (though I’d shy away from yellow or neon pink). Also, if you use a card stock cover, leave it blank.
No title, no contact information, no drawings. Blank.
DO NOT send artwork. The only exception I can see to this would be if you’ve written a script about a superhero and if the artwork is really exceptional. I mean, if it’s good enough to get the producer’s juices flowin’, go for it.
DO NOT send props or gimmicks. (Did you hear about the goofball who wrote a script about a bomb squad—and how he sent along a prop bomb packaged with the script? Oh yeah, that went over real well.)
DO include a cover letter. Most producers, agents, managers and development executives receive many scripts each week, so make sure you send a cover letter and remind them (briefly) who you are and what your script is about (again, briefly). Keep personal information to a bare minimum. Nobody cares if you’re a single parent (unless, perhaps, this is what your script is about), or if you spent five years living in a nudist colony (unless, of course, this is what your script is about). However, if you’ve won a screenwriting contest (especially if it’s one of the well-known ones), mention it.
DO address your cover letter personally to your contact (i.e., “Dear Edward” or “Dear Mr. Jones”) and NOT “To Whom It May Concern.” Always thank the agent/producer/development exec for their time and consideration.
DO NOT include a casting wish list.
DO NOT suggest actors or a cool soundtrack.
DO NOT make excuses or apologies for any possible typos or a high page count. They only want to read your script.
RELEASE FORMS: If the producer or agent doesn’t ask you to sign a release form, don’t worry about it. Release forms generally only protect the person(s) you’re sending the script to. Oddly enough, some writers balk when asked to sign a release. Hey, if that’s the prodco’s policy, you have to abide by it. So, you have two choices: 1) sign the release and send it with the script, or 2) don’t sign the release and don’t send the script...and your script won’t get read. Your choice.
Should you include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for the return of your screenplay? Why go to the expense of sending something that’ll probably end up getting lost, trashed, or used for other means? But ask yourself what the purpose is to getting your script returned. Is it so you can save on Xeroxing and send it to somebody else? Sure, it might come back in pristine condition, but chances are decent it’ll be dog-eared, or have coffee stains on it, or have notations on some of the pages. Sorry, but this is not a script you want to re-send to anyone. Do you want the script returned because you don’t want it floating aimlessly around some production company? Seems that would be a good thing. You want your script out in the world! After all, you never know who might “discover” it, read it, and respond in a favorable manner. I say save yourself the time and expense of requesting your script be returned.
Place script in a manila envelope (10” x 13” works best). Mark envelope “REQUESTED MATERIAL.”
Send script via regular First Class mail. No, DO NOT send Fed Ex or Express Mail or anything else that costs a fortune and guarantees your package will get there in six hours. Nobody (usually) wants your script that quickly. Tip: You can also send via Media Mail. It'll take a few extra days to get where it's going (a week or more if you send from coast to coast), but you'll save about half off First Class rates. This will save you some money if you're sending multiple submissions. Nifty, eh?
NEVER send your script without querying first and getting the go-ahead to send the script. An unsolicited script can (and will) end up in a pile that goes directly to the trash bin. (I worked security at a big movie studio once upon a time and I’d always see stacks and stacks of unsolicited—and unopened—scripts piled up just outside the mail room.)
Now, I know what you’re thinking: “C’mon, Jim, does it really matter what brads I use, or if I put the WGA number on the title page, or if my script comes in at 127 pages?” Well, I think producers, agents, managers, and development executives make a knee-jerk assessment of a script, the moment they get their hands on it. I know I do. Believe it or not, I can virtually always tell the quality of a script based on certain aesthetic values. If the script is held together with flimsy brads, if the font and font size is all wrong, if the script is as thick as a phone book, or if the WGA registration # is emblazoned on the title page, then chances are quite good I’m dealing with a novice writer who a) hasn’t done their homework, and b) more than likely isn’t capable of writing a viable screenplay. So, by page one, I’m already dreading the experience. This is not the first impression you want to make. The only thing that’s going to reverse this feeling is if your writing is truly solid from FADE IN. If you haven’t captured the attention of your readers in those first pages, it’s doubtful you’ll ever get them back. I think this is generally true. And yes, I know this all sounds really silly, but it’s what you’re up against. Face the fact that producers, et al. have all read a million scripts—most of them dreadful—and they’re looking for pretty much any excuse to NOT read your script (at least not right away). I might be wrong about this, but probably not by much.
WORDS OF WARNING
During the past year or so, a few of my clients have told me that they’ve responded to “Script Wanted” postings on Internet screenwriting boards. These clients know I’m a big proponent of knowing who your script is going to, so they’ll usually ask the “producers” to provide information about themselves. For instance: “What type of budget are you working with?” “What have you produced previously?” “Will the writer get paid up front? Or would it be a step deal? Or will payment be deferred?” “What plans do you have for the completed movie (i.e. festivals, theatrical or direct-to-DVD release)?”
After posing these questions, most never hear anything back—or they get only a terse response with just an address. Sorry, but that just seems WRONG.
All riled up, I searched a few of these screenwriting boards, and queried twelve so-called producers. I let them know I had a script I’d love to send, but first I needed them to provide some background on who they were, etc.
Five didn’t respond at all, 4 responded with merely an address to where I could send my script, and 3 responded with very friendly messages that provided absolutely no useful information whatsoever...but oh, they'd love to read my screenplay and here's a post office box I could send it to. So, would I send a screenplay to one of these unknown entities? NO!!
Something else to keep in mind: Folks rummaging around on the Net in search of scripts are probably not in any position to get a movie made. It’s highly doubtful they even have the clout to get a script into the hands of someone who can get a movie made. In fact, I doubt these people even know anyone in the film industry. Also, it's a pretty safe bet that most of the people looking for scripts via the Internet are film students—or people who want to make their first film and need a script they can get for free or ultra-cheap. And that's fine…just let us know this up front!
So please...KNOW WHO YOU’RE SENDING YOUR SCRIPT TO. Get information from the people you query. Do Google searches. Protect yourself!
A: About 7 to 10 business days after sending your script, call or send an email to your contact and ask if they received the script. If they acknowledge receiving your script, there’s not much more you can do except forget about it and move on. Remember, you’re just asking them if the script has been received—you’re NOT asking if they’ve read it yet. Keep in mind that it can take a prodco weeks, or months, to actually get anything read. several prodcos may ask to read your script. Very few—if any—will take it beyond that point.
Q: I’ve sent my script to four production companies—and they’ve all rejected it! Should I just give up?
A: Oh, you poor thing. How awful! Look, get used to rejection—it’s a staple of the screenwriter’s diet. I’ve had several scripts passed on by one producer and then optioned and/or purchased from another. I recall giving a horror script to one well known script consultant about seven years ago. I met him at his apartment in North Hollywood. The guy never even called me back. Since then, I’ve optioned that script three times and it’s currently in development with a producer here in L.A. This is a numbers game. Fact is, not everyone is going to “get” your script. Some will love it, some will hate it, most will be somewhere in the middle. That’s the way it is. If the first guy doesn’t want your script, move on to the next guy. And if that guy doesn’t want it, move on to the next guy. If your script is truly good, someone will eventually say yes. (Probably.) And, as we all know, it only takes one “yes” to sell a script. You need a thick skin to be in this business. So, I suggest you start hanging out with some alligators and armadillos.
Q: I don’t think I can write a script on my own. Should I collaborate with another writer?
A: First, ask yourself why you need a writing partner. Is it because you’re lazy and don’t want to do any of the work? Is it because you can’t come up with any ideas of your own? Is it because you’re good with dialogue but not good with story, or vice-versa? If you’re basically just lazy and don’t want to do any work, or if you can’t come up with any ideas...then why on earth do you want to write screenplays? If you’re good with dialogue and not story, or if you’re good with story and not dialogue, then finding a collaborator who compliments your lack of proficiency is a great idea. Problem is, finding an adequate writing partner is a very tricky thing. I’d say it’s akin to finding the perfect mate—and we all know what the divorce rate is, don’t we? Actually, I’d say it’s probably even higher for writing partners. I’ve had the misfortune—er, pleasure—of collaborating with a few writers over the years. (The term “writer” is used very loosely here.) For the most part, these collaborations boiled down to me tossing out all sorts of plot points and visual imagery while my partner sat there nodding and saying, “Yup, good, I really like that.” Then I’d come up with more plot points and visual imagery. Again, my partner would nod, “Love it, Jim, really cool!” Gee, pal, how ‘bout a little feedback, a little embellishment, a little discussion? I don’t need a “yes” man—I need a collaborator! Then, if you’re successful enough to actually get a story laid out, how do you divide the actual task of getting it down on paper? Does one do the typing while the other paces the room dictating? Do you take turns typing and pacing? Does one write the first ten pages, then the other writes the next ten? Who edits the pages? Believe me, it can get awfully complicated, if the two of you are not in perfect synch with each other. But some people do it—and they do it very successfully. I remember a conversation I had with one particular collaborator many years ago—and it went something like this:
ME: I think we need to pump up this scene...add some more tension.
HIM: So how much you think we’ll get for this script?
ME: Huh? Oh, I don’t know. Now, about this scene...
HIM: C’mon, you must have some idea.
ME: Nope. No idea. HIM: C’mon, ballpark it.
ME: Really, I have no idea.
HIM: A hundred grand? Two hundred grand?
ME: Sure, I suppose it’s possible. Now, about this scene...
HIM: More than 200 grand, ya think?
ME: Read my lips: I don’t know.
HIM: I’m gonna buy me a new car. A Porsche! What’re you gonna do with your half?
ME: Can we just write the script first?
HIM: I really think we can get upwards of 500 grand if we play our cards right.
ME: We ain’t gonna get nothin’ if we don’t write the %$#&& script!!
Needless to say, this “collaboration” lasted for a very brief period of time.
Q: My writing partner wants to write a serial killer script, but I’m just not into that type of story. Should I keep my mouth shut and write it anyway?
A: Unless he’s going to pay you (which I highly doubt), then I’d pass on the collaboration. Do yourself a favor and write scripts you feel passionate about. No, you don’t necessarily have to think it’s the greatest idea that must be told at all costs—but it should be something that you’ll look forward to living with and working on for, most probably, several months. Another story:
Not long ago, I was hired to write a script. A comedic thriller. I thought the initial idea was decent, but it certainly wasn’t anything overly special. At least not to me. The story just didn’t feel like it had enough of a comic element. So I rolled it all around in my noggin for a couple days and came up with a new angle. I kept the basic idea, but tweaked in a new direction. Now it was a dark, sort of sexy thriller. I pitched it to the producer and she loved it. I had a story I could grab hold of and run with. I made it mine. If you can do that with your own work—whether a spec or an assignment—you’ll be a much happier person.
Q: What are the best screenwriting competitions for me to enter?
A: I’ll admit that I’m not a big fan of screenwriting competitions, and it always amazes me how much time, effort and money new writers put into entering these things. Paying a chunk of cash, then sitting around for months to see if you even got into the top 100? And then if you do win, you get a few grand (if you’re lucky!) and maybe—maybe—someone from a “production company” will read your script? It seems to me your time and money could be put to better use. I suppose if you’re just starting out and in need of feedback or a pat on the back, then a contest or two might be a worthwhile investment, but if you think it’s going to be the magic key to the Hollywood kingdom, don’t hold your breath. The only contest I’m interested in winning is the one with the production company I just sent my script to. My prize is having them option, purchase and produce my script. It also amazes me how many writers enter their work in the no-name contests that pop up every so often. A majority of these are nothing more than scams. Fact is, having “I won the Billy Joe Jones Screenwriting Contest of Arkansas!” on your resume means zippity-do-dah to the folks in Hollywood.
According to Creative Screenwriting (March/April 2006 issue): "While winning the Nicholl is tough (since its inception, only 91 scripts have won out of 73,118 entries) it isn’t a guarantee the script will turn into a film. Only about thirty of those 91 winning scripts have been optioned or sold, and only thirteen have actually been produced." Something else to consider: I get the feeling most contests are not necessarily looking for the big commercial scripts, as much as the poetic, “fluffy” ones. (Anyone remember the first two installments of Project Greenlight?) So if you have the next hot Die Hard installment, you might get beat out by Butterflies Are Free: Part II. But if you must enter a contest, here’s a handful that might actually do some good for your burgeoning career (listed in alphabetical order):
American Screenwriters Association (ASA)
Austin Disney/ABC Fellowship
Final DraftNicholl Fellowship
I would have mentioned the Chesterfield competition but, as of this writing, they seem to be on “hiatus.” But go ahead, do a Google search, check out these contests’ websites, and send ‘em your best work. Good luck!
Q: What are the best script-posting sites?
A: Again, this is not exactly the magic key to the Hollywood kingdom, but if you can afford it, it’s certainly worth a shot. Based on my own personal experience, and anecdotes from other writers I’ve spoken to, my vote would go to InkTip.com. Jerrol LeBaron, the gentleman who runs it, seems to be truly dedicated to putting writers and producers together. In my brief dealing with Mr. Le Baron, he seemed honest and sincere. My only complaint is that a majority of the producers who use his site are very low tier. Hey, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it is something to consider before posting. Another plus: Jerrol offers a full refund within 30-days of placing your script on the site. If you’re not getting a significant amount of “hits” on your script, you get your money back. Nice. Something else to think about: I went to the website of one of the services that allows you to post your script, synopsis and logline on their site for a fee. I went to their endorsements page and did a check of “success” stories. I randomly culled titles of fifteen screenplays that had supposedly been optioned by producers and/or production companies two or more years ago. I also gathered names of the eighteen screenwriters attached to those scripts. I then ran a check on the Internet Movie Database (IMDb). Not one of those movie titles or their attached screenwriters was anywhere to be found. Not one. Sure, I’ll admit, just because these screenwriters have yet to see their names or films listed on IMDb doesn’t mean their projects are moldering on some shelf somewhere. It’s certainly quite possible that they optioned or perhaps even sold their screenplays but nothing has yet gone into production. But still, it kinda makes ya wonder, doesn’t it?
Q: Is attending a pitchfest (where you pay $50—or more!—to pitch to some film “executives”) worth it?
A: Let me say up front that I don’t have any first-hand experience with this sort of thing. I’d personally never pay anyone to hear one of my pitches. But a lot of budding writers around the world are willing. Very willing. Face it, film companies (mostly lower level ones) realize there are a lot of desperate screenwriters willing to pay bucks to have five minutes in front of one of their representatives. So it seems pitchfests have become a fairly lucrative little side-business for some of these companies/executives. And hey, maybe they’ll get lucky and hear a great pitch they can do something with. A little story:
I worked security at a big movie studio, years ago. About once a week, during my patrols, I’d stop at the recycle bin and retrieve discarded issues of Variety and Hollywood Reporter. One night I found an unopened envelope with a script in it. What the heck, it’s in the recycle bin, it’s fair game...so I opened it. Yes, there was a script and a letter attached, “Dear Mr. X: It was a pleasure meeting you at the XYZ PitchFest yesterday. Thank you for requesting my screenplay....” So there was this poor writer’s script, unopened and in the recycle bin. I don’t think this is all that common, but I’m sure it does happen more often than we’d like to think. A huge majority of screenwriters can’t pitch their way out of a paper bag. If you’ve ever attended one of Christopher Lockhart or Bill Martell’s gatherings, you’ll know precisely what I mean. These are truly eye-opening experiences, I assure you. All that hemming and hawing, all that stammering, all that “oh, wait, I forgot the best part”—nope, not a pretty sight. And the stories they’re pitching are less than cinematic. Far less. So, if you’re gonna shell out bucks to spend five minutes in front of some film exec, nail your pitch. Make it intriguing, entertaining, an idea that screams to a producer, “I AM A FILM – MAKE ME!!” Again, not an easy task.
Q: A guy I met online wants to shoot my feature script! The budget is very low— somewhere in the vicinity of $25,000—and he’ll be shooting on his digital camera and using local talent (in Sandusky, Ohio ). He’s giving me $2,000 up front and a piece of the back end. Cool!
A: Hold on, Sparky, not so fast. He’s giving you the “back end” of what? Do you honestly think he’s going to make a releasable movie for $25,000? I’m not saying it can’t be done... No, actually, I am saying it can’t be done. Fact is, there are plenty of bigger budget ($500,000 +) movies getting made that will never see the light of day. Why? Well, because the production value isn’t there. The talent (in front of the camera and behind the camera) isn’t there. Yes, it’s exciting to have somebody want your script, and it’s exciting to get a check (albeit a small one), and it’s exciting to see your script acted by actors (inexperienced ones, usually)...but at the end of the day, what will you have? I’ll tell ya—a writing credit on some awful movie nobody will ever see. Congratulations! C’mon, you can do better. Have some faith in your script and hold out for someone who can put some quality into producing your script.
Q: What’s an option—and how does it work?
A: Let’s say you have a script, and a production company thinks they can turn the script into a movie. Great. But wait, they’re not going to simply whip out their checkbook and cut you a check for $200,000. No, they’re going to option the script for a set amount of money for a set period of time. They might pay you $3,000 for a six month option, or they might pay you $10,000 for a 1-year option. Keep in mind, these are just examples—it can be any amount of money and any period of time you and the prodco agree to. But, during this option period, the prodco has control of the script and they have the right to do whatever is necessary to get it financed and into production. However, at the end of the option period, if the prodco fails to secure financing, and if you don’t renew the option with them, you get your script back...and you get to keep the money they paid you. Then you can go off and option the script again...and again...and hopefully it will eventually get financed and produced. Many screenwriters make a good living just optioning scripts. Most will tell you, “Optioning a script over and over is nice, but I’d rather see my work up on a screen.” I’d agree. It’s not about the money as much as it’s about sharing your vision with the rest of the world.
Q: A producer is offering me a “dollar option” (aka “The Free Option”) on my script. Is this something I should consider?
A: It depends on who the producer is. If he has a reputation for getting movies produced, and if he’s someone you get a positive vibe from, then a free option for 2 or 3 months might not be a bad idea. Then again, if they’re legitimate producers, why can’t they come up with some cash? If they believe in your script, they should be willing to put up some dough, right? But if this “producer” is some kid fresh out of AFI or USC, then I’d think twice before signing my script over for any significant length of time. Why? It’s difficult enough for an established producer to get a movie made, so what makes you think some guy out of film school can get your script off the ground? But again, a freebie 2 or 3 month option, to see if they can get the project up and running, isn’t a big deal. Anything longer than that, tell ‘em to whip out the checkbook. I’ve accepted the “dollar option” twice. One was a complete and total waste of time and I’m sorry I did it. The other turned into an interesting and educational rollercoaster ride and I ended up making some bucks on the second year renewal. Then I optioned the script again to another producer and it’s currently slated for production in 2009.
Q: I’m an older guy (61) and want to be a screenwriter—is that too old?
A: Well, if you have a day job, I wouldn’t give it up...just yet. But the fact is, I’ve never been asked, “Uh, by the way, how old are you?” Producers only care if my script is good or not. I think filmmakers want to work with people who are creative, enthusiastic and energetic. I’ve known 25-year-olds who were as dull as dry toast. Who wants to deal with that on a daily basis? I’ve also known 65-year-olds who were animated and overflowing with wonderful ideas. That is what Hollywood wants to work with. So...be passionate, be smart, be well mannered, be a willing collaborator, and I think you can be in the game at any age.
Q: I’ll admit it, I’m in this for the money. So, how do I write a screenplay that I can sell?
A: Beats me, pal. But seriously, you need to know that I can’t teach you how to write a saleable screenplay. I don’t believe anybody can. Either the ability lies inside you or it doesn’t. Or perhaps the ability is there but hidden, and only after a period of trial and error will your talents be brought to the surface. That’s why I’m highly suspicious of any “guru” or know-it-all that tells you he/she has the key to writing saleable screenplays. There is no key. It takes more than mere writing talent. It takes more than knowledge of movies. It takes more than knowledge of screenplay structure. It takes more than sheer determination and focus. Yes, it’s all of these things, but it’s also something more. When I figure out precisely what that “more” is, I’ll let ya know. This is why you’ll find no paradigms, charts or graphs on this site. Mr. Field and Mr. McKee do that sort of thing much better than I can. I only offer solid nuts-and-bolts information that is meant to compliment the knowledge you already hold. If you visit this site with no prior screenwriting knowledge, then what I offer will be a good primer to put you on the right track. So, sorry, you’re on your own when it comes to writing that hot screenplay. Another thing…if you’re getting into screenwriting strictly for the money (laughable), you are almost sure to fail. In my book, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter, I’ve interviewed 16 professional screenwriters. I don’t recall any of them telling me they were in it purely for the money. Sure, the money is nice (when they’re actually making it), but that’s not the motivating factor. I think the primary reason most screenwriters write is for a love of storytelling and a love of movies. As for me, if I’m told, “We’d like to option/buy your script,” my first thought isn’t, “Oh joy, I get to buy a new car!” No, my first thought is, “Hey, we’re gonna make a movie!” Yes, I love movies and I love the movie business. For me, it’s that simple. Remember, only a relative handful of us are destined to sell screenplays or have any kind of career as a screenwriter. So, if you’re gonna get into this crazy screenwriting game, I suggest you do it because you absolutely must do it. If you want to make money, go sell cars. I hear the insurance racket ain’t so bad either. Good luck.
Most of you are just beginning your screenwriting journey. It will be a long haul and there will be much to learn; hopefully, with the aid of this site, you can draw a few bits of knowledge from my experiences and avoid some of the obstacles and dilemmas I have come up against. I’ve read dozen of screenplays by budding writers over the last few years, and in my opinion, a vast majority of those scripts were nowhere close to being ready to be read by any of Hollywood’s power-brokers. Oddly enough (or perhaps not so oddly), these scripts all suffered from the same fatal flaws. What follows are some of the more egregious pitfalls and ways to avoid them. Again, I do not purport to be a “guru”—and trust me when I tell you no one believes William Goldman’s famous line, “Nobody knows anything” more than I do—so if my modus operandi works for you, great. If not, it’s up to you to discover a groove you feel most comfortable in. Use what works and toss the rest. That’s exactly what I did. With that said, let’s take a look at…
The Non-Visual/Dreadfully Dull Story
Yes, I’ll agree that some wonderful movies have been made from scripts that were less than visual. Diner is one title that comes to mind; the fabulous Sleuth (one of my all-time favorite films) is another. Sadly, these type of films are few and far between. It seems a majority of producers nowadays are more interested in a visual script than a script with compelling characters and intriguing storylines. In other words, you’ll probably have an easier time selling a script about an ex-Navy SEAL avenging the death of his wife, than you will a coming-of-age tale of a troubled boy who grows into the man who becomes a SEAL. I’m not saying you shouldn’t write a low-key, character-driven story (Napoleon Dynamite), or a two-character, one location, gut-wrenching thriller (Hard Candy), because you should…but only if you can turn it into something that will hold an audience’s attention for 90 minutes. Unfortunately, this low-concept/high-entertainment combination is something most new writers seem not to understand. Yup, I’ve come across some awfully listless storylines in my time. Not to say some of those stories weren’t worthwhile, it’s just that most were 45-page stories poured into a 110-page script! It’s the kiss of death when your script conks out on page 40 or 50 and the remaining pages are basically filler (i.e., characters who wander around doing very little, saying very little, entertaining us even less). I’ve also read a number of scripts where it’s obvious the writer has issues/baggage from his or her past and the script is being used as a cathartic release. Hey, there’s nothing wrong with that; lots of great movies have been made from such beginnings. But I can’t tell you how many scripts I’ve read where the main character spends a good chunk of the story moping around, trying to figure out why their life is a mess. Believe me, there’s nothing duller than 100 pages of, “Nobody loves me! I’m a loser! I have no life!” So, if you need to pour your feelings out, talk to a psychiatrist. Or write poetry. Otherwise, nobody really cares. But if you absolutely positively must write about your problems and/or issues, at least make them entertaining (i.e., Kissing Jessica Stein, You Can Count On Me, Antwone Fisher, or The 40-Year-Old Virgin).
Front-loading the Script with Too Much Information
This is when the first 10-15 pages of a script is comprised of huge blocks of dialogue and/or description, imparting everything we’ll need to know, in order to fully understand what the ensuing story is about. The last thing any development executive, producer, or agent wants to read at the start of a script is large blocks of text. Remember, at the start of your story, it’s perfectly fine to give the reader/audience information—but just enough to keep them guessing a bit, wondering what’s about to happen next. That’s what’ll keep ‘em reading your script/watching your movie!
Mixing Too Many Genres
But please tread carefully if you go beyond these tried-and-true mixes. I critiqued a script once that was a sci-fi/comedy/drama/musical/western. Space ships, guys wearing six-guns, dancing and singing, laughs, tears—ugh!—a real confusing mess. Sure, go ahead and experiment; just don’t go too far overboard. When you become a big-time scribe, then feel free to reinvent the wheel. Another script I critiqued was supposed to be a Pulp Fiction-type hitman comedy. (C’mon, Pulp Fiction has been done—and believe me, you’re not Quentin Tarantino.) Problem was, this script wasn’t funny. Bigger problem, it wasn’t entertaining in any way whatsoever! In the penultimate scene, one of the hitmen storms into a house, rapes a woman, blows her brains out, then goes into the next room and blows away her small children. Yeah, real funny. I’m still shaking my head at that one. Know your genres. Be consistent.
An Unlikable/Unredeemable Main Character
Not long ago I critiqued a script where the main character was a con artist. She suffered some trauma as a child and grew up with only one goal in mind—to cheat the world. So we follow this snotty, cold-hearted witch for 100 pages, as she rips people off right and left. Um, tell me again why I want to spend 90 minutes of my life watching a character I thoroughly dislike? “But Jim,” you say, “there have been lots of evil characters we’ve loved.” Yup, you’re right. Take Alan Rickman’s character Hans Gruber in the classic Die Hard. Yes, he was a bad guy—a killer and a thief—but he had style and a sense of humor. We hated him, but we loved him. (To this day, I still quote more Alan Rickman lines than Bruce Willis lines.) Look at the cast of characters in Pulp Fiction. Barely a single good guy in sight. Vince is a scumbag, Jules is a scumbag, “The Wolf” is a scumbag, and brother Marselles sure ain’t gonna win any Good Citizenship awards. But we like these people. They’re entertaining and complex, and we sure don’t mind hanging with them for 160 minutes.Baddies aren’t just mindless drones, they have shading and character. So, if you’re gonna make your characters bad, make them great-bad. Make us love to hate them!
Too Many Locations
In the real estate business it’s all about “Location, location, location!” but when writing a screenplay, that’s not necessarily the case. Many inexperienced screenwriters make the mistake of loading their scripts with a myriad of locations. I’ve read a number of scripts where there’s a new location on virtually every page. This means somewhere in the vicinity of 70-80 separate locations in the script! That’s waaaaaay too many. Locations cost a production company time. Time is money. Lots of money. Producers don’t like to spend more money than they have to.
Unrealistic Phone Conversation
Unless you’re writing a whacky comedy, don’t let a character hold BOTH sides of a phone conversation. Such as:
JOE (on phone): What’s that, you’re going on a trip? But where are you going? You’re going to Tahiti? But with who? You’re going with Rex?
This sort of thing worked great on sitcoms from the 50s, 60s and 70s (i.e., “I Love Lucy,” “The Dick Van Dyke Show” or “The Bob Newhart Show”), but nowadays, for a feature screenplay, it’s fairly ludicrous, especially if you’re writing anything other than a comedy. Either intercut the conversation with the other character, or let us hear the other character’s voice filtered through the phone, or rework the dialogue so it sounds plausible/realistic.
No Emotion (in an Emotional Scene)
Nothing kills a heart-rending scene faster than characters who display no real emotion. For example:
Jack and Jill stand together on the front steps.
JILL: I wanted it to work between us...but we’re two different people.
JACK: But I can change. I know I can.
JILL: It’s too late for that, Jack. I’m so sorry.
She touches his arm.
JILL: I should go. Bye, Jack.
She goes inside the house. Jack turns and walks back to his car.
Boy, now that’s sure a real heart-tugger, ain’t it? Um, no. OK, so let’s add a bit of emotion to it. Something like this:
Jack and Jill stand together on the front steps. Jill has tears brimming in her eyes.
JILL: I wanted it to work between us...but we’re two different people.
Now tears are brimming in Jack’s eyes.
JACK: I can change. I know I can.
JILL: It’s too late for that, Jack.
She looks deep into Jack’s pitiful face, fighting not to completely lose it. She puts her arms around him, holds him tight.
JILL (a whisper): I’m so sorry.
It becomes too much for her –- and she pulls away and rushes into the house, closing the door after her. Jack stands there, crushed, utterly lost.
No need to go overboard with these emotional beats. But give us something to latch onto, something that makes us feel something for your characters.
No Suspense (in a Suspenseful Scene)
In a comedy, you need situations and lines of dialogue that are funny. In a drama, you need situations and lines of dialogue that are dramatic. In a thriller, you need to build tension and suspense. Here’s a fairly incorrect way to do this:
INT. BASEMENT – NIGHT
In the darkness, Eva walks to the door on the other side of the room and opens it. A body tumbles out. Steven’s body! Eva screams and runs from the basement.
Rather dull, ain't it? So let’s snazz it up a bit. Maybe something more like this:
INT. BASEMENT – NIGHT
Eva stands in darkness. Somewhere, water drips, drips, drips rhythmically. Slowly, she makes her way across the floor. Her breathing more ragged with each step she takes.
She finally reaches a door. Fumbles for the knob, turns it. But it won’t open. She tugs and yanks furiously, frantically. The door gives way, swings open wide...and a body tumbles out, falling onto Eva. Both crumble to the floor.
Eva now realizes...the body is Steven! She wails like a banshee, crying hysterically, trying to get out from under the limp corpse.
Whatever. Point is, you need to milk those suspenseful beats. Make us experience those terrifying/suspenseful moments along with your character(s).
Many writers improperly use “CONTINUOUS” and/or “SAME” in their scene headings. I personally never use either of them. But if you do, only use them when you’re moving from one location to an immediately adjacent location. For instance:
INT. HALLWAY – NIGHT
Joe comes down the hall, goes through a door and into...
INT. DEN – CONTINUOUS
Joe enters, moves to the desk and takes a seat.
The use of “CONTINUOUS” doesn’t really work when you’re first at an interior locale then at an exterior locale (i.e., walking down the hall, exiting a front door and emerging outside on the front porch). You could argue that using “CONTINUOUS” or “SAME” is acceptable when used in this manner:
INT. BANK – DAY
Tellers go about their business. Customers stand in line, fill out deposit slips...
EXT. ALLEY BEHIND BANK – DAY
Two masked gunmen load their assault rifles.
INT. BANK – SAME
All is normal...then BLAM...the masked gunmen barge in.
Sure, you could use “SAME” (or “CONTINUOUS”) in this instance, but to me it just feels a bit sloppy. If the producers want to put this in their shooting script, let ‘em. I choose to keep it either “DAY” or “NIGHT.”
Please…know the difference between the words "than" and "then."
INCORRECT: “She is smarter then he is.”
CORRECT: “She is smarter than he is.”
INCORRECT: “Jack sits there much longer then he should.”
CORRECT: “Jack sits there much longer than he should.”
Please…don’t clutter your script by overusing exclamation points!!!!!! It can be tough reading scenes that looks like this:
JOE: Oh, Mary, I thought you were gone...gone forever!!!!!
MARY: No, my darling, not gone forever...just on vacation!!!!!
JOE: Vacation???? Without me???!!!
MARY: But, my sweetness, you hate the beach!!!
So...one exclamation point, one question mark!!! Okay???? Great, thanks!!!
Every so often I’ll read a script where the writer takes great pains to tell us every move the character is making—as if this will make the scene more interesting. For instance, one script I read had one character, John, talking on the phone. Here’s how it went:
JOHN (on phone): I shouldn’t put so much pressure on you. It’s just –-
John’s eyes widen
JOHN: What? Are you okay?
JOHN: Yeah, sure, I can meet you tomorrow.
JOHN: Are you sure you don’t want to meet now?
John sits back down.
JOHN: Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.
John hangs up the phone and sits for a moment, thinking.
Let’s see…John is the only person in the scene, yet the writer found it necessary to tell us his name at every available opportunity. And what’s with these silly directions? Without changing the dialogue, here’s one way I might rewrite it:
JOHN (on phone): I shouldn’t put so much pressure on you. It’s just --
(concerned now) What? Are you okay?...Yeah, sure, I can meet you tomorrow....Are you sure you don’t want to meet now?...Okay, I’ll see you tomorrow.
He hangs up, drops into a chair, deeply worried.
There…it's easier to read and it takes up a lot less space on the page. Here's another example:
Joe walks into the room and looks around. He scratches his nose, then he scratches his chin. He turns slightly, looking at the desk. He rests his left hand on his waist, then cocks his head slightly to the right. Then he pulls out a pack of cigarettes, pulls out a cig, puts his right hand into his pocket and retrieves a lighter...
We don’t need to know every single movement a character makes. If it’s not absolutely pertinent to the scene, CUT IT!
It tends to get awfully confusing (and frustrating) when your descriptions take one step forward and three steps backward. In other words, when a character in your script does something, write it in the order they do it. So instead of:
Joe sees the desk after he walks into the room. He pulls a gun from the desk drawer after spotting the note: “Gun in top drawer.”
Write it something like this:
Joe walks into the room. He sees the desk. Then sees a note pinned to it: “Gun in top drawer.” He moves to desk, opens drawer, retrieves a Smith & Wesson 45.
The Unnecessary Parenthetical Direction
You don’t need to explain how every line is to be read, or what action should take place as the line is read. For instance:
COP (pointing toward road): Didn’t you see me over there?
MAN (looking down road): No, I didn’t.
COP (loud, annoyed): I was parked right in front of you!
MAN (cowering): Sorry, sir, I didn’t mean to...
COP(shaking his head): You guys are all alike.
MAN (letting his breath out): I know. I’m so ashamed. And I love this one:
JANE (angrily): I HATE YOU!!
If you set up your scene/characters/dialogue properly, that should be sufficient to tell us how the line should be read. For instance:
A hulking behemoth of a man crashes through the wall. He stands there, glowering, narrowing his red-hot, steely eyes at the two cops.
BEHEMOTH: I’m gonna kill you!
See how you the action sets up the context of the dialogue? No parenthetical description is necessary.
Overly-specific Character Description
Don’t get bogged down with describing characters’ physical details. As an example:
Joe is 32-years-old, medium height and a little overweight, with blonde hair and blue eyes.
There’s usually no reason to let us know the exact age. This is especially true with peripheral characters who make a brief appearance in your script. Just tell us Joe is “early-30s” and leave it at that. However, if you’re introducing a character whose precise age is pertinent (i.e., small children), then tell us those ages. Also, we don’t necessarily care what a character’s height and weight are. Sure, if it’s some big fat slob and we need to know he’s a “5’6”, 300lbs. tub of goo,” or if we have to know he’s “portly” or “rotund,” or “skinny as a toothpick,” then fine. Otherwise, don’t overly concern yourself with such detail. As for hair and eye color, unless that’s a specific plot point, we don’t care (and it limits casting choices). Here are some other examples of overly-specific descriptions:
A COP (about 40, with a mustache, and wearing dark sunglasses) barrels up to the scene and pushes back the crowd of onlookers.
Do we really care how old the Cop is or that he has a mustache? No! Just write something like this:
A BURLY COP with Ray Bans barrels up and pushes back the crowd of onlookers.
A TRASHMAN (57, overweight, with long, slick-backed hair) picks up the trash bag and tosses it into the back of the truck.
Instead, just tell us:
A greasy TRASHMAN hefts the trash bag, slings it into the rear of the truck.
As with describing your setting, just give us the essence of the character and let the director and/or the casting director work their magic.
Continually Repeating Character Names
You have a scene between Sally and Joe. No one else. With that in mind, tell me what’s wrong with the following:
INT. MOTEL ROOM – NIGHT
JOE is seated on the bed. A knock at the door. Joe gets up and opens the door, and SALLY is standing there.
SALLY: The agency sent me.
Joe and Sally shake hands.
JOE: Come on in.
Sally steps in.
JOE: Have a seat.
Sally sits on the edge of the bed.
JOE: It was two hundred, right?
Joe pulls out his wallet, liberates two hundred dollar bills and hands them to Sally.
SALLY: Thank you.
JOE: So, should we get down to business?
Sally gives a nod...then Joe pulls a Monopoly game from under the bed.
JOE: I get to be the thimble.
We know who’s in the scene, so why do we have to see both character names so often? You could rewrite as:
JOE is seated on the bed. A knock at the door. He gets up and opens the door, and SALLY is standing there.
SALLY: The agency sent me.
They shake hands.
JOE: Come on in.
She steps in.
JOE: Have a seat.
She sits on the edge of the bed.
JOE: It was two hundred, right?
Joe pulls out his wallet, liberates two hundred dollar bills and hands them to her.
SALLY: Thank you.
JOE: So, should we get down to business?
She gives a nod...then Joe pulls a Monopoly game from under the bed.
JOE: I get to be the thimble.
Be consistent with character names in your descriptive passages. For instance, if you have an apartment manager character and her name is Mrs. Joyce Jones, don’t refer to her as Mrs. Jones in one scene and Joyce in another. This also pertains to the name slug. I’ve read many scripts where two names were used for one character…in the same scene. For instance:
Mrs. Jones looks at the crack in the wall.
MRS. JONES: You got a crack in the wall. I’d better call the repair guy. Joyce leaves.
It’s either “Mrs. Jones” or it’s “Joyce.” Pick one and stick with it.
Flooding Your Story with Toooooo Many Characters
This is when you have characters who show up for a brief appearance, then completely disappear, never to return. I once did a critique/evaluation on a script that had a total of 38 characters—all speaking parts. Only 15 of them had any actual importance to the plot. Many characters could have been combined. So, ask yourself: Do I really need six cops for that scene? Do I really need the waitress coming in to lay down the check? Remember, it costs money to hire actors, so get that cast list down to a manageable level. Also, it’s usually not a good idea to front-load your script with an abundance of characters. If I’m on page 5 and I’ve been introduced to twelve characters, there’s probably gonna be a problem. Let us get to know the main character(s) before you bombard us with secondary and peripheral characters.
Character Names That Sound/Look Similar
Several years ago I was hired by a New York City producer to do a rewrite of a political thriller script he wrote. As I read through his initial draft, I kept getting confused. I wasn’t always sure which character was speaking, or which character was in the scene. Why? Well, because so many of the names looked and sounded similar. Here’s a sample of names from that particular script:
There’s a million names available (go buy a baby naming book and you’ll see what I mean), so choose names that are individually distinct.
It can be annoying experience reading a script that looks like an accountant’s balance sheet. For instance:
Cop #1 looks at Cop #2 and they turn their attention to Suspect #1. Cop #1 confers with Cop #2.
COP #1: You think he’s the guy?
COP #2: Dunno. He sure looks suspicious to me.
COP #3 half-drags Suspect #2 from the house.
COP #3: Found this one hiding in a closet.
SUSPECT #2: I’m tellin’ ya, I’m innocent!
Numbering of characters is fine if it’s kept to a bare minimum (a couple times in script—and if the appearance of the character/s is ultra-brief), but try to give them some other moniker. So, instead of COP #1, he could be GIRZZLED COP or OLDER COP or ROOKIE COP or FAT COP. Instead of SUSPECT #1, he could be SCUMBAG or CROOK or BADDIE or SLEAZEBALL…or whatever. Just go light on the numbering. Thanks.
Characters Discussing What We’ve Just Seen/Are About to See
Before Rhett Butler swept Scarlett off her feet and carried her up those stairs, did he first say, “Scarlett, I’m gonna sweep you off your feet and carry you up those stairs”? No, of course not—he just did it! So, if we’ve seen it, or if we’re about to see it, there’s usually no reason to have your characters talk about it. For instance:
Avoiding the encroaching flow of boiling lava, Jerry leaps from car roof to car roof. He ultimately jumps onto the apartment balcony. Safe at last!
TOM: Jer! How’d you get here?
JERRY: I leaped from car hood to car hood and then jumped onto the balcony!
Ending Scenes with Something Boring/Non-Visual
Joe sees the dead body on the floor, blood seeping from a stab wound in the neck. Joe turns around, picks up his hat, turns off the light and walks out the door. Unless there’s a really good reason to show Joe picking up his hat, turning off the light and walking out the door, simply cut the scene on his stunned face as he gazes down at the body.
Less-than-Inspiring “Love” Scenes
I’ve read my fair share of uninspired, lackluster sex/love scenes over the years. Here’s just one example:
TOM: I love you, Louise.
LOUISE: I love you, Tom.
Tom kisses Louise. Louise returns his kiss. They kiss on the lips for a while. Tom kisses Louise’s face and neck. Louise runs her fingers over Tom’s back.
Um, yeah. You couldn’t turn on a light switch with this stuff. Go read some “hot” scripts (i.e., The Postman Always Rings Twice, 9 ½ Weeks, or Basic Instinct), and see how it’s done right.
And, oh yeah, date more.