Q: How do I know if my script is ready to be sent to producers?
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!