Q: How long after I submit to a production company, or agent, should I call to see if they even got the script?
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.