June 24


SPECS, GRANTS & TRUST FUND BABIES (Classic Post)

Tavis from Portland has a lot to say about a number of challenges to breaking in. He says:

Everyone knows of the main catch-22 concerning screenwriting and agents. You can’t get one until you sell a spec, but to sell a spec you need an agent.

Not true, Tavis. You need a good screenplay and a referral to get an agent. You do not need a spec sale. Many screenwriters have entire careers without ever having a spec sale.

There is an initial quandary though, and that is finding the time to write a really great spec script while working a full-time job. I often find myself frustrated, thinking that if I could only spend 40-hours a week focused on writing I could really put something of quality together. But as it is I only have several free hours each day and they are after a mind-numbing full day at work.

This is a real challenge. Ron Bass, who is arguably the most prolific working screenwriter in Hollywood (and at one point was the highest paid writer), used to get up at 3:00AM to do his writing before he started his day job as an attorney. It took him 17 years to get his break. It’s hard, but it’s part of making it. You might consider doing your writing before your day job, too, so the writing is sharp.

So, basically this question is about funding and grants. Is it possible if you have a story which requires a good amount of research and is rooted in some sort of historical/factual/scientific background that a grant would be available to assist a writer in developing a project?

There are many grants and fellowships designed specifically to help emerging writers who show some promise focus on their writing. Alex Epstein at Complications Ensue recently ran this list.

I never hear anyone talking about these issues and just wonder are all the writers out there independently wealthy and can just spend their time writing whenever they want, or do they have spouses supporting them or what?

Of the working screenwriters I personally know, most of them were bartenders or production assistants (another low paying Hollywood job) before getting their breaks. None of them were wealthy.

October 1


FIRST CLASS (Classic Post)

PROFESSOR WAGSTAFFSam from Philly asks:

I am an amateur writer, and I am looking to take a class, but I’m not sure which is best suited for me. What I am trying figure out, is the class offered by the New York Film Academy better or the same as a class at a local college? Thanks for the help.

Sam:

Honestly, I have no idea. I haven’t taken any classes from New York Film Academy or from your local college. Nevertheless, for what it’s worth, here’s what I have looked for in the past when I took classes:

Experience of the teacher. I prefer to learn from instructors that have at least some reasonable professional experience.

Curriculum. I personally prefer courses that involve both writing and theory. All theory and it tends to mean very little. Many courses require you to write outlines, scenes and pages and subject them to peer review. This, in conjunction with theory, can be helpful. This is one of the reasons weekend seminars are not very effective from my point of view. You spend all your time on theory and have no guided practice. You walk out thinking you now know how to write a decent screenplay, but when you actually sit down to write, theory is just theory and you must face the same hard issues in your writing that you had before. There are no quick shortcuts to learning to write strong, professional quality work.

An important caveat to peer review is that in a screenwriting class, most of your peers are awful. They will never be good writers. You are taking input from people who, for the most part, don’t have a clue. Consider every word they say, but think through it and make your own judgments about your work. One of your goals as a writer is to surround yourself with quality input as quickly as possible. Bad input is sometimes distracting and often disheartening. At an early stage, it is a necessary evil, but you must make it through the fire.

Tuition. Do not get sucked into paying a fortune for any course, especially a short course, that promises to deliver huge results. It won’t happen. Short courses are like books – you get a lot to think about, but you still have to work it out for yourself through lots of writing over a long period of time. Tuition for screenwriting courses should be in line with other similar college courses.

Good luck finding a course.

March 19


ANOTHER TURN OF THE SCREW (Classic Post)

Warner Bros. announced in Daily Variety today the formation of a new company created by John Wells and twelve screenwriters, all of them high-paid veterans. According to Warner Bros., it is to be a writers co-op in which screenwriters have a real say in production of the movie and share in the picture’s profits, a new model for writers and studios. This section of the Variety article caught my eye, in particular:

This company gives writers an unprecedented role in the development and production of their films,” said Schulman. “If this model works, we hope others will emulate it.”

While the current ugly lawsuit between author Clive Cussler and Walden Media shows the danger of granting creative controls to wordsmiths, charter Co-Op members were chosen specifically because they are vets who understand that compromise is part of the process. Many have directed films, and the expectation is that Co-Op scribes will not simply try to outlaw rewrites of their scripts, because chances are those films won’t get made and the writers won’t get paid. If a new draft by another writer is going to mean landing a superstar who will get a picture made, the Co-Op participant will be financially motivated because he will take a piece of the film’s haul.

Is this a new era for writers? What do you think?

[Ed. Note:  Since I posted this, Craig Mazin posted a thoughtful and optimistic analysis at Artful Writer.]

June 12


TO SELL OR NOT TO SELL…. (Classic Post)

Vincent from USA asks:

Ok, so I am in a weird place right now. We (co-writer and myself) had a spec go wide a few months ago. Lots of meetings, no offers. We were approached by a good size producer, with several film credits of substantial size, who is moving into tv more and more. He has 2 new shows coming out this fall.

So, he is interested in adapting out script for tv, however not necessarily with us onboard. At first we said, NO WAY. But, the more we think about it, we’re both at a point in our careers where the “BREAK” has not yet come, and therefore we’re living very much day-to-day.

My agent suggests he wants us to sell the rights/pitch to someone and have them write the pilot. By someone I’m assuming a network? Anyway, what I’m wondering is IF we sell the rights for someone to bring to life for a tv series or at least a pilot, what kind of money is that?

Selling what essentially would probably be a pitch for tv. At this point we hate to do it, but really see the freedom a little money would give us to move a few other things forward.

I’m not quite clear on the question, so I’m going to state some assumptions on my part. As I understand it, a highly qualified producer wants to adapt your feature script into a television pitch but does not want you involved beyond selling the initial idea. Your agent suggests that you sell the rights to someone to write the pilot.

From your scenario, it’s hard to tell whether you are selling anything at this point, or whether a producer and your agent are just asking permission to present ideas to others for possible exploitation as a TV show. You need to clarify what is actually on the table. The important part of this process is always to pin down what is real and what is just an aspiration of the people that want a piece of your creativity, often for nothing up front. There is nothing wrong with deciding to let them have a piece as long as you know what is really happening and decide that’s what you want to do.

Here are some questions you should answer before you make a decision:

1. Is the highly qualified producer willing to pay you now to develop your script or does he intend to develop it and pay you only if it gets picked up?
2. Why are you assuming the “someone” is a network?
3. Are you guaranteed credit for being the concept creator?
4. At what points in the process do you get paid? When does the first money come into your pocket and what has to happen for that money to be real?
5. What kind of money can you expect?
6. At what point in the process does the amount of promise of money get reduced to a written agreement?

You will think of other questions, too. Anytime people are throwing around concepts you don’t fully understand, make your agent explain them. Don’t be intimidated into thinking you should know so it is dumb to ask. You are a writer, not a producer, and, especially in television, you may not have any idea how the process works.

All that having been said, if a real sale is on the table, if you haven’t sold anything yet, selling something to mainstream Hollywood is generally a good thing for your career, especially if it puts enough money in your pocket to allow you to focus on the next writing. As far as what kind of money they are talking about, I can’t tell you. You need to clarify that with your agent. It is likely no one has any idea at this point and they just want to know whether you are open to moving forward on a TV concept without you being attached to write it. If you are only willing to do it for a lot of money, say so and work with your agent to get some clarity on what “a lot of money” means to you. You do not want producers or agents who are excited by your work to start shopping something you are really not willing to sell.

Lastly, advice (including this advice) is just advice.

Good luck and congratulations on being in the game.

July 3


WIKI, ANYONE? (Classic Post)

Wikipedia LogoHow about a screenwriting wiki?
If you don’t know what a wiki is, think wikipedia. It is a generation beyond blogging; no ego at the helm. The content is provided by the community of users. The more passionate and interested the community, the more complete and useful the wiki. Sound like the community of screenwriters? Let me know.

– What would you like to see in a wiki? (Suggest some topics.)

– Who would you like to be able to contribute? (Everyone? Working writers only? Other?)

– Are you willing to contribute qualified content?

Prepare for the launch (soon)….