SPECS, GRANTS & TRUST FUND BABIES

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.

WHAT IS A SCENE?

Here’s an article from the old website. It’s long and dense, so read slow and enjoy. It’s good stuff. I promise not to post stuff this dense again.

(Please excuse any formatting problems. It didn’t quite translate from the old HTML.)

A scene is an expression of essential conflict that advances the story. By adhering slavishly to this principle at all times, you will never have a flat or dull scene, nor will you ever have a scene which is merely expository. To understand the power of this statement, we must start with the essence of character – the forces that drive the character. These are the essential forces that shape the character’s choices. In screenwriting, choices are the only means of displaying character. Each character has a number of driving forces, often conflicting with each other. Various writers and commentators classify these forces differently. For our purposes, we will use the terms super-objective, story objective, scene objective and point of
view
. Continue reading “WHAT IS A SCENE?”

PACKAGING AGENTS

One way into a writing career is to make a splashy spec sale. However, it is rare and not the only way. Another way is to get a movie made, even a small movie with independent distribution. Every major agency in town (that would be L.A.) has a department to help you do this. They call it “packaging”. Packaging means taking a great script, finding a director, talent, money and distribution, and bringing them all together. Yes, that is what a producer is supposed to do, but the agencies realized some time ago that they have ready access to all the elements and can charge huge fees for doing the same thing as long as they don’t call themselves producers.

The rub is, there is tremendous competition for the attention of packaging agents just as there is for all other agents. However, unlike in ordinary spec sales, elements you bring to the table besides the script itself can help in packaging. For example, if you have interest from a bankable director, if you have raised part of the budget, or if you have interest from a bankable actor, you have a good chance of at least getting the project reviewed by a packaging agent. And remember, what is bankable to the indie market is much broader than what is bankable to the studios.

Packaging is particularly suited to quality scripts that can be made on a budget. Quality genre scripts are very popular for packaging. There is also a fairly strong market for schlock genre scripts, but because there are so many of these mediocre scripts out there, you really need to bring some other strong element to the table to get your mediocre script noticed.

The money for packaged scripts is typically not nearly as good as for studio projects, but you are launching a career. It pays to consider packaging as another avenue into the biz.

THE TERRIBLE JOB OF PRODUCER

Someone who uses various names and claims to be from various places asks more than once:

What does Hollywood really think of companies that offer services like InkTip?

The best answer to that is to explain how producers find material. One critical task of the producer is to find or develop quality producible screenplays. This is an extremely difficult and costly job and one that will make or break a company. Keep in mind the following formula:

# of screenplays offered to each producer = Infinite
% of screenplays that are unproducible = 99.9%
Labor required to evaluate each screenplay = 3 hours
Cost of labor = $75+ per screenplay plus executive time
Cost of finding a producible screenplay = substantial

As that formula sinks in, you can see that the job of finding material is a job of carefully using resources. If a producer were to simply evaluate every script that was offered, most producers would go broke before ever finding a quality script. Producers overcome this obvious problem by using filters.

The most recognizable filters are agents and managers. The agents and managers have presumably already filtered out many of the garbage scripts. Therefore, if a producer limits its consideration to scripts that come from an agent or manager, the chances of finding a quality script are higher. However, the agent game is a challenge for the producer, too. First, most agents and managers are not very good filters. They often push inferior material. Second, the agents and managers who are good filters carefully mete out material and usually submit quality scripts simultaneously to multiple producers. The result is that producers often compete for the few strong pieces of material in the market. Well-funded producers have the ability to compete effectively in this environment, but most producers do not.

Other common filters are personal relationships. Producers and their executives develop personal relationships with reliable screenplay sources, whether they be directly with a small number of writers or with a select circle of agents and managers who will pass on quality material prior to submitting it in the open market. This, too, increases the odds of finding quality material with the least amount of resources and this is the most common way material is acquired in Hollywood.

Another potential filter, and the one being urged by services such as InkTip, is the Internet. Some producers have decided for one reason or another that looking through lists of log lines from completely unknown writers for hours is somehow cost effective. The characteristics of material on a service like InkTip are that a higher percentage of it is unproducible (as in almost all of it), but a higher percentage of it is also unknown and, therefore, not subject to market competition. In other words, InkTip is a place where a producer might find that very rare diamond-in-the-rough no one else has spotted. However, once a producer selects your log line hoping to find the diamond-in-the-rough, the producer still has to expend considerable resources to read your script – or at least a small portion of your script – to evaluate it. This substantially limits the value of InkTip to most producers.

The reasons why a producer might actually spend resources evaluating log-lines in a computer database like InkTip are: (1) the producer is looking for specific content; (2) the producer does not like to read screenplays; (3) the producer has no real resources, e.g. no paid readers to read tons of scripts, (4) the producer lacks resources to compete on the open market, or (5) the producer has so many resources that spending some of it on the very unlikely chance of finding a producible script on InkTip or other services is worth the expense. A review of the “success stories” on InkTip’s website suggests that most of the producers who acquire material through InkTip fall into categories 2,3 and 4.

Accordingly, services like InkTip do have a small place in the market. However, keeping in mind that the number of screenplays registered with InkTip or any similar service is likely enormous, the likelihood of your screenplay being randomly selected by a producer who actually has the ability to pay you money for the script and/or get your script turned into a movie is about as high as the likelihood of a producer actually finding a producible script on such a service. It is an extreme, extreme long-shot.

The other issue to consider with a service like InkTip is that it’s philosophy runs counter to conventional wisdom – at least an agent’s conventional wisdom – which is that access to your writing (especially if you can actually write a professional quality script) should be highly controlled so that it is a desired commodity. Once your script is on InkTip, it is not controlled at all. Anyone who meets a few basic criteria has access to it. This tends to devalue it. However, for emerging writers who have no access to producers in the first place, especially out-of-town writers, this is not a controlling issue.

So what does all this mean? Should you or should you not use a service like InkTip? I don’t know. Now that you can make an informed decision, that’s pretty much up to you.

TRUBYVILLE

I wish formulas worked. God, I wish they worked. I wish I had a bucket of moral dilemmas, a box of self-revelations and lists of reversals. I wish I could just grab some of them, line them up in the right order and have an amazing story.

Because of this desire (and my secret fear that maybe some formulas do work but I just don’t know the right one), I did something most writers who’ve been around the block a few times would not do. I bought John Truby’s “Great Screenwriting” series of tapes. (To be fair, I bought it only after reading this ringing endorsement.) Not only did I buy it, I listened to the whole damn thing – 14 hours worth. After that, I wrote… a lot. To see if the tapes made a difference.

I thought I’d report on it.

Let me say, up front, that I really enjoy Mr. Truby’s mesmerizing voice. Over the several weeks it took me to get through the tapes, I came to look forward to turning on my little old-school cassette player and being drawn into his Zen vortex, making me feel at ease, making me believe that screenwriting is an orderly process, one that can be planned and executed and everything will work out just fine.

And let me say, some of his ideas, while not new, are central concepts and are explained very nicely. For a beginning screenwriter with no training, they are important ideas to be exposed to. On the other hand, some of his ideas were just…wonky…. But that’s okay. As I’ve said here before, take what works. Lose what doesn’t.

The real trouble comes with applying the ideas. (Isn’t that always the case?) Mr. Truby applied his structural ideas to many films and always showed us why the scripts were flawed. The only problem is, for most of his examples, the “flaws” were the most interesting aspect of the scripts, at least to me. For example, he talked about why “Unforgiven” does not work. To me, it works fine. Maybe not the best script ever written, but nice solid work. Another example, “The Verdict.” What’s wrong with “The Verdict’? Great writing. I don’t care if the moral self-revelation comes too early.

After the first ten or so examples, I came to realize that Mr. Truby and I simply have different tastes. But what does that say about his method? To me, it says, “Generalities are just generalities. Writing is a subtle mixture of skills, judgment, tastes and imagination. Any analysis is imperfect and no analysis fits all stories.”

Nonetheless, again to be fair, the core of his ideas are very traditional and, for those without any real training, important to be exposed to. Not to embrace wholeheartedly, but to know and consider. If you have a writing degree, forget it. You’ve been there. If you’ve been writing for ten years, had scripts covered forever, been given notes by producers, you’ve been there. If not, maybe it’s worth a listen.

So did the tapes make a difference in my writing? Well, yeah, in a sense. They reminded me to keep my eye on the basics. Like, make sure the audience can follow your lead’s desire line. The more rewrites I do, the more I forget the basics. Even Tiger Woods studies the basics.

So, to sum up…

No magic secret answers;
Some important ideas, especially for beginners;
Some really wonky ideas;

And that Zen voice….