THE LAWYER THING

R.D. from Texas asks:

A producer told me (at the Austin Film Festival) that if I can’t get an agent, I should get a lawyer, so I won’t be an unsolicited writer. I have found some verification for this, but I’m not exactly sure how it works.

Do I still represent myself, or does the lawyer do it?

What are some guidelines for narrowing down the very long list of attorneys?

All of my work has placed in contests, and I have done a lot of work on it since then. I would like to approach producers without the routine snub (assuming that loglines, synopses, etc. are up to high standards).

So how does the “lawyer” thing work? — Thanks!

There are a number of myths floated by Hollywood insiders in order to stem the overwhelming deluge of unqualified (i.e. crappy) scripts. One is that producers do not accept unsolicited scripts because they fear potential liability. The other is that producers do accept unsolicited scripts from lawyers. The truth is, liability has nothing to do with it and producers do not accept unsolicited material from lawyers any more than from anyone else. Most producers only accept material based upon some indicia that considering it is worth there time.

Here’s how lawyers sometimes fit in. There are some lawyers in the entertainment field who build contacts and reputation just the way agents do. These lawyers can send scripts to companies because the companies know they will not ordinarily send crap. Even they do not send the material unsolicited. Rather, they attorney picks up the telephone and make a call to a development executive he or she knows. The attorney discusses your material and, if requested, sends it over. This is no different than what an agent does. Like an agent, this kind of submission is based upon personal relationships. By virtue of the attorney’s reputation, he or she has contacts in the industry. The trick for the writer is finding one of these lawyers as opposed to the many lawyers who are willing to “submit” your script, but still never get it read. Just having any attorney send an unsolicited script is essentially no more likely to get it read than sending it in yourself.

Because you have won some contests, some attorneys who do submit material may be willing to speak with you. Some of them tend to be a little more accessible than most agents. You will need to query them just as you would an agent. Or, better yet, get a referral. If you have the email of the producer you met in Austin, ask him for the names of some lawyers you should speak to. See if he will actually refer you. (It is much easier for a producer to refer a writer than to actually read a script.) Even if he will not, when you approach the lawyer, use the producer’s name as the basis for your contact.

Here’s where to be careful: you should not pay a lawyer to send in your script any more than you should pay an agent. Lawyers that actually do submit scripts charge in the same way agents do – that is, only if the script sells. The going rate is the same as an agent’s rate – 10%, although some attorneys charge more because they are acting as agent and lawyer for the writer. You should be careful to select a lawyer in the same way you would be careful to select an agent. (Producers do not accept scripts from unknown agents, either.)

The only exception to all of the above is in the occasional circumstance where a producer actually requests your material. The “liability” myth is so often repeated that even some producers believe it and, even when they agree to see your material (which happens because of some other connection – a recommendation from a film professor, a mutual acquaintance, a chance meeting at a film festival, etc.), they want a lawyer to submit it if you don’t have an agent. In that occasional circumstance, you can have any attorney that regularly represents writers send it in, even if the attorney is not known for submitting material.

Enough. Now go write….

PUT THE DOGS OUT

dog gifSpec scripts ordinarily undergo a tremendous amount of development prior to being put into the market or presented to any buyers. As the writer, you are personally responsible for most of that development, much of it before anyone other than your private circle ever sees your material. Developing a screenplay usually takes the form of outlining, writing and rewriting. As you near the end of the process, once the story itself is in good shape, you will want to make a number of focused passes, looking at different aspects of the story (e.g. clarity of action, humor, a particular character’s dialogue). Different writing gurus offer different “must do” passes. For me, it largely depends on what the story requires.

Nevertheless, there is one pass I always save for last. No matter how hard I’ve worked on the script, there is always room for this one. It is the “put the dogs out” pass. I go through the script and look at every line that is direct, literal and unimaginative. Instead of rewriting the line, I try throwing it out. Yes, just yank it right out of the screenplay and see what’s left. You may think you need those lines, but chances are, you don’t. Nine times out of ten, the scene tightens up, more of the story is moved into subtext (where it belongs), the remaining dialogue feels more interesting and more compressed, and the story gets shorter – always a good thing.

To summarize, on the last pass, put the dogs out – all the dogs. Your script will thank you for it.

GOT AGENT?

If you don’t yet have an agent or manager, here’s a quick list of some things you need to know.

1. Many writers get their first breaks without an agent or manager, but having the right agent and/or manager sure helps.

2. The best and only way to find the right agent and/or manager is to write very well. Good writing always attracts attention. Attention gets you to a good agent and/or manager. If you don’t know how that works, you probably haven’t been writing enough yet.

3. The best way to submit material to an agent or manager is through a referral. The best way to get a referral is to write well. (See previous item.)Agent

4. Real agents don’t charge to read your material. Run away from the ones who do.

5. In Hollywood, agents are regulated by law and union agreement. They charge a 10% commission to shop your scripts. You only pay if the script sells.

6. Managers are different than agents. Managers are not regulated by law or union contract. Their fees vary, but real managers also only get paid if the script sells.

7. Technically, managers are not allowed to solicit employment for you, but they manage your career. In practice, managers always solicit employment for you.

8. Like a good agent, a good manager is a great ally, but anyone can call him or herself a manager. Make sure the manager has clients who sell scripts or get writing assignments on a regular basis.

9. Real managers also do not charge fees to read your material. Run away from ones who do.

Don’t freak on the agent/manager thing. Just work on the writing. The agent/manager will come.

A WRITER’S BOOKSHELF

I’m in that daze that follows completing an intense draft – excitement, concern, and feeling the natural let down. Right now, the draft is “in the drawer” for a few days to give my writing partner and me a little distance before we decide whether it’s really finished. (We usually decide it’s still a mess when we look at it again – but in this moment, I’m feeling pretty damn excited.)

During these infrequent lulls in writing, I spend time revisiting my books and thinking about the basics. I’m hoping that it will help get me out of the particulars of the story so I can have a fresher look when I get back to it. I’d probably be better off going fishing.

BOOKSHELF

Tonight, I took a look at one shelf in particular. There’s some great stuff in there, but I was surprised to see how much utter crap I’ve accumulated in the mix.

Here’s what I think of these books: Continue reading “A WRITER’S BOOKSHELF”

Writer Posts Script

Princer of Persia
Photo by Loren Javier @ flickr.com
Jordan Merchner, creator of the book for the video game Prince of Persia posted his screenplay for the movie of the same name here. He is not one of the credited screenwriters on the movie (those credits belong to Boaz Yakin and Doug Miro & Carlo Bernard). Instead, he has “screen story” credit. If you want to unravel the frightening mysteries of WGA credit determination, you can do that here.

ENDINGS

Bill Murray Jeff from “outside L.A.” asks:

Hi. Enjoy the blog. I have a fairly simple question for you, I think. I am working on outlines for a couple of script ideas while I rewrite my first one, and in one case, I can’t quite figure out the ending. I like the idea a lot, and it seems to have good story potential. So how common is it to just plow ahead and hope a 3rd act presents itself somewhere along the line? Does that path offer any hope at all, or is my struggle possibly indicative of a flaw in the idea?

It is common to just plow ahead but usually not too effective. Some writers claim they are able to conceive of a story in terms of its ending and write backwards. I wish I could. Even M. Night wrote six drafts of The Sixth Sense before he figured out that Malcolm was dead. The story did not start out that way.

In my own writing, endings arise out of the core questions I am exploring in the script; in other words, endings arise out of theme. If I do not now how a story ends, it means I have not spent enough time developing the theme. Through rigorous work, theme leads the story to what eventually feels like a natural second act complication (notice I say “feels like” – it is usually actually hell developing it). That second act complication usually dictates an appropriate ending. This sort of approach seems to be adopted by many writers who are much better than me including Gary Ross, for one. (I think Craig Mazin is on that list, too. If not, it gives me an excuse to link to a very appropriate post of his….)

By way of example, in Groundhog Day, the central question is “How do you give a monotonous, redundant existence any meaning?” Kind of a central existential question with implications far beyond the storyline. As the protagonist struggles with this question, trying first one thing and then the next – he is led to a second act complication – he falls in love (perhaps the first genuine thing he has ever done) but the woman will never really fall in love with him because the day always starts over. Only by solving his existential dilemma (finding the meaning of life) does he finally win her love. In the eyes of Danny Rubin and Harold Ramis (the screenwriters), life has meaning when we contribute to the world around us. Once the protagonist experiences this, his life once again has meaning (and the physical monotony also ends).

Notice that in Groundhog Day, every scene explores the theme. In fact, given the extremely repetitive nature of the physical setting, thematic development is the driving force that engages us and compels us to follow along.

Similarly, in The Sixth Sense, the central question the screenwriter explores is “How do you communicate effectively with those you love?” Cole cannot tell his mother what is happening to him. His mother cannot effectively speak to him; her anger and confusion gets in the way. Malcolm cannot speak to his wife nor she to him. All of the characters suffer from the same problem; they cannot effectively communicate with each other. As the two protagonists, Malcolm and Cole, explore this central question in various ways, the second act complication arises – Cole must listen to the ghosts without judging them. (Just as Malcom had to listen to Cole without judging him.) Once he does, he discovers he can communicate with his mother and he discovers he can tell Malcolm how to speak to his wife.

As you can see from both of these examples, developing a story around a clearly focused central core (the theme) takes a tremendous amount of work. However, it gets you to the second act complication and from there to an appropriate ending.

Like so many things in screenwriting – this is no shortcut. In fact, it’s pretty damn hard to do it right. But that’s the way the big boys and girls do it….

A History of Rejection

Screenplay
flickr: marioanima
Studios began rejecting screenplays as soon as studios existed. Old Hollywood has posted a form screenplay rejection slip from Essany Film Manufacturing from the early 1900s. Back then, apparently they just checked a category – “Not interesting”, “Not our style of story”, “Weak plot”, “Idea Has Been Done Before”, etc. – and sent the damn thing back. What we’d give for a good old straightforward rejection.