By Jim Cirile
Seven leading industry reps tell you what not to do and what drives them nuts. Stay on the rails and save your career.
I have made every single mistake listed here. How sad is that? I mean, it’s easy to understand why. As creative types, we pour our time, our passion, into a project. Thus when we’re showing it around, we can get defensive if anyone says anything other than, ‘I love it. Don’t change a word.’ Years of rejection may make us a wee bit neurotic or needy. And the tiniest taste of success could easily flip the switch over to, ‘Ha ha, you fools! I told you all!’ land. Ooh, not attractive.
Well, CI is here here to put a stop to that nonsense. Before one more of you guys blows it with your new rep or even worse, kills your career, absorb the sage wisdom of these top agents and managers who know whereof they speak. Study well the lessons imparted unto you herein, and you may yet navigate the crazy minefield commonly known as a career in screenwriting.
We now proudly present the top ten writer mistakes according to our panel of industry pros. Take it away!
10) IS YOUR CONCEPT SPONGE – ER, MOVIE-WORTHY?
Ever read a screenplay that made you wonder how anyone could have ever thought this would make a compelling film? UTA’s Julien Thuan says, “New writers need to understand that there are things that are movies. There are things that are television shows. There are things that are (best presented as) poems or plays. You have to be realistic about which area your idea is best suited for. A lot of problems writers run into to is when they’re trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.” In short, some writers think they can write their great American novel, only now it’s a screenplay instead, without really understanding the whole economic force of the business. Ask yourself if you can see your movie up there on the marquee sandwiched between ‘Welcome Back, Kotter -- the Movie’ and ‘Change-o Robots That Blow Up 7.’ Some ideas are simply not movie ideas circa 2016. Learn to tell the difference.
9) YOU WORK FOR ME, FOOL!
Manager/producer Richard Arlook from Arlook Group notes that it is critical to be sensitive to your representative’s time. “Don’t overcall the agent or manager. It’s exciting sometimes, if you’ve never had representation, to all of a sudden have it. When you’ve never had an opportunity to speak with somebody who has a lot of knowledge connected to the business, there’s an overwhelming desire to want to get the most out of that. It’s one thing if that person is being really chatty with them. Just don’t call for no reason. A quick e-mail is always better.” Manager Jake Wagner from Good Fear agrees, “Feel free to check in, but pick your check-ins strategically, and then the reps will be happy to keep knocking on doors for you.”
8) EGO IS A FOUR-LETTER WORD
The industry wants people who are easy to work with, not prima donnas. The biz tolerates a lot of crap from directors and actors. But from writers? Not so much. The Gersh Agency’s Sandra Lucchesi’s philosophy is, “Never be an asshole. That doesn’t mean you can’t be firm in your creative beliefs or have (a strong point of view.) Don’t be inflexible. When a writer goes into a room, it’s important that you’re listening to the comments from other people.” And watch that body language, folks. “There was one situation with a writer who showed his disdain by rolling his eyes, and the next day he was off the project. You have to be politically savvy. This is a business.”
Former ICM agent turned producer Emile Gladstone elaborates, “You have to be malleable. You have to learn how to give somebody something that you may not like, but you’re going to make it work. Sometimes ego makes that prohibitive.” Thuan tells us of a client who was very proud of his script…“and then he got what others would perceive as constructive feedback. Rather than absorbing it and figuring out a way to process it, he melted down. That’s not uncommon, especially with younger writers.” Gladstone adds, “The worst thing that could happen is a huge early success for a new writer -- selling your first script for $500,000 and above. That’s really damaging to the ego. They grow to be expectant, and they think that they walk on water -- ‘How dare that person give notes to me?’” Arlook says, “The writers I have who are not working, the main reason is because they did not handle the politics of their last assignment properly.”
|Quizzing the Agent's and Manager's Hot Sheet Live panel at Scriptfest 2016|
7) I WROTE SOMETHING NEW ONCE. ISN’T THAT GOOD ENOUGH?
What drives Shuman Co. manager A.B. Fischer bats? A writer who “Doesn’t write, doesn’t constantly churn out something new. And along the same lines, trying to rehash the same project over and over and over again.” Many writers don’t get that it’s hard to get anyone excited about material that’s already been shopped. “Everyone’s seen it, everyone’s passed on it, and there are factors in the script that make it an uphill battle – whether it’s a period drama or whatever it is. After it’s been exposed to everybody, and everybody’s passed on it, (and they say,) ‘Oh, well, now can we just try to get it to Steven Spielberg?’ Well, I could, but… If you want to keep moving up, you’ve got to write something new. And this goes to writers who’ve sold stuff and writers who haven’t, trying to break in. You have to be prolific.”
Thuan differentiates between writers who have a slow process and others who are lazy and waiting for their agent to do all the work for them. “In an ideal world, [you should always] be developing an idea, writing a spec to maintain your voice, engaging in meetings and interaction -- you’re out there. Some people don’t like to do all of that stuff, but if you want to be a working writer in the studio system, you have to find a way.”
6) YOU DO NOT HAVE 120 PAGES. YOU HAVE TEN.
Lucchesi tells us that whether anyone bothers to read your entire script is determined by how much the first ten grabs them. “Right now, everyone’s time is so limited, and it’s so competitive out there, you have to make your voice known very quickly. In the first ten or 15 pages, you have to really capture your audience. The writing has to be standout and beautiful.” So make sure you’re first ten pages isn’t one long static dialogue scene, okay? Tarantino can get away with that maybe – you can’t. “So many development people share their coverage and their points of view,” she adds, meaning that coverage at one company can doom you at a whole bunch of others. “The more perfect your script can be, particularly up front, the better.”
5) DEAR AGENT, I’VE WRITTEN A WHOLE PILE O’ CRUD!
Readying a query letter? Producer/manager Graham Kaye, president of CP Productions and a former agent, says, “Don’t write me and say, ‘I’ve written ten scripts’ in a query. I’m incredibly busy. If you’ve written ten scripts, I can’t even imagine -- you’re not expecting me to read all ten, are you? Take one or two scripts in particular and make sure they speak so loudly that they can’t be ignored. If you don’t want anyone to ever return your calls, or to leave you a message that you’ve moved to Bolivia, tell them you’ve written ten scripts.’ Plus, whether you’ve written three scripts or 50, whatever you say is going to create a negative impression. Three? You’re a greenhorn. 50? You’re old, or you’re a hack. Avoid the topic entirely!
4) THE GRAVY TRAIN WILL RUN OUT OF COAL.
Once a working Hollywood writer, always a working Hollywood writer, right? BZZZ. Lucchesi warns, “Baby writers, don’t quit your day job. Don’t live outside of your means. You see so many writers – not just writers, everyone in town – at the end of the day, you’re still an artist. This isn’t a 9 to 5 where you’re collecting your weekly paycheck. You have to protect yourself in terms of how you take care of your finances. It happens to every artist. You’ll have moments of great success and then moments of not so much.”
Gladstone reminds us that the average life of a writer in Hollywood is about five years. “You have to be very careful how to extend that,” he says. “You have to play chess. It’s not just about being talented. You have to learn how to play the game and be a strategist and not be reactive, which is very, very difficult to do.” So when you break in, sock money away and invest wisely. Plan for a future in which the gravy train has derailed. Sure, you may be able to reinvent yourself and reinvigorate that career again. But if not, you’ll be glad you bought that pizzeria or income property!
3) SCRIBE, PIGEONHOLE THYSELF
This is a simple one that we tend to overlook. Says Wagner: “Don’t try to break out in more than one genre. That’s always a red flag as a rep.” So yeah, if you have a comedy and a drama and an actioner and a horror script, rather than telling a representative that you’re versatile, it says you’re too all over the place. Wagner continues, “And it confuses execs, too, because execs like to put writers on lists and in boxes. That’s how we sell them. A lot of writers think they can write everything. Very few can. The biggest mistake is the writer coming out of the gate pitching the Spring break comedy and a high-concept thriller. Own one zone. Sometimes you sign guys, and they’re like, ‘Here are the eight things I want to get moving.’ Great. Let’s focus on one or two.”
2) HURRY, HURRY, HURRY! NOW, NOW, NOW!
Now more than ever, the process of selling a script can drag on and on mainly due to packaging. The days of simply sending out a spec with no attachments are dwindling. Wagner says: “New clients learn as they go that the movie business is hurry-up-and-wait. You need patience. While you’re waiting for your screenplay to be packaged, work on your next one. You can’t just sit around all day. If (your script) is a good read, it will get some attachments, hopefully. It just takes time. The movie business moves slowly, and the sooner a writer realizes that, the better. It could all happen really fast, too, but most of the time when it looks like (a deal came together quickly,) it took four or five months or four or five years.”
Lastly, the number one biggest mistake according to agents and managers: (drum roll, please!)
1) NOT LISTENING TO YOUR #^&*@($!!! REP
Seems obvious, right? And yet so many represented writers don’t. Says Lucchesi, “We have our fingers on the pulse of everything that’s going on. If you’re going to write a spec script, make sure you check with them before you put pen to paper. We’ll know if there’s another project out there like it, and we can guide you. I know a lot of writers who’ve said, ‘I wish I would have talked to you before I did this.’ Listen to your agent!
I’d like to add one more from my own experience: don’t make any submissions to anyone ‘real’ until you are certain your script rocks. How many times have we sent out a draft, only to get feedback and then get that awful, queasy feeling because we pulled the trigger too early and sent it to our industry friends? Just because you’re elated over finishing a draft of something doesn’t mean it’s awesome yet. Make sure you Get It Right. The sensation of the door whacking you on the ass on the way out is not an especially pleasurable one, trust me on that.
Jim Cirile is a screenwriter/producer. He is the founder of Coverage, Ink (www.coverageink.com.) He lives in Los Angeles.