(And Good Riddance, 2016)
By Jim Cirile
From the American Screenwriters Association blog
Ahoy, fellow scribes! We’re finally done with 2016, that blizzard of putrescence – and not a minute too soon. Some of the lowlights: Trump, DNC chicanery, and Wikileaks revealing that Citicorp had selected Obama’s entire cabinet. And we lost so many – not only huge names like Prince, Bowie, Muhammad Ali, George Michael and Carrie Fisher, but lesser-known geniuses like Joe Alaskey, aka the voice of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Monsters Inc. screenwriter Dan Gerson, and two-thirds of progressive rock pioneers Emerson, Lake and Palmer (only drummer Carl Palmer remains). Icing the turd: feature spec sales were at their lowest level in a decade.
But wait. What’s that sound off in the distance? Was that a… cha-ching? Indeed! There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s the magic number 455. No, no, it’s not on the front of an oncoming train. That, friends, is the number of scripted pilots bought/ordered last year. Compare that with less than 100 feature specs sold, and you’ll see that TV has superseded features as a place to make money. And that means opportunity.
So I’ve compiled a short list of five things we should all do in order to get a piece. Forget pointless New Year’s resolutions you’ll never keep – do this.
1) ELEVATE YOUR CRAFT
Sounds simple, right? Yet this is probably the single hardest thing for writers to do, mainly because many of us live in a lovely Egyptian land called “Denial.” See, screenplays are not lottery tickets. There is no real element of luck. If you send scripts to 20 contests and hope that one of them will recognize your brilliance, you’re not understanding how things really work. While there are exceptions of course, when a script is great, everyone can see it from 20,000 feet.
The truth is, the vast majority of scripts are mediocre. But rather than doing the heavy lifting needed to get them into the end zone – that means rewriting, people – oftentimes we maybe do one round of notes, then send it out.
The sound you hear next is the door hitting your ass on the way out.
The truth is: creating a great script generally takes work. Malevolent, our in-production animated feature (starring William Shatner and Morena Baccarin) took 20 drafts and over a year of development before it got consistent considers. Expect this and plan for it. Why is it that unlike any other highly paid profession, writers have so much trouble accepting that years of study and blood, sweat and tears are often needed to learn a highly specialized craft?
So I want everyone reading this to take steps to up their game. Don’t just keep writing in a vacuum.
· Take a class. Pretty much every college has online classes. Embrace the learning process.
· Find a writer’s group. You’d be amazed how empowering it is to get feedback on your pages week after week – plus the deadlines help, too.
· Send your script in for feedback from companies who use highly trained professional story analysts – and then do the notes.
· And lest we forget – avail yourself of all the incredible information out there! When I got started in the ‘80s, all we had were a couple of Syd Field books. Now there are literally thousands of how-to books, blogs, articles, webinars and YouTube videos. All out there waiting for you.
Do ALL these things. repeat as needed. No point in making any submissions until you are certain that your script rocks (unless you're a glutton for rejection.)
2) MAKE A LIST AND CHECK IT TWICE
Once you’re confident your material is the shizbombdiggity, how do you get it out there? Good news again: there have never been more ways to do this. The truth is: everyone is looking to find an amazing script. But no one wants to waste precious time trudging through the great unwashed masses. So companies like InkTip and Virtual Pitchfest make it easy to submit your story ideas to producers and reps for just a few bucks (and they take a lot of the hassle out of the process for producers, while adding a firewall to ensure they’re not badgered by the likes of us.) I personally got signed off Virtual Pitchfest in the past, so I can assure you it works.
Two other interesting options: Roadmap Writers and The Black List. Roadmap Writers sets up phone/Skype pitches with execs, while the Black List provides industry exposure to top-rated script submissions.
There’s no better way to get in the faces of executives than by getting in the faces of executives, so we highly recommend Scriptfest (formerly Great American Pitchfest.) This event, held every summer in Burbank, puts you with as many as 15-20 execs in a single day. A smaller but still worthwhile pitch event is Pitching Room, from Story Pros, which is twice yearly.
While an imdbpro.com subscription ($129) has useful company info, unfortunately, they don’t have a lots of up-to-date contacts and e-mails useful for querying execs. Fortunately, there is the Hollywood Screenwriting Directory, from our friends at The Writers Store. $24.95 gets you a hard copy directory with 4,000 companies, as well as access to their frequently-updated website. Make a list of the companies who have done projects similar to yours, then contact the lowest-rung person on the totem pole at those places -- interns or assistants. They’re looking to put feathers in their cap by finding killer material to champion. That means they actually read. Have your elevator pitch ready, and hit ‘em with a cold call. Be electric and personable. A 20-second phone pitch can well elicit a “Sure, what the hell. Send it over.” If you’re going to query via e-mail, make sure it is short and punchy, that you paint a compelling, fascinating picture of yourself, and that you only pitch one project per query.
3) GET YOUR CONTEST DUCKS IN A ROW
There are a handful of fantastic contests out there who break new talent all the time. And there are a boatload that do not. Really, there are less than ten that have any real juice. A cash prize is nice, but what you really need is access. Here are a few worth your dime and your time:
As for the rest… meh. Face it, making the semi-finals of the South Terre Haute Film Festival Screenwriting Competition will do precisely jack and squat for your career… and Jack just left town. And while we’re not a contest, I have to shamelessly plug Coverage Ink’s Get Repped Now promotion as well. Again, access is the name of the game.
And don’t forget the network fellowships and diversity programs. Programs like NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Nickelodeon Writing and the Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship are a golden way in – although competition is fierce. Finally, there may be some grant money available for those who wish to DIY. Film Daily has a great list.
4) SCRUTINIZE YOURSELF
Most of us have difficulty with this. That’s why I founded Coverage Ink, frankly – because more often than not, others can see the flaws in your material when you cannot. So buck up, pilgrim, and take a cold, hard look at each of these areas:
Concept. If you are writing a TV pilot, then your pilot should look like a TV show (duh) and bring something fresh and compelling to the table, in a genre that TV generally does. As well, it should ideally fit with a certain network – “this is clearly a CW show,” for example. If it’s a feature, it should be demonstrably studio or indie (but probably not both,) with a clear target audience. Who will pay to see this movie? IS there an audience for it? Your adaptation of a 17th century treatise on the merits of indoor plumbing, for example, may not draw ‘em in at the local multiplex. If it’s an indie, make sure you keep the budget LOW. And even if it’s meant to be a studio spec, remember that while you do need set pieces, you also need complex and robust characterizations. Consider also that no one can sell a huge-budget epic fantasy or superhero spec -- most of these types of movies are adapted from well-known source material, meaning your spec is DOA. Best bet: stay with the evergreen genres: crime, thriller, action, comedy, contained/affordable sci-fi (think “Moon,”) and horror. Romantic comedies, epic adventures, westerns, dramas and period pieces are tough sells on the feature side.
Title. Titles are marketing tools. Ideally they should convey something about the genre, tone, or theme of the script. Beware of naming your script after your main character (lazy, and tells us little unless it is a historical figure) or some cliché like “Good to Go” or “It’s Never Enough.” These titles are so vague as to say nothing. Make sure your title POPS.
Style. Yes, it is possible to scrutinize your writing style! Not just your story, but the way in which you tell a story – aka “voice.” A few things to look out for:
Overwriting. Screenwriting should be snappy and terse, not novelistic and bloated. Read your script over thoroughly, scanning every single line, paragraph, every page, scrutinizing it carefully. Keep the axe poised, and excise extraneous words. It's a bit of an art to train your eye to look for bloat, but it's a skill any writer can learn. Take any sentence and challenge yourself: can I say the same thing in half the words? Or do I need it at all? Be on the lookout for redundancies, scenes that are unrelated to the main storyline, excessive detail and extraneous characters and subplots -- especially in the case of many ensemble scripts, which oftentimes would work better and be tighter with a central protagonist.
Some writers haven’t mastered contractions and possessives and confuse its/it’s and your/you’re. Nothing will get your script tossed on the “pass” pile faster. You’re putting yourself up for highly paid writing gigs, which means you’re expected to know this stuff. Or we make other basic errors like “lightening” instead of “lightning” and “must of” instead of “must have.” There is no shame in taking a copy editing or grammar class at night school. They exist to help you. Avail yourself.
But by far the most common style problem is just a plain ol’ lack of it. Some writers’ panache flares off the page, with energetic word choices, vibrant descriptions and punchy, in-your-face prose. Others write flat sentences using tired, uncreative adjectives like “large” and verbs like “walks,” “sits,” and “runs.” One sprints, races, zooms, scrambles, stampedes, bolts, flies, bum-rushes, steams, bounds or blazes. Never “runs.”
Again, creative writing courses are available at every single community college…
Here’s one more tip to improving your style: STEAL. How much do you think I stole from William Goldman’s technique? If you answered “a f*ck ton,” you’d be correct! There are amazing and inspirational writers out there who know how to turn a phrase, who always keep you guessing. For me those people are folks like Harlan Ellison, Richard Marcinko, Carl Hiassen, and David Twohy. Like the way a writer does a cool transition, or uses just the right word to paint a mental picture? Filch! No, I’m not saying lift their content, duh. I’m saying to use their style to inform your own.
5) WRITE SOMETHING NEW
Whaaat? No, seriously. You should do this. All of us at one time or another have shopped a project that was past its expiration date. It’s hard to accept something we’ve labored over for years is pushing up daisies. But here’s the thing: agents and managers expect you to write two or three new pieces of material/year. Gulp. Once you accept that, there’s no time to beat that dead horse anymore. Because a gorgeous, brand-new filly has just galloped in.
So put aside that script you’ve been flogging since 1994 and freakin’ start afresh. Okay, now I know I just said to not be afraid to do twenty drafts. However, many of us just keep reworking the same ol’ material which maybe has a flawed or uncommercial concept or is just problematic in some way. When you start a new feature or pilot, you’re proceeding with all the information you’ve learned since then, ready to roll. Your sense of structure and pacing will be better, and you may nail some things first time out that you are still struggling with in the old script. By writing something new you will recharge your batteries and show what you can do right now, in 2017 – not what you did a few years ago, patched up with half-assed rewrites that didn’t really address the underlying issues.
Simple, right? Hell no. In fact, all this stuff is laborious. But you wanted in on this game. You wanted to write movies and TV and make the big bucks. So make sure you have the tools to rule. Now go kick some ass and make me proud!
Jim Cirile is a Los Angeles writer/producer and the founder of Coverage Ink, helping writers with professional screenplay analysis/development services since 2002.