There is an entire industry out there that promises to turn people into professional screenwriters for beaucoup $$$. The list of screenwriting courses and how-to books is endless, driven by the sheer number of hopefuls who want to make a living writing for film and TV.
Unfortunately, some of those offering advice have no credible background in the industry. For instance, I once worked with a guy who ran a major screenwriting course and his sole credit was a short. Those students paid the college over $200k a year, and I only ever heard of one of them finding work in the industry.
The level of detail offered by some self-appointed gurus is astounding. But most of their instructions are far too technical and inhibit the author’s natural story-telling ability. They are like engineering-grade blueprints for writing by the numbers. “If you fill in all the little boxes, you will end up with a good screenplay that will sell.” It just does not work that way and ironically is one of the reasons there is an increasing number of articles claiming that AI will soon be able to replace screenwriters.
But AI will never have the raw life experience of a human driven to create a film.
Avoid Pitfalls When Selling a Script
Every producer and studio executive I have ever known is looking for something original, but originality is not just in the idea, it is also in the execution. If everyone is taking similar screenwriting courses and reading the same books, like McKee’s Story for instance, the writing also becomes very similar. Screenwriting Gurus insist that certain things need to happen by or on certain pages, and studio script analysts are now trained to look for those things. If they are not there, the script automatically gets the thumbs down, which leaves the writer trying to do something original up the proverbial creek.
Some of the worst culprits are development people. Here’s a newsflash. The vast majority of D-people do not get close to getting a script made, that is why they're sometimes called “no-people”. Like everyone, most D-people are doing the best they can at the jobs they're holding, but they're not generally the ones who say yes on a project.
Most scripts are bought and made when a senior agent at CAA for instance calls the head of Imagine Entertainment, or some such credible company, and does the deal. Then the script gets passed down to the D-people to handle the re-writes and claim credit for getting the movie made. My advice is to avoid these people at all costs. Once your script is in the system as a “pass” you will not be able to access anyone else at that company, so you had better wait till you can access someone who has the power to have your script bought and made.
With over 15 years in the industry as an agent and producer, I have known hundreds of D-people and have tracked them. Maybe a handful ever got a film made. One of the key objectives for any screenwriter needs to be to find a way around Development people (something I will write about next week).
And you thought all you had to do was to write a good script!
One of my favorite past times as an agent, when on the receiving end of a pass from a D-person on a client’s script, was to quiz them about exactly why. What had not worked for them? I would without exception get an earful of industry cliches that could have applied to any script ever written, but I when I pressed them on character X for instance and his interaction with character Z, they would have another call coming in! I would quiz them and get their thoughts on character Y, when there was no such character in the entire screenplay and they would always suggest the character needed more of an arc, a more developed psychological profile, etc.
Try asking questions the next time someone turns your script down. Be polite, of course, and professional, but see if they have feedback. It might be purely subjective and they didn't give your script the read it deserves, or you might get a decent suggestion. Just beware of following feedback that doesn't fit your vision. Not everyone with an opinion knows what's best for your film.
It's All in the Storytelling
Try telling your eight year old nephew a story. Really hold his attention. The kid could not care less about act breaks, turning points, and all that industry, development-speak. You are going to have to dig deep to keep his attention, and that takes you back to a primal story-telling ability. Without it, the industry will turn you into another by-the-numbers hack. With it, you rock. You stand out from the crowd, and, with some hard work and networking, you can cut your own check.
Ever read a script with none of the turning points, act breaks, inciting incident in the expected places, but you could not put it down? How about the script with everything to the letter that was so lame that it felt like driving a car with the handbrake on?
One of the best story-tellers I ever worked with was the brother of a very well-known actress. I would walk this guy into a pitch meeting with the head of New Line, Universal or Tri-Star and he would just tell them a story. He would pitch the entire film for ninety minutes and no studio head ever stopped him, no one ever checked their email or took a call. They were fascinated. Somebody was telling them an actual story, and they loved it. He ended up with a hugely rich deal and has done very well for himself.
Now, I am obviously not recommending that you start pitching your entire script on your next pitch meetings, but what I am recommending is: push the envelope. Don’t be a clone. Find real filmmakers to work with, people who have stood behind a camera and will work with you because they want to get back there.
Stand out from the crowd. Play to your strengths and find a way to reconnect with that story-teller in you.