Updated: May 12
Not a problem, as long as you are prepared to invest the sweat equity to learn the craft of screenwriting. There are no short cuts. There is a reason for the high turnover of people in Hollywood. Thousands arrive each week and want to be the lead actor in a sitcom without having studied acting, and as many arrive who want to sell their first script overnight. There is little tolerance for this type of mindset amongst industry professionals and they have a number of ways to find out who is legit or not. So, respect your time, you have one life to live. You don’t want to look back ten years later and chastise yourself for not having been more committed, for not having paid your dues, “what if?”
When you write a script, you are asking a production company and a lot executives with careers they are extremely protective of (read: risk averse) to invest millions of dollars in it.
My advice to you is get specific, narrow down your choices. Most writers end up having a talent in one genre and one genre only. Find out which one is yours. Look at the career paths of successful screenwriters. You rarely get someone penning an action piece and then going on to a romantic comedy. Industry pigeonholing has something to with that, but nowhere near as much as you may think. I am huge fan of Steven Zaillian for instance. His Searching for Bobby Fischer (1993) blew a lot of people away and he has rarely disappointed since. So read his screenplays, you will find a lot available online. Read them over and over and watch the films. Stop them, rewind, deconstruct them, find out why scenes worked, discuss them with others etc. Follow the career paths of these writers. What agency are they with? Who did they start off with? Career highlights and mistakes? If there is a way of contacting them do. You will be surprised at how many people answer intelligent questions by those who show they have done their homework. Some writers definitely believe in giving back and some will even mentor you. Get savvy about the industry. Coming across as someone in the know, as an insider, makes a huge difference when you are talking to industry players.
Once you feel more comfortable about your niche in the industry, pick up some of the key industry “how to write a screenplay” books. There are thousands of them, some written by people with little credibility and a lot of opinion and are a complete waste of time. It is crucial to read the books that producers, agents and studio executives refer to, so you are quite literally on the same page with them. Two that come to mind are Linda Seger’s “How to Make a Good Script Great” and Robert McKee’s “Story”. Use these to learn the rules of screenwriting.
When you write a script, you are asking a production company and a lot executives with careers they are extremely protective of (read: risk averse) to invest millions of dollars in it. A lot of writers fall in love with an idea without really testing the waters to see if it is a commercial one or not. We all read the same papers and are subject to the same zeitgeist, do not be surprised if other people hit on the same idea at the same time. Don’t be overprotective of your idea, pitch it to people who know their stuff before you invest months if not years of your life in a script.
Your most important decision at this stage is choosing the right concept for your screenplay. You may think that this is stating the obvious, but you have no idea how many writers I have seen during my years as an agent and producer, who did not heed this rule. You can seriously improve your chance of striking writing gold if you manage to secure the rights to a popular play, book, short story, newspaper article, comic book, video game or web based real life story, something that already has a fan base or some form of following. Most of these you will not be able to afford, but you will be surprised by the number you can actually get a free option on.
"Desicion Making in the Hollywood Studio System"
I have literally read hundreds of scripts that were well written but based on last year’s hit movie, or in a genre that the industry has no interest in, or very similar to a project that was written by one of the top writers in the industry and optioned by a key producer with a studio deal a month ago. If you have access to industry professionals you can trust, run your ideas by them, if not, find the best script mentor you can, someone with a serious track record as an agent, producer and or studio executive and use them as a sounding board. I can help you with that on my site: www.alexrossmentor.com. Do not jump into the process of writing the script without. You risk wasting six months or a year or more of your life. A lot of writers give up when their first script goes nowhere…
This might be a good time for you to join a local writers’ group to give and receive feedback on whatever you are all working on, share tips and also get some companionship for what is essentially, a lonely job. You can find screenwriting groups online or through your local library, but make sure that whoever gives you feedback is qualified to do so. As previously mentioned, bad feedback can do serious harm.
Once you are committed to a concept, do whatever research needs to be done and having read those screenwriting books, sit down and create a bare bone outline. Your inciting incident, your central question, turning point into the first act and so on. Really work on your characters.
There are two schools of thought here. Use what works for you. Some years ago, I was hanging out with France’s greatest living screenwriter Jean-Claude Carriere, who sadly passed away recently. You may have seen his Unbearable Lightness of Being (1988). I had just started writing and penned this monster three-parter screenplay. I told him that at times the characters came to life to such an extent that I did not know what they were going to do. Writing was like watching them on the big screen, being entertained, I had no idea what was going to happen next. He frowned, looked at me, went quiet. I just knew that I had said the dumbest thing ever to one of the greatest screenwriters of our time, a guy who had started his career with Bunuel. He finally said: “That happens to me very rarely…”, a long silence during which I was dying: “But when it does, I know I am doing my best writing”. Let’s call this the European school. Create some really interesting characters and write yourself into them until they start to do something interesting. Then throw away the earlier pages. That works for some people, particularly for those with early onset writer’s block.
The other, more prevalent school of thought, let’s call it the American one, is much more about control. Someone like Robert McKee will strongly suggest that you go past the initial outline and flesh it out till you have a 60 page synopsis with every beat, every turning point, act break, even some of the key dialogue. Once you have all that in place and approved of, you go to script. Industry script gurus would argue that if you do not know what your character is going to go on page 81 and what he will do on page 82, you cannot deliver a professional screenplay to your agent and producer. Things need to happen by certain pages.
I get the pros and cons of each method, but confess that the former, the European one, tends to work better for me. The latter approach strikes me as so much “writing by the numbers” it can stifle creativity, lead to predictable narratives and worst of all, if you follow all the rules of the game outlined by McKee and co. you will find that every script feels the same. Entertaining with a good script is not just a matter of coming up with a unique story, it is also about finding a novel way of telling that story. But as mentioned, this comes down to preferences, do what works best for you.
Having said that, whatever rules you abide by, go beyond them and start to break some of them to establish your own “voice”. Do not try to address every question these gurus ask in their books in page one of your script as you will never get to page two. Use them to feed your creativity, your story-telling ability and not inhibit it.
Next week, check in to find out more about how to find industry representation, the pitfalls of pitch meetings, the intricacies of production company politics, how to circumvent development people and end up on the producer’s desk etc.
© Dr. Alex Ross 2021