This is not the column I intended to write. It is, however, the one I have to write.
My plan was to do a series of blogs from my “Girl Producer” point of view about the path of a spec script, from my initial interest in the material, through getting the writer representation, the rewrite process, taking it out into the marketplace, and: viola, “The Tale of a Spec Sale!”
Sounds like a good story, right? But now I know there will be no happy ending. With so many positive elements in place, how could that happen? That answer is the moral of the story I’m going to tell you instead.
This is the real life account of Screenwriter A and Screenwriter B or the a tale of two screenwriters.
A “Tortoise and Hare” parable, if you will.
And while the two screenwriters share many things in common, as in the fabled race, the outcomes are worlds apart.
Once upon a time, a screenwriter came to my attention by placing highly in a major contest. "Writer A,” who we’ll call The Tortoise in this story, is truly talented. I fell head over heels for his script the first time I read it. Great concept. What I call a truly “hooky idea.” Brilliant device. Deliciously brisk set up. Sharp dialogue. Comic set pieces that were fresh and funny. However, the ending struck a wrong chord. It didn’t live up to the promise of the premise and failed to satisfy – but I hoped that it wasn’t written in stone – so to speak.
I contacted The Tortoise and told him what I loved about his story and his writing. I was also honest about my concern about the ending. The Tortoise was open to changing it. That meant I was interested in producing it. We spoke at length about our vision for the story and were in sync.
BREAKING & ENTERING LESSON
: Never put anyone on your project who doesn’t share your vision for the film, from producer to cinematographer. When you’re rowing in different directions, you go nowhere.
As a result of the contest, I learned The Tortoise had received some interest from a manager and an agent. I was able to offer some insight on the manager. In actuality, a manager-producer who, in my experience, was more interested in attaching themselves as a producer to anything they thought they could sell, than in developing careers. True to form, this manager had not asked to read another of The Tortoise’s scripts.
BREAKING & ENTERING LESSON: When a manager does not ask to see more of your work beyond the script that got their attention, then they are absolutely not interested in building your career.
On to the interest at a boutique agency. One partner had read the script and was enthusiastic. The other less so. There had been a bit of email interaction between the writer and agent, but it had died off, and the writer didn’t know what to do. Girl Producer to the rescue!
I knew the second partner and contacted him to get the scoop. He confessed that, although they liked the story and the writing, they were both sitting on the fence. I expressed my enthusiasm for the concept, its commercial potential, the writer’s willingness to revise the ending, as well as my eagerness to develop and produce the script. Agents don’t develop. They don’t have the time. It’s not their strength. It’s not their job. With the heavy lifting firmly in my hands, by the end of our conversation the agent was ready to sign the writer.
BREAKING & ENTERING LESSON: “We sell ‘em, we don’t smell ‘em,” the famous quote by über-agent H.N. Swanson, sums it up succinctly. Agents sell.
LET'S MAKE A DEAL
Time to dot the “I’s” cross the “T’s.” First came The Tortoise’s contract with the agency. Then, I drafted a letter agreement for a free option.
My expertise in developing material and my industry relationships – an essential part of bringing a project into the marketplace – are exchanged for the exclusive rights to market the project for a period of time. Any deal for the project made with a third party must include my attachment as a producer. That’s what I’m bringing to the table, and what I get in return for my investment.
In this case, I asked for 18 months with an option to extend for an additional 12 months if mutually agreeable. That’s pretty standard for me and comparable to other producers. Both development and packaging take time and you cannot predict how long the process will take. I wouldn’t want a project to be jerked out from under me after putting in a lot of work. I can’t commit my time and energy without the opportunity to make the sale. The Tortoise wanted a slight adjustment to the start of the option period. The agent tinkered with the language a bit to further protect his client, as well he should.
Done and done.
BREAKING & ENTERING LESSON: Deals are about compromise. I learned how to negotiate early in my career with a tough as nails agent who did not hesitate to scream at me over a deal point. After that, nothing scared me. I also learned to always ask for a little more time than I think I need, offer a little less in a paid option than my absolute top, so that there is room for negotiation. That way, both parties walk away feeling triumphant.
And we’re off! I truly enjoy working with writers. I’m strong at development and I love helping stories reach their full potential. When I’m working with a writer – focused on helping them make their story the best it can be – time flies for me.
Only this took years.
Our first phone conversation took place while I was driving up to Santa Barbara for my sister’s wedding. Her son was three years old when we got to the final draft.
The Tortoise didn’t have much experience or training. He had not gone to film school, taken seminars, or even read many books on screenwriting. I’m a strong and patient teacher and will tailor my own approach to best inspire each individual writer.
I devised character development exercises, encouraged outlining techniques, and emailed excerpts from top screenwriting books. We devoted hours discussing theme, hoping to focus the story. Nevertheless, structure, arc and theme – the three interwoven and essential elements of strong story – never truly came together.
I am a relentlessly optimistic person. I was passionate about this piece and would have stood on my head to make it work. But, as months or even a years elapsed between drafts, and it was challenging to get even minor changes, I felt like I was fighting an unwinnable battle. The Tortoise insisted that he was open to notes, but no matter how loud and how long his proclamation… in truth, The Tortoise was closed. He was trapped inside his own head, with his fears and misperceptions.
To get a fresh perspective for us both, I called in favors from friends. Two execs, highly placed and highly respected, read and responded. The Tortoise rejected their notes as well.
Notes aren’t easy. There’s an art to both giving and taking notes. The most profound thing I ever learned about story notes came from Bruce Evans and Raynold Gideon, the writer-producers of Stand By Me, Starman, Mr. Brooks and many other films. They were my first and my fabulous bosses as a junior exec. They had experienced countless notes meetings. They had also been on the other side of the desk, when giving notes on projects they were producing.
“The writer’s job,” Bruce and Ray would say, ”is to scratch the itch.” Notes aren’t always on target. But they are pointing to a problem. Rather than simply “doing you’re told,” the writer needs to identify and address the underlying issue; the reason for the scratching. Taking notes doesn’t mean giving in and conceding when you don’t believe it’s best for your story, but you had better think long and hard about what’s itching the exec who perceives problem.
As a screenwriter, you have chosen to work in a collaborative medium. One in which everyone will want to contribute their two cents to your story. In the best situations, what comes from debate and discussion can be even stronger. But not always.
Bruce and Ray also told a story about standing up for your vision for the story. They were working with Michael Douglas, who was exec producing Starman. They were in disagreement on a key story point. Michael insisted, “Just do it my way.” Discussion escalated to argument. The famous actor reminded them loudly that he was the son of a famous actor, a TV star and that he had won an Oscar for Best Picture. Bruce and Ray pointed out that in this room, they were equals, but Douglas continued on his tirade. Finally, they shouted back, “And you probably have a bigger dick too, but we’re still right about the story!” Douglas immediately conceded and said, “Let’s go to lunch!”
There will be times when you get a note that is simply outrageous. It will happen, and you will have to handle it with respect, diplomacy and a touch of deference if you want to keep working.
Aaron Sorkin talks about getting notes on The West Wing from network execs, including a specific suggestion for one of the pilot storylines that was completely contrary to the concept and style of the show. So far out there – it was beyond belief:
It was hard to avoid the awkward pause then because I honestly didn't know if I was being messed with or not, and I didn't want to insult the executive or appear to be difficult to work with (even though I badly needed the network to pass because by this point ABC had ordered 13 episodes of Sports Night) so I said, "That's worth thinking about."
BREAKING & ENTERING LESSON: If you’re going to work in this business, you have to learn how to take notes, as well as how to implement them. I once knew a writer who was so argumentative that the studio executive forbade him to speak in meetings. Now that’s worth thinking about.
OUT INTO THE WORLD
The Tortoise had burned himself out. After all, he had worked on this project for a long time. Even though neither he nor I felt the script was the very best it could be, he wanted to get it O-U-T!
This is a tough situation. I can’t force someone to rewrite. I can advise, encourage, cajole, but that’s it. The projects I attach myself to, and bring to my colleagues in the industry, are a reflection on me. I’m putting my career and my reputation on the line too. I sent the latest draft to the agents.
It felt like it took forever for them to read and respond to the script. A lot of time had elapsed since their initial enthusiasm. I was nudging them and “just checking in” as often as appropriate without being a pest.
Finally, the writer and I made a plan with the agents’ input for adding an element – an actor, or director or giant producer – to the project to add value before going to buyers. We rejected some of their suggestions as not right for the project, and others that we would consider further down the line. Ultimately, we had a multi-tiered list of top choices, a second round, and a third round.
The script went out slowly. It took the agents a long time to turn their focus to it, as they were involved with more lucrative clients and TV deals. Holidays brought things to a stand still. After more polite hocking, there were finally some submission responses.
Passes across the board.
And then… it ground to a halt.
What happened? I spoke to the agent, insisting on knowing what the problem was. The answer? In this age of relentless Internet tracking boards for spec scripts, this high-concept, ably written, but “falls-short-on-story” script had gotten poor word of mouth. Once that happens, the script is burnt. With a deluge of material, no one is going to devote precious time to reading something that has bad buzz.
Honestly, I'm heartbroken. I've lost this chance to help bring a smart, funny and meaningful story to an audience. Now it's a tale that will never be told. And I hurt for the writer too. I know how hard he worked. I truly believe this was his big opportunity. I was rooting for him.
THE MORAL OF THE STORY: You only get one chance to make a first impression. Put nothing but your very best foot forward. No matter how many steps you’ve already taken.
"Screenwriter B," The Hare in our story, and I crossed paths in a similar way. I had read a contest script of The Hare’s that I thought was well written. It was small thriller with a cat and mouse element that sizzled. The Hare had wrung every bit of juice out of this; making it an edge-of-your-seat, tense and scary read. She was a writer with potential. I didn’t think this story would work for a feature audience and budget, but I did get some traction on it as an MOW. In the end, the MOW didn’t come to fruition, but we had a good working experience and stayed in touch.
The Hare asked me to read a new script in a completely different genre. I couldn’t figure out who the audience would be, and I felt it might be more successful as a children’s book.
Many months later, The Hare asked if I would do a consult on her latest script: a big, edgy supernatural thriller. We worked on it extensively. We discussed theme, and I could practically see her eyes light up over the phone. It was there, but buried, waiting to be fully expressed. We worked to clearly define the rules of the fantasy element. They had to be out of her head and cinematically conveyed to both the reader and the eventual audience. Focusing the fantasy device and the theme, tightened the entire story and brought all the elements together.
BREAKING AND ENTERING LESSON: Know when to get an outside opinion. It’s impossible to be objective about your own work. The movie may be clearer in your head then it is on the page. Your brain fills in the details, but the reader misses out.
With her sights on a looming contest deadline, The Hare worked relentlessly, and had a completely new draft within weeks. She had taken the notes and run with them, scratched the itch and conquered it. She had done something I’ve rarely seen between drafts. She went from being a “B to B+ Screenwriter” to being an “A-Level Screenwriter.”
We don't grade on a curve here. It’s closer to pass/fail. You’re either a successful, produced A-List writer, or writing at an A-Level of professional quality work, or a B-Level writer showing the potential to make it to the next level.
Below that? To be brutally honest – considered not worth the read unless it’s for a fantastic concept.
It’s one thing to make something better in a rewrite; it’s another to take it to a whole new level. The description, involving both supernatural elements and big, dynamic action, was vivid and gripping. The action itself was creative and fresh. Some moments of outstanding, sharp dialogue. Tension built throughout, and the twists in the last half were solid. There was a resonant message. The Hare had impressed me.
But that kind of magic doesn’t happen overnight. The Hare had a BA and an MFA in Creative Writing and taken every screenwriting course available. She had success in other writing mediums, as a journalist and as a novelist. This was The Hare’s seventh screenplay. She was dedicated to her craft. She was always writing. She was developing a greater understanding of her strengths and her passions.
After the second set of notes, The Hare hired me as a consultant to help her get to the final draft. She put in twelve-hour days, five days a week, keeping herself going on green tea and sheer grit. She was writing faster than I could read and make notes, and she was turning in great material.
BREAKING & ENTERING LESSON: To make a great leap forward, you have to have laid a solid foundation. Writing breakthroughs only come over time, with preparation and experience; practice and dedication. When you have truly mastered the fundamentals, you will be poised to make the next big step.
AND THEN WHAT HAPPENED?
The Hare made the deadline for the big contest, took a short break and went straight back to rewriting to implement some of my smaller, finessing notes. Though still too soon to know how the script will fare in the big contest, she entered it in a smaller contest and won a modest cash prize.
I’ve been in touch with a manager I sent the small thriller to months ago, who “liked but didn’t love it.” I’ve stoked the fires to keep his interest level up. He is primed to read this new script because I’m excited about it. The Hare wants a manager who is honest and blunt and will force her to polish her work before it goes into the marketplace. Believe me, this manager, who I have known for most of my career, fits that bill to perfection.
And as of this afternoon, I’ve expressed interest in possibly producing the project. A very rare occurrence for me. We’ve talked about what I might bring to the table and how I would want to take the project into the marketplace, to give it the best chance of getting sold and of getting made. Maybe work with the manager to find an agency that would be able to package it with an element to up the prospects. A director who has had some success in the genre and could master the dark tone would help studios envision this as a movie.
The Hare and I discussed the previous draft. I brought up an idea that we didn’t agree on, but she articulately helped me see her point of view, and I wound up agreeing with her. I mentioned another concern that she felt was valid, and wants to address.
The Hare is ready and willing to do another pass with my notes, as well as additional rewrites for a manager who comes on board. She’s not green. She gets it.
I enjoy collaborating with The Hare, and I think she likes collaborating with me.
The latest draft is in my in box. I can’t wait to read it tonight.
BREAKING & ENTERING LESSON: You get an agent when you have something for them to sell and someone in the industry to recommend you. Dare I say, “relationships, relationships, relationships” yet again?
THE MORAL OF THE STORY: As a screenwriter, to win the race you have to be both the Tortoise and the Hare.
What kind of screenwriter are you? The Tortoise or the Hare?
I think to succeed, you have to be slow and steady and hop forward by leaps and bounds.
Lay a strong foundation — study screenwriting, read scripts, write and write and write, until you have many scripts under your belt and then you will be ready to make the big step forward to professional level writing.
Have a clear, strong vision for your story, but be able to nimbly incorporate input and insight from others to adapt and improve your idea, or even head in a new direction.
Don't focus on the finish line, but when opportunity comes jump!
The best path to the finish line is to be both The Tortoise and The Hare.
When I completed this column, the final word on these stories had not been written. For the wrap up, read more in my blog, “The Tortoise and The Hare: The Finish Line.”
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