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WRITERS ON BREAKING IN: Renegade Tactics to Launch Your Screenwriting Career

Professional screenwriter Michael Elliot gives out-of-the-box advice on launching your screenwriting career using unconventional wisdom.

Michael Elliot is the writer of the films Like Mike, Brown Sugar, and Just Wright, which starred Queen Latifah. Michael is also the publisher of the downloadable directories The Unusual Suspects: Unconventional Film & Television Contacts to Launch Your Screenwriting Career and The Unusual Suspects: Representation Edition – A Sourcebook of Agents’ & Managers’ Assistants and was recently on Shark Tank, pitching a new venture, Hammer & Nails.

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After living in Los Angeles for 18 months and writing several scripts that went nowhere, I was broke, desperate and facing eviction. There was no time to take another page out of the Traditional Hollywood Playbook to sell my latest script. With an unmovable date to vacate my apartment getting closer by the day, I realized that my last-ditch effort to break into Hollywood had to be unique, even unconventional. Somehow I needed do for myself what, traditionally, writers look to their agents and managers to do: Access the industry insiders in positions to influence a producer or studio to buy my script. But like so many of you, I didn’t have representation, nor did I have any Hollywood connections.

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I read in a business magazine a story about entrepreneurs who had lost it all but made comebacks. They were heralded as renegades. The steps they took to defy the odds and become phoenixes were bold, clever and unconventional. I needed to apply their renegade ways of thinking about their business to my business; the business of selling a screenplay, in 30 days or less. It was on. I cooked up a submission strategy that broke all The Rules. I completely ignored “no unsolicited submission” policies. I used a fax machine. I crafted a query designed to—literally—hijack the recipient’s attention. The strategic placement of my one-sentence pitch made it impossible for recipients to even glance at their own name without, simultaneously, reading my pitch.

My list was comprised of a carefully developed group of production-company underlings that I believed to be the hungriest; individuals who—should they be responsible for bringing in a great script—could put an end to script-copy duty, making coffee, and paltry wages. I dubbed these targets “The Unusual Suspects” because they weren’t the obvious, conventional query targets at production companies. One member of my list of 250 Unusual Suspects was hungry enough to read my unsolicited submission within two hours of noticing it at the company’s reception desk. He was hungry enough to convince his boss to read it that same day. Both individuals were hungry enough to meet with me at 7:00 p.m. later that same day. Four days later, my script was in the “must read” pile of a hungry executive at 20th Century Fox, and on May 15, 1998—with less than $500 left to my name—I received the news that every aspiring screenwriter dreams of getting: 20th Century Fox was purchasing my spec.

Fast-forward to present day. Rarely do I participate on a panel or address a group of aspiring professional screenwriters without hearing a writer express his frustration with the roadblocks that Hollywood has erected to keep writers on the outside. The most common questions: “How do I break in without an agent or manager?” Or “How do I get my script read by a production company when most won’t accept unsolicited submissions?” The answer, at least in my opinion, to both questions is the same: Think outside the box, and throw away the Traditional Hollywood Playbook that’s responsible for the widely held misconception that only agents, managers, and development execs can launch your screenwriting career. Continuing to let traditional or conventional submission strategies dictate your game plan will keep you from doing anything and everything possible to realize your dreams. If you’re like me, with dreams that are worth leaving no stone unturned to attain, the following groups of unconventional contacts could be worth your queries:

The OGs
Each year, a new generation of Oscar®-winning actors become the new A-list and are afforded those “special” roles in the best projects, while images of the likes of Richard Dreyfuss, Joe Pesci, and Kim Basinger become fixtures on direct-to-DVD releases lining Blockbuster’s shelves. Welcome to Hollywood. For many of the actors who own Hollywood’s most prestigious prize (or were nominated for it) but are no longer considered “hot” by Hollywood standards, the desire to play a fantastic character in a meaningful or commercially successful film still burns. Oscar winners and nominees, even those whose star burned its brightest a decade or more ago, still have the relationships, access to script buyers, and foreign bankability to turn a script that they’ve discovered and are passionate about into a produced film. These actors, who I refer to as the OGs (short for the Oscar Gang), are ideal targets for queries from renegade screenwriters with projects that could be perfect for OG members to act in, produce, and/or direct.

The Toast Masters
Another group of talent worth your query, assuming the project or role makes sense, is actors who weren’t OGs but were once hot enough to experience life as the “toast” of Hollywood. The desire to find great roles in great projects is probably stronger for this group of actors than it might be for actors who’ve never been to Hollywood’s mountaintop. Whether their motivation is a comeback, to produce or direct, or simply to play good roles in quality films, these actors, who I like to call the Toast Masters, still have the friends-with-influence, and the financial resources, to help the right script become a big-screen reality.

The Vision Makers
A third group of query targets overlooked by writers is cinematographers (also known as directors of photography or DPs). Many of today’s hottest cinematographers are tomorrow’s film directors. One notable example is director Zack Snyder (Dawn of the Dead, 300, Watchmen). Snyder worked as a
cinematographer before Hollywood invited him to helm a feature film. Think about it: Cinematographers-as-directors is an obvious transition. They are the people responsible for making sure that each of a film’s scenes is shot in a way that brings the director’s vision to life. Surely, there are hot cinematographers who are waiting for the right script to come their way, get behind, and direct as their first feature film.

The Right Hands
On any film, the first assistant director (also called First AD or 1st AD) is the director’s right-hand. Many first assistant directors aspire to helm their own film and consider their first AD jobs preparation for the day they will be the director. Alfred Hitchcock is the most famous first AD-turned-director.
Present-day first assistant directors-turned-directors include James McTeigue. McTeigue, the first AD on the Matrix trilogy and Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, was the director on V for Vendetta (2006). With so many of today’s most in-demand first assistant directors destined to be among tomorrow’s feature directors, they’re ideal targets for queries from renegade screenwriters.

The Jonze Boys
What do Spike Jonze (Being John Malkovich), Brett Ratner (Rush Hour), David Fincher (The Social Network), Gore Verbinski (Pirates of the Caribbean), Marc Webb (500 Days of Summer), Jonathan Glazer (Sexy Beast), Antoine Fuqua (Training Day), McG (Charlie’s Angels), Mark Pellington (Arlington Road), and F. Gary Gray (The Italian Job) have in common? They all got their start directing music videos. Every year, the world of music video has a graduating class. By targeting the select group of music video directors who are poised to become tomorrow’s filmmakers, your script has the chance to be the project that the next Jonze, Fincher or Fuqua chooses to use as his feature directorial debut.

The 30-Second Storytellers
Earlier 2011, little-known screenwriter Evan Daugherty’s spec script Snow White and the Huntsman netted him a deal worth $3.2 million. The amount of Daugherty’s deal is a rarity in today’s spec marketplace, but the staggering amount is attributed to the perceived value of the potential franchise, which included the value placed upon the director. As a strategy, before going out with Daugherty’s spec, producer Palak Patel sent the script to Rupert Sanders. Sanders, a talented commercial director, was responsible for celebrated spots for Xbox, Halo and Nike. Practically every movie studio wanted to make Sanders’ first film, but Sanders was picky. He passed on every script the studios sent his way. But then he read Daugherty’s Snow White and the Huntsman. He wanted in, and Sanders’ desire to direct Daugherty’s spec helped send the script’s purchase price through the roof and guaranteed that the script would get made, almost immediately.

It may seem a bit odd that a commercial director could play such a pivotal role in the potential sale of a movie script, but studios have long considered commercial directors perfect feature directors because commercial directors know how to convey emotions in 30 seconds. Sanders is just the latest to join a recent freshman class of commercial directors now in the movie business. Commercial director-turned-feature director Joseph Kosinski directed Disney’s Tron: Legacy. Universal’s upcoming prequel The Thing was helmed by commercial director-turned-feature director Matthijs van Heijningen Jr. All three freshmen join a club lead by Michael Bay (Transformers), Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), and Ridley Scott (Thelma & Louise), who all got their start directing commercials for brands such as Smirnoff Vodka, Red Cross, and Gap. Targeting hot commercial directors—just like Patel did with Daugherty’s spec—could yield a similar result.

The “Real” Moviemakers
For every Bruckheimer, Grazer and Rudin, there are countless other professionals charged with the actual physical production of their films. These professionals—the unit production managers—do the “nuts and bolts” work of making films. They work the longest hours, but typically go unrecognized by moviegoers, and don’t have their photos snapped on the red carpet at the films’ premieres. For UPMs who want the recognition and compensation that comes with being a “creative” producer—à la Bruckheimer, Grazer and Rudin—what keeps many UPMs from realizing their Bruckheimer aspirations is a lack of access to material. You can change that. Queries to ever-working UPMs could lead to one requesting your script and selecting it to produce.

The Talent Finders
For every actor whose name you’d know, there’s a casting director that discovered him. Many of these casting directors—all of whom are hired by the producer—would rather be on the other side of the table: using their keen eye for talent and their established relationships with the stars whose careers they help ignite, to be a producer. But like with UPMs, for casting directors who aspire to produce, their ability to make the transition is often affected by a lack of access to great scripts. Think about it: Who ever thinks to query a casting director? I sure would.

The Scribes
Most successful screenwriters also produce or aspire to produce (or direct). For screenwriters who have written successful films, they have the kind of relationships, credibility, and the track record necessary to set up specs written by new and/or unrepresented screenwriters. Writers-as-producers are a group of Unusual Suspects who are ideal targets for queries from renegade screenwriters. Important note: Targeting the writers whose films reflect the sensibility of your spec will increase your chances of a successful writer responding to your query.

The Gatekeepers
For renegade screenwriters seeking representation, the conventional wisdom is to find a list of agents and managers and query them. A more effective game plan would be to query their assistants. Why assistants and not their bosses? For starters, top agents and managers don’t open their own mail, their assistants do. Second, typically, top agents and managers won’t read a new writer’s query or submission—unless their assistant has read the material first and suggested their boss make time to read it, too. But there’s a third, far more important reason assistants should be the focus of your game plan.

The experience, knowledge, relationships, and networking opportunities that come with an assistant job make working as an assistant the graduate program in entertainment. And its graduates read like a who’s-who among Hollywood’s players. John Lesher, head of Paramount Pictures’ Specialty Films Division, began his entertainment career as an assistant to UTA partner Jeremy Zimmer. CAA founders Mike Ovitz, Ron Meyer, William Haber, Michael Rosenfeld, and Rowland Perkins were all once assistants at the William Morris Agency. Today, former assistants are now among the top reps in Hollywood. Benderspink’s JC Spink, ICM’s Scott Schachter and Adam Schweitzer, and WME’s Sarah Self (whose clients include Juno screenwriter Diablo Cody) are all former agent assistants.

Understanding that many of the gatekeepers in the offices of agents and managers will be tomorrow’s agents, managers and players is an opportunity for renegade screenwriters to implement a strategy that I call The Day One: Instead of trying to be the client of one of today’s top agents or managers, pursue the interest of the agent’s assistant. Address your query to the assistant (only). In your query, tell the assistant that you’re interested in being his client ... when he makes agent or manager. There’s a chance that the assistant will appreciate your vote of confidence and your willingness to wait until he’s in a position to represent you. There’s even a chance that the assistant will be so surprised that your interest is in him, and not his boss, that he will prioritize reading your script. (Hell, the assistant might even call you.)

Every week there are assistants who are promoted to agents and managers, and every new agent or new manager has the same priority on his first day in his new position: develop his own client list. By establishing and maintaining relationships with the assistants, you increase your chances of being one of the new agent’s or new manager’s Day One recruits.

All of these groups of Unusual Suspects should be considered as part of your submission strategy for three reasons:

1) They can play a difference-making role in launching your professional screenwriting career;
2) These groups are unconventional recipients of queries so your query won’t be among gazillions; 3) There are members of these groups who are hungry—they’re hoping they’ll come across the script that they can use to go to the next level of their careers.

Querying individuals who need your script as much as you need their support is one way of defying the odds, circumventing Hollywood’s barriers to entry, and getting your spec in the hands of industry insiders who can launch your screenwriting career.

Originally published in Script Magazine March/April 2011.

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