Rich Whiteside shares his insights into Hollywood politics, script development, and the tools you need to navigate a successful screenwriting career.
It's not enough that we know how to write a great script, we also have to know how the business side of Hollywood works — including Hollywood politics and "script development hell." Most writers prefer to just let a manager or agent deal with the dirty details, but the truth is, every serious writer needs to educate themselves about the business, whether you have an agent or not.
Meet Rich Whiteside, author of The Screenwriting Quick Start: Basics of Development, Politics, Networking, and More in a One-Night Read. Rich graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy and was a Navy SEAL. His background led to work in the industry as a Subject Matter Expert (SME). His experience is a great example of using what makes you unique to break in.
I asked Rich to share some of his insights into the industry to help shed light on the complexities of the Hollywood machine.
What do you want people to know about your motivation to write this book?
I wrote the book mostly for the writer new to screenwriting and Hollywood, and I provide insights I wish I had been privy to when I started. My experience is unique, The insights are based on more than twenty-five years of writing scripts and working within and around Hollywood. On the writing side, while I haven’t landed a TV staff gig or sold a feature script, yet, I did have a feature script optioned, moved toward production and mentioned in the trades twice. Unfortunately, a threatened SAG Commercial Division strike ended up killing the project and cost me a half-million dollar payday. Welcome to Hollywood, where dreams can be made and crushed at the same time.
I second that sentiment. While you may not have sold a feature, you've had a very interesting path and perspective.
What I bring to the table is significant tangential experience. I worked with the Quantum Leap and JAG writing staffs as a Military Subject Matter Expert. I completed three years in the UCLA Advanced Professional Program in Screenwriting. For close to twelve years, I worked in network television business affairs and network legal at Paramount Pictures and CBS/Paramount. For those unfamiliar with business affairs, among other responsibilities, the business affairs department negotiates the deals for all staff writers and producers. While in the department, I worked with the top TV agents in town and nearly all the agencies.
Between contributing to Quantum Leap and later, JAG, Dick Wolfe asked me to help a writer working on a pilot script with a Navy SEAL lead. The agreement was that if that Pilot had been produced and the show picked up, I was set to be a staff writer. Unfortunately, that project didn’t make it. While I was a Paramount, I pitched several TV series and feature ideas, but none were picked up. Through my journalistic writing, I conducted more than one hundred interviews with some of the most successful writers, producers, studio executives, and directors in the industry, and I always asked writers for writing tips and how they got their break.
For eight years, I edited Fade In, the newsletter for students in the UCLA MFA in Screenwriting program. From my feature articles, in 1998, Penguin Putnam published my book, The Screenwriting Life, my first journalistic look at Hollywood screenwriting. After that, I was a senior writer for Script magazine (when it was only a print publication) for about three years, and I primarily focused on TV staffs. Although, I did a series of articles about development where I interviewed the heads of drama development and comedy development for both the television division and the feature division at a major studio and a mini-major.
Having studied screenwriting at UCLA, do you still think getting a formal education in screenwriting is necessary or have times changed?
Wow! The answer may be longer than you want. To qualify my answer, I define formal training as programs, such as, MFA programs in screenwriting or like UCLA’s Professional Program in Screenwriting (a certificate program). These are long-term programs with a limited class size where students learn a structuring system, write scripts through required weekly writing assignments, and where these assignments are reviewed in class.
The short answer is no, I don’t think it takes formal training to learn to write marketable scripts, or to tell well-constructed and compelling stories, or to become financially successful as a screenwriter. I also don’t think the answer to this question has changed over time or will change in the future. Some people feel stifled in formal learning sessions but have the heart and passion and skill to write and build a career. These people are not their creative best in a class setting. To those writers, I say, learn the basics however you best learn and write.
There are many paths to learning the craft and turning out scripts. How you approach learning gets down to how you learn best and are at your creative best. In the end, the truest path to learning the craft is a dedication to writing script after script.
The basic advantages of formal training are that students will be taught a proven system, they can ask questions in class or lecture and get immediate answers, they’ll get laser-focused insight and constructive criticism as they go, and they will have the benefit of classmates supporting each other’s efforts and motivating each other. In MFA programs, students also learn about the history and art of filmmaking. Half of Hollywood believes in learning your craft by the seat of your pants or, as Lew Hunter says, “jumping in the deep end of the pool” and learning to swim. The other half of Hollywood believes that if you want to make art, they best way to learn how to do that is through critical studies in formal programs.
At first, I thought that the most successful writers had formal training. Through my journalistic writing, I was surprised to learn that some of the top talent never took a screenwriting course, never read a screenwriting how-to book nor attended seminars. Typically, this group of writers began by reading produced scripts to understand the format and they started writing. As they wrote, they got feedback from experienced screenwriters, and kept writing. It was through this process of writing, getting valuable feedback, and rewriting that they learned how to write and tell a marketable story. However, that road is not successfully navigated by many aspiring writers.
In my opinion, the greatest value of any how-to book or formal training is its ability to get an aspiring writer writing and to keep them writing. Writers write. If you are not writing you are not growing. No amount of head-knowledge can advance a writer who is not writing. So, rule one: write. Write on a regular basis. If not daily, damn near.
For those who want to teach, an MFA is often a requirement at the college level. So, an MFA in Screenwriting might be a door to a teaching gig.
Through the industry interviews I conducted, I noticed that a significant percentage of working screenwriters fell into one of two camps: attorneys and those with English Literature degrees. One attorney-turned-screenwriter told me that attorneys make good screenwriters because they are taught to see both sides of an issue. That makes them good at debate. This is the foundation for writing great dialogue. Those with English Literature degrees generally have in-depth understanding of the most significant stories and writers in history. In effect, they have learned storytelling from the masters.
When I was going through the UCLA program, we were told that it may require writing as many as ten to twelve scripts from initial idea to finished script to learn all the skillsets well enough to consistently turn out marketable scripts. For most writers, formal training is the best and quickest path to learn these skillsets. However, no matter how you learn, to be a writer you must write and write often.
With all the interviews you've conducted of pro writers, what conclusions have you drawn about breaking in?
I think breaking in is always going to be mostly about drive in combination with persistent and consistent effort. Competition is fierce, and anything this competitive naturally filters out those who aren’t fully commit to the process. (By the way, I will acknowledge luck and timing are in the mix, but I consider luck and timing to be outcomes of persistent and consistent effort.)
In the interviews I conducted, each person had a different story about how he or she broke in. So other than being totally focused on your craft, there is no single way in. Everybody, at some point, had to get noticed and be able to deliver. The most unusual was a comedy executive producer who got his start only because he had a gift for writing jokes; he sucked at story structure. He seemed to say his early scripts were little more than jokes set on a poorly crafted plot line. The jokes were great, but the scripts sucked. He went into stand-up comedy and got the attention of someone on a comedy TV staff. That led to an entry-level staff writing job, basically to contribute jokes in the writers’ room. That led to writing episodes, with a lot of oversight. Over the years, he kept advancing and learned all the skills and story structuring elements necessary to write successful episodes and moved steadily up the writer-producer ladder to becoming a showrunner.
Some staff writers had a more academic approach. They earned an MFA in screenwriting or English Literature, wrote a number of spec scripts, got noticed for their writing, landed an agent and eventually got picked up on staff.
This one thing they all had in common was a dogged desire and pursuit of getting on staff. They gave total commitment to writing and networking. As each described his or her journey, the stories came off as being a straight-forward path to landing a staff job, but going through that process was anything but a straight line and anything but sure. There was a lot of indirect effort expended. But that’s the work of it. Few people are this driven. Being this focused means giving up some enjoyable things to have time to write and network. I posit that those who don’t commit to this level of effort will be outdistanced by those who do.
Another important part of this discussion is luck and timing. Everyone I interviewed had an element of lucky in their story. Luck and timing seem to be a constant element of the majority of those who get a break in this town. And, you can’t control luck and timing. You can only work hard to master your craft, build a portfolio of highly-polished writing samples, network like nobody’s business, and when—through focused effort—timing and luck provide you an opportunity, you will have the portfolio and the talent to give you the best shot at getting that break. If you don’t first develop a portfolio of your best work, you can network hard and get opportunities, but these will be wasted if you don’t have the talent and a body of high-quality work.
On final point. A vital part of succeeding in any field is tied to your people skills. Don’t ignore this aspect of the business. Your effectiveness at networking and longevity in the business will be tied to your people skills.
Is there value in writing and producing a short film or pursuing indie filmmaking in general?
Short films and indie filmmaking are ways to hone your skills, gain experience in this collaborative process, make contacts, and build your resume. You become part of the community through these efforts. To me, the value of these efforts is the collaborative experience gained. However, such endeavors can be attractive sidetracks that pull you away from writing. In the long run, if you want to be a writer, it might be better to stay focused on honing your writing skills before getting caught up in film projects. I’ve been involved in quite a few independent projects. And during the time I worked on those projects, I got little, or no writing done. If you want to be a writer more than a filmmaker, I suggest a focus on writing first.
If you have the chance to work for a weekend or a couple days, that may be worth being sidetracked from your writing. When I worked on a low-budget movie as the First AD, that was three months of nearly every-day work—eighteen hours or more days. Great experience, but I got no writing done, and when I stopped writing, it took me a few weeks to get back up to speed.
I say, if you want to be a writer, focus on writing. That’s my take looking back over twenty-eight years.
What about webseries? Does a writer have a shot at selling their webseries show to a network?
I doubt it. Again, this is an area where I have limited experience. That being said, I’ve not seen a webseries catch fire and move to prime-time. I see webseries as a way to stretch yourself as a writer and create something offbeat—something that would never have a chance in network TV, but might get you noticed. And visibility backed up by talent is the name of the game. Part of breaking in is gaining visibility because visibility can lead to meetings. BUT, you usually have to have a portfolio to back that up.
Can you speak to a writer’s body of work? How many scripts should someone have before trying to pursue a manager or agent? Any tips for getting representation?
At UCLA, I was taught it might take as many as ten to twelve scripts to learn all the skillsets necessary to turn out marketable scripts. That was true in my case. The mistake I regularly see in the marketplace is new writers who are too quick to put out scripts for sale or as writing samples. I call it the Winning Lotto Ticket mentality—writers looking for a big payday to change their lives.
Whenever I attend a writers’ group gathering, I always run into writers new to screenwriting who have written their first script and are pounding every door they can find. That hardly ever to never works. So, step one, master screenwriting skillsets and have four or five scripts that are absolute your best work. Before an agent will be interested in representing you, he or she will likely need you to have a body of work—in my opinion, at least four or five scripts—that represent your talent. More often than not, agents will be looking to land a writer an assignment over selling a script. They will need that body of work to justify meetings.
In network television, both the studio and networks look for and actively groom new writers. According to the television development executives I knew, only spectacularly well-written scripts get their attention. They are so overloaded with script submissions that only the very best written ones get a full read. And, to answer the natural next question, these scripts come from agents, referrals from staff writers and showrunners, and, occasionally, writers they meet socially. A lot of talent comes their way. Given all this, when you submit a television writing sample, it had better be the best writing you can turn out because anything less will not make it. The competition is too great.
Agents need new writers and are actively looking, but landing an agent may be harder today than ever. Getting through to them gets back to being persistent and consistent in your effort. The underlying question is: how do agents find new talent? I’m aware of main three avenues. A referral from a trusted industry professional is probably the most common means. I learned from one screenwriting professor that he is regularly contacted by agents looking for the standout writers in the class. And agents read scripts that make it to the top of screenwriting competitions.
TV specs… are they still valuable to have in your portfolio or are networks more interested in original pilot pitches?
Both. What you submit is dependent on the show executive who is screening submissions. Some want to see original writing. Some will even read feature spec scripts. Others want to know that you can write in someone else’s voice. The analogy of this latter point of view that one showrunner expressed is that, if you were a musician, they want to see that you can play cover music before they hire you. The reasoning is that if you get on staff, you will have to write in the style of that show. Generally, this mean writing in the style of the executive producer showrunner, who is usually the creator.
There is one caveat when writing samples for existing shows: samples cannot be one for the show you are submitting to. There are two reasons why. First, legally, the legal affairs office forbids shows from reading sample scripts related to their show in case a current script or episode in progress is similar—in these cases, the potential similarity opens the door to law suits. Studios having been burned too often in the past have set a hard-fast rule forbidding reading a script for the show they are submitting to. Second, if they were to read a script for their show, they are likely to be too wedded to their show and know their characters so well that they are too likely to be over judgmental of any script about their characters.
Another vital skill is the ability to write fast. I was told by one showrunner that writing fast and good is preferred over slow and great. Television production eats up scripts quickly and there is no time to dwell on making a story perfect.
Do you have any insights into taking notes and rejection in general? A secret to surviving them… that may or may not include tequila?
I address this in my book but will give you the bullet points of my discussion. My thoughts on notes depend upon whether the script is a spec script or a sold script.
Regarding notes to spec scripts, it took me a while before I was comfortable receiving notes. At first, part of my uncomfortableness was dealing with the sting of rejection—an incorrect mindset, but my initial feeling. The other part of my uncomfortableness was the dread of having to come up with new material—it was hard enough to generate the original material. Eventually, I got over both concerns, and I have come to love getting notes. Now, when I get notes that I disagree with, it’s often because I failed to get across what was in my mind. If that’s the case, it’s usually easy to fix. If I disagree with the note and it’s not a matter of miscommunication, I must decide if the note improves my script or not. Sometimes, notes can be another person’s sense of where THEY want the story to go. That’s where notes might weaken a script.
My favorite analogy regarding notes is to treat a script like it is a ship, and you are the captain. As the captain, it’s your job to get the ship into the port it is scheduled to arrive at. The passengers may want to go to Hawaii, but if it’s chartered for San Diego, you the captain must make sure it gets to San Diego.
That's a great way to look at it. How do you handle giving notes to fellow writers?
When I give notes, I tell the writer that they are my thoughts based on my sensibilities. I’m thrilled if they find ten percent of my notes useful. If they find none of my notes useful, I’m fine with that, too. When I give notes, I put no emotional currency on whether those notes are acted upon or not.
After a script has been purchased, you essentially become hired help. If you disagree with a note, you might be able to debate it, but in the end, the production company owns the script and you are hired help. In production, addressing notes is too nuanced to address here, but here are a couple of common situations. You may be asked to rewrite a scene because the production is over budget and the scene must be written to make it a less expensive shoot. You may be asked to rewrite a scene because a location is not available, and you must rewrite for a location that is available. You might be asked to change dialogue to accommodate an actor that has been hired.
What are some of the biggest mistakes writers make in both career and craft?
Going out with writing samples too soon. Keep in mind that if you go out too soon, you may not get another chance to submit again. The other mistake is looking for representation when you only have one script polished. The agents I’ve talked to require writers to have several polished scripts.
Work on a production—feature or television—tend to be long days. It’s common to work twelve-hour days. This much time together on a regular basis means you had better learn how to be a team player. If you don’t fit in, you may find your career short lived.
What’s your writing routine?
I write best between 10 AM and 3 PM. However, I’ve not always had enough control over when I could write to take advantage of this. So, I’ve had to write in my less than optimum time and still turn out quality material.
In planning out my writing schedule, I first give attention to working on what produces immediate income. I would love to write one project after another, but that is generally not practical for me. The technical projects usually require a lot of research. When one comes up, my fun scriptwriting must be set aside. Then, when I need a brain break, I love to turn go back to working of story development or working on a script in progress.
I have learned that to be an effective writer, I have to write pretty much every day at the same time. I can put in eight or more hours and love it. Most of the working screenwriters I’ve interviewed seem to be best if they put in four hours of focused writing each day. Their favorite time seems to be late mornings to mid-afternoons.
I like to do a lot of research and let things percolate away in my mind as I do. I write down any snippets that hit me and keep them in folders or electronic files. Then, when I seriously move to plotting out the story, I like to find potential story beats and themes by thinking of the idea through the lens of several story structuring approaches. I’m not fixed to this precise sequence, but I generally start with Aristotle’s thoughts on beginning, middle and end. Then I’ll put some thought into Lajos Egri’s sense of premise, character, and character emotional arcs as taught in his book The Art of Dramatic Writing. Then I’ll go through the twelve-step Hero’s Journey, as taught by Chris Vogler in his book The Writer’s Journey. Then I will work through what Hart Hanson’s told me about how he runs writers initially through an unblended outline. Then I may think of the story as scene sequencers do—as a series of sequences that are like short stories that link together to tell a larger story.
Through this process, I’m looking to find character arcs, scenes, scene beats, and subplots. As I go through all that, a story emerges that I feel good about. Then it’s time to write the vomit, first-draft script.
Do you work on more than one project at a time? How do you decide what project you’re going to work on next?
Yes. Currently, my writing life is a bit scattered. I occasionally land technical writing projects that take up nearly all my writing time. That means, script development is mostly set aside. Putting out this book took up a large part of my writing time over the past two years. That was partially because I wanted to book to be short but very dense with practical insights.
Which I love! I was able to read the entire book on a connecting flight to L.A. How tough was it to boil this complex advice down?
To write that concisely takes a lot of thought and effort. I easily threw out twice as much as I finally published. It was a labor of love and banging my head against the wall. What chapters would best service the new writer? What do I put in, and what do I leave out? When I worked on the TV development section, the duties of that world are so overlapping that it was difficult to find a through line that, hopefully, others can follow adequately enough to understand all the moving parts in a short chapter. You could write a whole book on that subject alone.
Do you think with the internet making the world “smaller,” the TV writers room will ever become virtual?
Why not. But there is something about the synergy of being in the same space that you can duplicate virtually.
With Hollywood loving to adapt intellectual property, have you ever considered writing a novel or turning one of your screenplays into a novel? Any thoughts on adaptations?
Yes, and I am. However, if you’re asking because some writers see novelizing their unsold scripts as an end run around the system, don’t waste your time. I’m converting the script that got the most attention over the years, but never sold, into a novel to get the experience of writing a novel and potentially generate a small income stream. I’m doing that mostly for the experience and the fun of it. I’ll self-publish it, but I’m not expecting it sell millions of copies or to suddenly get the attention of a production company to get my script back in the game. It’s me stretching myself as a writer.
It’s fun having the freedom to butt words together in fun and unexpected ways without worrying about the word or line count that you must pay attention to when writing a spec screenplay.
Adapting is problematic for several reasons. One is that to market any script from a work that you didn’t write means you have to obtain the rights. Another issue is that, even if you have the rights, selling the script is still going to have all the challenges of selling any other script. Then, any novel that is a best seller is likely to be either already under some kind of deal at a studio or production company or the author (or the author’s rep) will be holding out for a major studio or production company to make an offer.
I think adapting another writer’s work is not the best use of a writer’s efforts. If you want to be a screenwriter, learn what it takes to develop and write a screenplay.
What’s the one thing you hope readers take away from your book, The Screenwriting Quick Start?
That it will save some writers from making mistakes I made to this point in my writing life and provide a solid understanding of the basics of how Hollywood works.
There are tons of books about storytelling, story structuring, and all the nuances of driving depth in a story. But there is little out there that addresses the politics and nature of the business. And if you know how the system works, you can make better decisions as you go.
If I knew when I started what I know now . . . Wow! I’d have done so many things differently. For one, I would have written more scripts. I would have spent less time overly rewriting scripts. For example, the script that almost got produced kept getting attention, but—as an unsold writer—they wanted free rewrites. The carrot was always that if I would rewrite it to address his or her concerns, then they could get it to a contact they have who is looking for projects. For one pass, I did a page one re-visioning. I must have ten versions of that one story. None of them sold. None of them opened other doors. A HUGE waste of time. Looking back, I’d rather have written nine new scripts.
If you could go back in time and give advice to your 18-yr-old self (on career or life), what would it be?
- Be more focused sooner.
- Master people skills and keep improving on those skills.
- Learn the art of social conversation.
- Become a skilled networker.