When I’m getting to know someone, I like asking offbeat questions rather than the ones we hear constantly. My favorite? “When you were little, what did you want to be when you grew up?” I’ve heard a lot of interesting answers, sometimes even surprising ones, but no one has ever told me that when they were in kindergarten, they wanted to grow up to be a writer.
Despite what we imagined for our futures, we’re not living in a world filled with firemen and ballerinas. It’s a big leap from what we envision to a real profession.
Want to be a doctor? Get good grades in high school. Go to college. Major in pre-med. Take lots of anatomy classes. Do well. Graduate. Get into a good med school. Work your ass off. Graduate. Land a good internship. Learn all you can while mastering living without sleep. Progress to residency. And bam! You're a doctor. There’s an obvious course of action to mastering many professions, from lawyer to real estate agent. I'm not claiming these are easy paths; merely clear ones.
In the film business, there is no road map, no direct path to success.
There are endless possibilities that may or may not land you where you want to go. Hence, there is plenty of advice on getting there. I’ve never once come across a list of “Ten Surefire Tips To Becoming A Great Accountant.” I happen to have a great accountant and, now that tax season is over, I have personally verified this fact with him.
I know first hand that there is no obvious approach to breaking into and succeeding in the film industry. For my entire life, I studied theatre. Performing Arts Summer Camp to High School Theatre Study Tour across Europe, and then, as one of my two college majors.
But after years devoted to acting, directing and theatre, upon graduation I realized that I wanted to choose the story, not wait to be chosen to perform it. The stories I chose would be meaningful stories, so I wanted a lot of people to hear them. Suddenly, I switched from thoughts of moving to New York, to heading to L.A. I knew that the best way to realize my dream was through producing films.
I had to go back to school at UCLA Extension and take classes in film and TV, study screenwriting and story analysis. It was exciting, I learned a lot, but I still couldn’t get a job from a Variety ad where the only requirement was a valid driver’s license.
Through a fraternity friend of my brother, I managed to land an assistant job at a boutique literary agency (relationships, relationships, relationships!). But when it came time to move on to a junior exec position at a production company, I was convinced that a theatre degree would be an albatross around my neck, making me far less appealing than a candidate with a film background.
In reality, that degree was what landed me my dream job – Development Associate at EvansGideon, the production company of the talented writers Raynold Gideon and Bruce Evans (no relation, not spelled the same, check my byline) known for Stand by Me, Starman, and Mr. Brooks. They were hoping to find plays that could be made into films. Best job ever. I learned so much from Ray and Bruce that I quote them to this day when both working with writers and teaching.
Pursuing your passions is the only path.
I became a teacher in much the same way, serendipitously laying the right background over many years, and then all the pieces came together.
You don’t want to hear this. You want a list of “Ten Surefire Secrets To Becoming An Overnight Success!” But ask any “Overnight Success,” and they’ll tell you they’ve been working toward that moment for years.
Nevertheless, people love lists. They are so reassuring. If you follow this advice, like a 12-step program, viola, you will reach your goals!
Alas, I have decided to bow to the pressure and cough up a list… Or ten.
Each of these lists offers something valuable, exceptional, and distinctive, but remember, there is no treasure map.
1) Excuses, Excuses, Excuses
It might seem odd to begin with a list of excuses, but if you can’t get started, you’re definitely not going to get anywhere.
I couldn’t begin writing my screenwriting book until I said out loud to a writer I admired, “I’m afraid to write my book.” That was hard, but hearing my own words broke though my self-imposed barriers. Suddenly, I was several chapters along.
Tommy Walker is a marketing strategist; coaching entrepreneurs on marketing for success, but his advice is a great fit for writers. “Something is holding you back, and you can’t quite put your finger on it. So instead of moving past it and taking action, you make an excuse. You justify your reasons for staying put. You may have one excuse; you may have several.”
Tommy spells out 106 Excuses That Prevent You From Ever Becoming Great – the crap we all tell ourselves that keeps us from moving forward – and then he tears them to shreds. From the ever popular, “You don’t know the right people,” to “You have too many things on your plate.”
Feel handicapped by your circumstances?
Tommy cites the MMA fighter without arms or legs and talented writers who literally can’t put their fingers on a keyboard. Yeah, those are real obstacles. People overcome them every day.
Read these excuses, recognize yourself, and then get out of your own way!
2) So You Think You Can Write?
If you want to be a surgeon, you’re going to cut up a great many cadavers, suture plenty of pig’s feet, and observe every single surgery you possibly can. If you aim to be an artist, you might devote hours to looking at a single work by a great master, hoping to discern the very brush strokes they used to create light, shadow and form. Reminds me of the old Borsht Belt joke, “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” “Practice, practice, practice.”
If you’re trying to figure out how to write a screenplay, sit at the feet of a great master. Anyone can, and it costs bupkis baby!
Read a great screenplay. Watch the great movie. Look at the DVD extras – scenes that were shot and cut from the movie – because the story didn’t need them in the first place. Read the script again. I call this “Wash, rinse, repeat.” You might call it “Learning from the pros.”
Scripts can be found all over the Internet. But to save you a bunch of Googling, What Culture gets you off to a flying start with 18 Scripts Wannabe Screenwriters Should Read Right Now, a list of terrific scripts with links to read them plus, “what, exactly, it’s possible to learn about the craft from devouring the associated pages.” Several of the prototype films I use in my seminars as outstanding or even defining examples of their genres, can be found here.
3)Hello??? Is there anybody in there? Just nod if you can hear me.
Many aspiring writers find that one way to get Hollywood’s attention is to enter screenwriting contests and do well.
Merely being recognized as near the top, says to the industry that someone thinks you can write. Many hungry assistants and young execs, eager to make their mark, are scouring these lists for new talent. And contest wins make a nice addition to your query letter – again someone thinks you can write which gives you some validation.
Frederick Mensch, a lovely man and a talented writer, wanted to find a way to make a living that brought in income and left him with time to write. His movie Nightingale was just accepted at the L.A. Film Festival, and they’re waiting to hear from Toronto and Cannes.
As a writer, thinking of what other writers needed, Frederick created the website MovieBytes.com. It has become a tremendous resource for everything contest-related. The site and the newsletter are free – the contests and services pay for ads. It lists all the writing competitions with info on deadlines and entry fees – plus reviews from other writers about their experience with the contest.
For a year, I wrote two monthly columns for MovieBytes. Inside Look, interviews the founders or heads of the top 13 contests. Thirteen because at one point there was a competition among competitions to get the exposure. I tried to ask the questions I thought writers would ask if they had the opportunity.
In Contest Judge of the Month, a homage to Playboy’s famous Playmate of the Month, I presented 13 (see above) very revealing exposes of who is reading your contest script, from first round readers to Academy-Award winning judges of the top contests. These bunnies bared it all, because they were utterly anonymous (well, other than some exceedingly clever little clues…). It’s enlightening and a little bit naughty. Get scintillating scoop on their turn-ons, their turn-offs, and their dirty little secrets. Put this knowledge to work and render these Juicy Judges utterly unable to get your story out of their mind.
MovieBytes is an exceptional way to discover which contest is the best match to meet your needs without going broke entering them all.
4) Just the stats, Ma’am
I hate statistics. In college, I transferred into Statistics for Psychology in the second week, and they were already six chapters through a twelve-chapter textbook! The Professor literally liked to hang from the walls – well, the coat hooks on the walls. Undeterred, I hired a grad student as a tutor. Turned out, although he knew far more than me, he wasn’t very good at teaching. And as English was his second language, it took me a while to realize that when he said, “this little animal here,” he was referring to an equation.
It was many years later that something happened to change my mind about statistics. I ran across the Scoggins Report, a number-packed look at the spec and pitch marketplace. Now these were statistics I cared about, data that made sense to me. Frankly, I was captivated. There is a ton of information served up in a way that I can comprehend, and broken down weekly, monthly and year-to-year.
Jason Scoggins had achieved the impossible and made me hungry for statistics! In fact, when I met the man himself at a ScriptMag contributor party, I was a bit star-struck – an effect actual movie stars never have on me. I had been talking about this guy in my seminars for ages, and now I was talking with him. I think it might have been misconstrued as flirting – and indeed, as this shindig was being thrown by ScriptMag editor Jeanne Veillette Bowerman, inevitably many margaritas had been consumed – but really, I was just excited to meet someone who so changed my thinking and enabled me to help my students better understand the business.
Start with the Scoggins Report 2013 Year-End Scorecard. It lists every single spec and pitch sale, every person involved – writers, agents, managers, studio execs, producers, directors, and gives loglines, except for those that are so high-concept they’re “under wraps.” This is a Master Class in what the industry is buying, who is buying it, and who is selling it. Learn which genres are selling and which story ideas grabbed interest. Read between the lines and you can even figure out how it’s getting sold, from bidding war, to packaging, to the slow route of building fans.
It’s now required reading for my students. If you’re hoping to sell a spec script, you ought to be studying what is being bought.
You can sign up to get the free weekly update at Spec Scout, a website which offers a comprehensive look at spec material in the marketplace for industry pros to track, and a coverage showcase for aspiring writers.
5) The Black List
Created in 2005 by film exec Franklin Leonard as a survey of 100 film industry development execs as an insiders' exchange of the best written scripts read that year that had not been made as feature films, The Black List has gone on to become famous, as have the top-notch scripts it draws attention to. Over 225 Black List screenplays have been made as feature films and won 35 Academy Awards.
The website now offers resources for writers as well as execs. Landing on the list is a worthy goal, but not an easy one. To see what it takes to make Hollywood execs ooh and ah, check out the Black List 2013 with PDFs to download, shared by Jeff Ludwig. Get a sense of how high the bar is set, and adjust your aim accordingly.
6) Give The People What They Want
The talented writers and directors from film’s “Golden Age” drew enormous audiences to the movies. They didn’t have marketing statistics, test screenings or even a list of rules for success. But they had a lock on understanding what their audiences wanted.
The incomparable Billy Wilder, was a screenwriter, director and producer with a five-decade career and 60 films to his credit, ranging from screwball comedies to film noir. Double Indemnity, Sunset Boulevard, The Seven Year Itch, Some like it Hot, The Apartment, should give you a hint of his range. If you haven’t seen these great movies, you should have your own private Wilder Film Festival. Wilder won six Oscars and is the second most Academy Award-nominated director and the second most nominated screenwriter of all time.
Wilder was 90 years old when the young director Cameron Crowe approached him in 1996 about playing a small role in Jerry Maguire. Wilder said no, but the two men formed a friendship. Over the next several years they talked extensively about filmmaking, and in 1999 Crowe published Conversations with Wilder. One of the book’s highlights is a list of ten screenwriting tips by Wilder. “I know a lot of people that have already Xeroxed that list and put it by their typewriter,” Crowe said in a 1999 NPR interview. ‘There’s no better film school really than listening to what Billy Wilder says.’
Worth keeping that list in your writing area as well.
7) To The Point
The folks at Aerogramme Writers’ Studio, a site offering news and resources for emerging and established writers, were resourceful enough to excerpt some hard-hitting words of wisdom from film critic Catherine Bray’sinterview with Joss Whedon. They are short and sweet, but they get straight to the heart of what you need to know.
Joss Whedon’s Top Ten Writing Tips don’t reinvent the wheel. In fact, many of them sound like Conventional Wisdom, but this kind advice is heard again and again for a reason. Whedon is one of the credited writers on Oscar-nominated Toy Story, created Buffy The Vampire Slayer and wrote and directed The Avengers. He’s been successful in TV and in film; worked as a show runner and script doctor. He even created a comic book. Joss has some chops.
Oh yeah, his latest film, "In Your Eyes," which he wrote and produced, just screened at the Tribeca Film Festival. Afterward, Whedon announced it would be available immediately for digital download at inyoureyesmovie.com.
For five bucks.
Nothing speaks louder than success. So when this guy tells you what works, listen up!
8) The Lexicon of Film
When running a production company, one of my pet peeves was my junior execs who loved film, but had never seen a movie made before they were born. They were smart, but their film vocabulary was limited. If you think you can’t afford to go to film school, one of the top directors alive today has very kindly created one for you – for free.
Martin Scorsese’s 85 Films You Need To See To Know Anything About Film was inspired by Rick Tetzeli’s four-hour interview with Scorsese for a Fast Companycover story on his career. Tetzeil realized that Scorsese punctuated his discussion with films that had impacted him as a filmmaker over a lifetime of movie watching. It turns out there were 85 movies that he referenced.
Scorsese spans genres and decades and tells you why you need to see each film. I love his comments on the movies and the filmmakers. The many bits of trivia he throws in keep it spicy.
Get yourself a Netflix account, and go to film school in the comfort of your own living room for about ten bucks a month. You will build a film vocabulary that will serve you well when creating stories, pitching them in meetings or shooting your own.
Writing team Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott have a mile-long list of credits and hold box office records including multiple #1 worldwide hits. Aladdin, Mask of Zorro, Shrek, the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, and more. They are the second most successful screenwriters of all time, with a box office tally of around $2.5 billion.
Yup, they are big time players. And they want to help you break into the business. Determined to give away their success secrets, they created the website Wordplayer with the goal of offering “a crash course in everything the aspiring writer needs to know.”
The Columns section includes 54 essays – and counting – written by the guys with contributions from other working screenwriters. Witty, wise, and extremely practical advice from creating concepts to the nuts and bolts of breaking in. From industry lingo to negotiating your first contract – it’s all there. Plus personal anecdotes, ranging from being on set, to lessons learned from working with Hollywood A-listers.
Want more? Check out Indy Pros, essays and opinions from industry professionals working in Hollywood – including writers, directors, producers, agents, and development executives. Practical advice and real-world perspective from people doing the jobs today.
Still have questions? Forums has a collection of Q & A and if you don’t find answers there; ask.
10) The View From the Other Side
Rejection will be an inevitable part of your screenwriting career. From losing contests, to getting pass letters, to having your stories torn apart when taking notes. It’s impossible not to take it personally. Getting a little distance will make it less painful and maybe even a productive experience.
Melissa Hillman, Artistic Director of Impact Theatre in Berkeley, bloging as “Bitter Gertrude” (how can you not love that attitude?) offers up four reasons for Why Your Play Was Rejected, with lessons and solutions to take away. Obviously, there’s not a lot of sugarcoating here; my kinda gal.
Mentally insert “screen” in front of play, and you’ve got some on-target insight that translates smoothly to the film industry.
Get over it, and get on with it.
In the end, no pot of gold to be found here, no recipe, no short cut, no buried treasure. Because ultimately, on your own personal journey, you simply have to keep working at it – endlessly – to achieve your goals. You never get to stop working, even after you have landed on the Walk of Fame, if you want to continue to be in demand.
Always keep working at it.
That’s a one-item list.
Number 11, if you're keeping count.
But it’s the best success secret I know.
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