As I mention in an article I wrote for the upcoming March 2011 issue of Script Magazine, you can have the best script in the world - but unless you can get people to read it, it might as well be a paper weight.
There are basically four main ways for an unknown to get their script read, and I'm going to put them in order of effectiveness. The four ways are: Contacts, Coverage services, Competitions, and Email/Query Letter Campaigns.
Ready to dive in? Let's go:
As we all know, being best friends with Steven Spielberg or Judd Apatow has its perks. And we're all buddies with them, right? Yeah, right. I wish.
So the first aspect of contacts is already having your own. Unfortunately, 95% of aspiring writers aren't related to hollywood hot shots and don't have a friend of a friend of Steven. But don't despair, because it's important to understand that you don't HAVE to be best friends with Will Smith or get jiggy with Jada on Tuesday nights.
Let me start by saying this: you dont need FAMOUS or HIGH POWERED contacts in Hollywood. Don't get me wrong, it helps tremendously, but that's not your goal when it comes to networking and accumulating your group of contacts. Your goal is simple: have as many contacts as possible, but especially contacts that are at the kind of companies or who come in contact with the kind of high powered people who would like your particular material. For instance, if you wrote a stoner comedy, you would have contacts in the Judd Apatow clan, or the James Franco and Danny McBride circle of friends (I'm looking at you Your Highness).
Here's the great news: notice how I said "clan" and "circle of friends." You don't have to be best friends with Apatow or Franco, you just need to know their interns or assistants. Because the name of the game is getting champions of your writing. If an intern for a high powered producer reads and loves your script, and believes wholeheartedly that This Is The Next Big Thing, he'll lobby hard to get his boss to read it. He or she will fight for you, and for the script. Why? Well, frankly it makes them look good to their bosses that they found the material, and they can parlay that into more opportunities for themselves. Many an assistant at an agent's desk got promoted for being able to find talent - and many an intern has gotten associate producer credits from bringing in a script. So as long as you have a champion - at any level in the company - in your corner, you're ahead of the game.
As a side note, this can even include personal assistants (or hair dressers, etc. - I'm looking at you Jon Peters). One of my favorite examples is how producer Matt Alvarez got his start in the business - as a personal assistant. And now he's a well-known producer with tons of credits under his belt and an eye for good scripts. So the good news is, basically anybody who knows somebody can be your champion.
Don't you worry - I'm going to get into what to do once you actually come in contact with these "people who know people" in just a second.
MAKING YOUR OWN CONTACTS
If you're like 95% of aspiring writers reading this post, you don't yet have any contacts. Well, do not despair. Here's how to make some of your own:
First of all, because I've established that champions can be Anybody who knows Somebody, where can you find these Anybodys? Los Angeles, of course.
Now, if you aren't already in L.A., I know it's not feasible for most of you to suddenly pack up shop and permanently move to L.A. But here's the thing - what if you could make a whole host of your own contacts in just two months? Would you be able to make the sacrifice to put your life on hold for two months if it meant you would ensure yourself a greater chance of achieving your dream? For a lot of people, the answer will be no - and that's okay. The other three paths that I cover later are for you, so don't get discouraged. If you can't be in L.A., go ahead and skip to the next section about COVERAGE SERVICES.
But for those of you already in L.A., or those of you willing to put your life on hold and move there for just a couple months, here's your step-by-step plan:
The most effective way of making your own contacts:
The first step is to research companies, and pick a few that work with the type of material that applies to your work. Pick the companies that make movies similar to what you write.
It’s important to pick a small to mid-level company that has great credits/reputation. Why? If you pick a large company you’ll easily get lost in the shuffle, and it’s harder to impress and stand out. A really small company, like an A-list actor’s shingle, especially if that actor makes the kind of movies you write, is the most ideal.
The second step is to, wait for it… get an internship at one of your companies. Wait, what?! That’s right. An internship. A NON-PAYING internship.
You need to work 10 hours a day, as many days a week as you can spare. 5 days a week for at least three weeks straight is the ideal situation, because it takes at least a week to get oriented, remember names, observe where and what the power structure is, grasp the office politics, etc.
I recommend volunteering to work every day, all day, for 3 weeks to one full month at one place, and then moving on to a second mid-level production company or actor’s shingle the next month, and so on. The other way to do it is to work Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays at one place and Tuesdays/Thursdays at the second place for 6-8 weeks straight.
So, you’re working for your internship… how do you stand out? First and foremost, if you work extra super hard, you WILL be noticed. Make sure that when you finish a task, you ask if there’s anything else you can do. When given one thing, volunteer for four more. If they don’t have anything else for you, go around asking other people if they need anything done for them. Be quick when given a task, but always double check to make sure it’s well done. Being the go-to intern will quickly make yourself indispensable and dependable, and you will begin to stand out from the crowd of others.
Now, not only must you be hardworking, but be pleasant! Find who you can pal around with and do so… be the guy everyone wants to have around.
The Third step is beg to do coverage, if you don’t already do it. Your company may already have a reader, they might already be outsourcing this task, or it could be done by the story editor – either way, volunteer to do every single one you can because this will show you are eager, and confident in your story analysis abilities. Make sure that every bit of coverage you turn in is a masterwork that shows how well you understand scripts. If they figure out that you are dependable with story analysis, either the story editor becomes your new best friend because he doesn’t have to do them anymore, or the guy cutting the checks to readers saves some money and knows it’s because of you.
This is important, because the end result you want from all of this is to be the go to guy for script analysis. If they start completely trusting your judgment in this department, essentially you’ve just made yourself an unpaid exec.
This process may take a month, but with that story analysis power, and the friends you make, you will learn so much about the industry from an insider’s point of view it’s ridiculous. And that story editor or creative executive or producer or A-list actor you impressed and now you’re maybe even friends? True contacts that will serve you for life. Willing to read your work, give you advice, notes, and a real shot with every screenplay you turn out.
And your foot is now fully, and firmly, in the door.
Okay, so you've made friends and got their attention. Now you need to employ this skill of being able to sell yourself to involves selling your movie idea. This means being able to explain it in one or two sentences - and do it in a way that completely grabs the attention of whoever you’re talking to. Again, you never know who you’ll run into or who you’re talking to – if you can excite someone enough to want to read your work over 5 seconds of standing in line at Coffee Bean or Starbucks, that skill could be the difference between making it or not. Basically what you need to do is tweak your logline for everyday conversation.
First, go here to find out how to write a killer logline. Okay, now that you know how to write your logline, tweak that to not only flow quickly in everyday conversation, but add a sentence that nails home the commercial aspect for the person you are talking to. If you're talking to Adam Sandler's intern, you could say something like "the humor is pretty similar to Happy Gilmore" or if your script is being read by another industry professional, say that.
While it’s hard but not impossible to make contacts at parties, or coffee shops, or bars, the easiest way to make contacts is to work for the companies you think would like your scripts. If that means being an unpaid intern for a couple months, so be it – because all you really need is one well connected industry person to read and like your script, and you’re home free. So be yourself, but be the most pleasant, humorous, easy going, hard working version of yourself as possible. For a free ebook on how to make your own contacts, email email@example.com.
Now, for those of you who can't make it out to L.A., one of the next best paths available to you is for you to use OTHER PEOPLE'S contacts.
Now, I can't write too much about this because I have a conflict of interest. My company Script A Wish provides coverage services the same way that my competitors like Script Pipeline and Script Shark do.
While I know that my company prides itself on being really great at passing along the good scripts that get submitted for coverage to my contacts, my competitors say the same. So I'm not going to get into who does it better, etc.
What I am going to say is that many writers who lived in other states, countries, and continents have had success submitting their scripts to coverage services that then helped them get their script read by industry insiders.
This is the next best thing for you because we have a vested interested in helping you succeed - not least of which because the more success you guys have, the more success we have. It only benefits us to talk about your successes.
So, the next best thing to having your own contacts - using other people's.
Now, some people will think that competitions are a better option at getting noticed. In 90% of cases, they would be wrong - and I'm going to get into why in just a minute. Suffice it say, as a former script competition judge for one of the biggest competitions out there, the only interest competitions have is in making money. Now, let's get into why:
As a former judge for a major screenwriting competition, and as you can read here from a multiple competition winning writer, by and large, screenwriting competitions are about one thing: money.
First, they are about MAKING money for the competition. And more importantly to you, they are about making money to the winners.
But that's about it. Every competition will give you the prize money no problem, but no matter what else they promise (producer's meetings, etc.), it's all just window dressing - it's probably not going to launch your career.
It's a harsh reality, but one in which you need to understand so that you know what you're really getting if you come out the other side a winner. Now, I'm going to write an entire post about screenwriting competitions soon, but for now: as with everything, there are some exceptions worth mentioning:
In order of how much they will help launch your career:
As I mentioned in the Magic Bullet: Dialogue article, industry inboxes flood when the Sundance Fellows are announced, because agents and managers want to be the first ones to sign talent. More than any other competition, getting the Sundance mark of approval opens more doors for screenwriters than any other.
While inboxes flood when the finalists (and sometimes semi-finalists) are announced, it's not as automatic a "get representation" card as Sundance is. The big upside over Sundance though, is the prize money. The other big upside is that many managers and agent assistants read the semi-finalist scripts as well, so the pool of people who are looked at by the industry is bigger than Sundance.
The first step to many a great career, Fellows are paid well and have lots of opportunities to make contacts and get on shows. Many, many, many careers have been launched by the Disney program in particular - and the access you get is unprecedented. It doesn't hurt that they are known to support you as well. The downside to these is that anything you write while a fellow is basically their property, but some are willing to sacrifice that.
This is similar to the Nickelodeon competition, but is much newer and the jury is still out on it. I think it could be the next great competition, but I'll withhold judgment for another year or two.
I know, I know. They sponsor and own this site and Script magazine, but truly I have known of several great success stories. The prize money is big, and from what I know, the competition is worth it. But notice that this is at the bottom of the list.
If your goal is to launch your career, then everything else isn't going to be worth your time and entry money. If your goal is to amass big chunks of money, then go for it.
So, you dont want to use a coverage service's contacts, and you struck out at the competitions worth entering - what's left?
Why, the time honored tradition of hustling for yourself, from afar of course!
I speak of the practice of query letters, and while I'm going to go over in much more detail about how to write a great query letter in a later article, what you need to know is this:
First as most important - know how to write a killer logline. Here's that damn link again, just in case you didn't click it before.
Second - write your query letter short(!). Books tell you to fuss around with some bio, and write about yourself and what competitions you've won or placed in, etc.
Bullcrap. Don't write any bio information, and dont mention any competitions unless you've WON, and only if they are any of the major competitions. Everything else is a waste of time. We only care about one thing - does your story sound good (see: logline)? Just write a one sentence professional opening, your logline, and a professional close. That's it. That's all we're going to read anyway, so why bother with the rest. It's no nonsense, and we like it.
Now, the only time you mention any thing else, is if any of your work has been optioned or sold before. Other than that, don't need it.
Lastly - more and more emailed query letters are becoming accepted. Which means that MAILED query letters are becoming less and less frequent. If you want to differentiate yourself from the pack, and are willing to spend some bucks, I would mail in your query letter. I'll get into more strategies with this in the later article, but suffice it to say you can still be effective if you email it as well.
So, that's it. I hope you found the article helpful, and as always, feel free to email me with any questions (firstname.lastname@example.org). I'm here to help.