A few months back, an aspiring screenwriter who had been unsuccessful in getting a particular agent to read his script decided to do something dramatic to get that agent’s attention. The writer saved his script on a laptop computer, which he then placed inside a briefcase. He then took the case to the agent’s office and left it at the front desk with instructions to deliver it to the 10-percenter. When the agent was informed that the writer had left him a package, he became concerned. Not knowing what was in the briefcase, the rep began worrying that perhaps the case contained something lethal that the writer sent over to get back at him. The police were alerted and the bomb squad arrived. The squad then took the case out into an alley behind the agency and blew it up. The writer’s script, as well as any hope he had of ever having a career, went with it.
As we all know, it’s really hard to make it in the film business and the stress and strain of trying to do so – and the fear that it might never happen – can sometimes lead people to do some really extreme things – things that they clearly think are going to help them make a big splash, but that usually just end up making them look ridiculous, desperate, and amateurish. So, as a public service, here’s a list of things that some aspiring writers have done but that you should never do if you want to be taken seriously in Hollywood.
1. Avoid Stunts.
Some wannabes – like our briefcase buddy above – think that mounting colorful and sometimes outrageous attention-getting ploys will get them noticed and make people want to read their scripts. While these gimmicks certainly do get their perpetrators noticed, it’s almost never in a good way, because the industry usually regards these sorts of stunts as being immature, unserious, and unprofessional, and assumes that the perpetrators and their work will be the same. So for that reason, it’s best not to (as some have done before): have posters made up advertising the film you hope will be made from your script (with your name in ginormous type); dress up in costumes when delivering your script or pitch to a rep or an exec (I met a guy once who used to dress up in a chef’s outfit every time he made a pitch. Here’s the best part – his script had nothing to do with chefs); stand outside the office of a potential agent or producer and sing a song that synopsizes the plot of your screenplay; sneak into a restaurant dressed as a waiter and deliver your script to the table of a potential contact; find out the home address of the person you’re trying to reach and show up there unannounced with script in hand; follow your target home from his/her office and ambush him/her in the driveway; mail a fresh copy of your script to the person every single day for a month; and finally, as the opening story hopefully illustrated, make the people you are trying to impress think you are going to blow them up.
2. Don’t Try to Get Someone Else to Write Your Script for You.
Some folks who lack either the confidence or the ability to write screenplays, but still desire the big payday that comes with selling a spec, attempt to hire other people to collaborate with. (And when I say hire, I’m using the term loosely. If they offer any money at all, it’s usually a whopping figure like $400. More often than not, however, the offer is a percentage of any future proceeds – in other words, nothing.)
If these folks were looking for someone to truly collaborate with, that would be one thing, but what most of them want is for the hiree to do all the work and then let the hirer slap his/her name on the script in first (and sometimes sole) position and keep the majority of the profits. (The wannabe’s argument for the fairness of such a deal is usually that, since the original idea for the script was his or hers, he/she is the project’s major creative force, which shows that these folks clearly don’t understand what every experienced writer out there already knows: Ideas are a dime a dozen and it’s the only the development and execution – the work they are asking their “collaborators” to do -- that matters.)
What’s also rather funny (and by funny, I mean pathetic) about these folks is that they’re never honest about their motives. Instead of saying “Gee, I’d really love to be a screenwriter, but I lack the confidence or ability,” they try to make it seem as if it's all just a matter of scheduling: “I have this brilliant idea that I could definitely write myself, but I am so busy with all of my other exciting, sure-to-make-me-millions projects that I just don’t have the time.”
What makes it sadder even still is that these folks don’t realize they will never achieve their ends doing what they are doing, because the only way you're going to sell a spec is if it’s top-notch, and there’s no way that any writer with the skills to craft such a script is ever going to be receptive to a proposition like this, so the only scribes they’re going to end up with are third-raters, just like them.
A lot of these not-quite-writers advertise for collaborators on Craigslist, which brings me to my next item:
3. Don’t Advertise on Craigslist.
The Internet bulletin board has become a favorite stomping ground for desperate aspirants. Unable to get their material to potential buyers or reps through traditional channels, these folks post ads seeking buyers for their material and/or agents and managers for themselves.
These ads are often hysterically funny – both for their charming cluelessness (since the posters clearly don’t realize that no reputable producer or representative who might actually be able to help them get a foothold in the business spends their time looking for material or talent on Craigslist) and for their groundless arrogance. For some reason – most likely hoping to project a confidence that they don’t feel -- these posters almost always strike a cocky tone that suggests that they will be doing potential responders a big favor by letting them buy their scripts or represent them. (“Are you big enough/connected enough/high-profile enough to handle this amazing opportunity?”); they also like to assure readers that they’re not amateurs and know exactly what they are doing because they have taken a few screenwriting classes at their local community college; and they also almost always make it clear that they are interested in “serious inquiries only” (in other words: “No flaky responses to my flaky ad”).)
4. Don’t Be Paranoid.
A lot of newbies are fearful that their ideas or their scripts will be stolen by the evil Hollywood establishment. Although this sort of thing rarely happens -- ideas cannot be stolen because they cannot be copyrighted. Only the expression of an idea can be, and if a producer or company or studio likes your expression of an idea, then it is much easier [and cheaper] for them to acquire it rather than swipe it -- such anxieties are understandable. No one wants to spend years working on a piece only to have someone else waltz off with it. But you have to keep those anxieties in check -- when you want someone who is in a position to help you to read your work, don’t begin your relationship by announcing that you don’t trust the person. When they assure you that you can trust them, don’t tell them that you don’t believe them. And when they have assured you once again, do not then insist that they sign a legal document promising that they will not steal your precious script, because if you do, you will absolutely guarantee that they won’t steal your work because they will never, ever, read it.
Along these same lines, do not put the WGA registration number or a copyright notice on the title page of your script. Everybody knows it’s yours and that you don’t want us to steal it. All advertising your registration does is make you look like an amateur.
Finally, if someone in a position to help you does read your script and passes on it, accept their turn-down gracefully and move on. Do not write them long, rambling, vaguely threatening letters or leave them long, rambling, vaguely threatening phone messages accusing them of conspiring to keep brilliant new talent out of the industry so that they can keep all the riches for their mediocre selves. Odds are pretty good that they’re not going to be open to looking at your next piece if you do.
5. Don’t Be a Jerk.
If someone in a position of influence declines to read your material, don’t bombard him/her with letters or phone calls or emails insisting that he/she do so. Certainly do not tell them that they have a moral obligation to help new talent, because they don’t.
If someone in a position of influence does read you material and passes on it, don’t bombard him/her with letters or phone calls or emails calling him/her an asshole.
If you ask an industry professional to give you his/her opinion of your work and you don’t like what he/she has to say, then don’t … well, you know.
6. Don’t Pretend You Have a Production Company.
A lot of spec writers like to put fake production company name on the title page of their scripts. I’m not sure why – I guess to make themselves seem like more serious players than they really are. But this never comes across as anything other than silly. Everybody knows these folks don’t have production companies. (If they did, why would they be submitting to other production companies?) So, if you’re tempted to do this, please don’t. Or else start a company for real and then buy my script.
If you want to make it as a screenwriter, don’t waste your time and energy dreaming up stunts and gimmicks. Instead, put all of your focus into writing a great script. If you do that, then it may take some time, but it will get it and you where you want to be.