Ray Morton warns of the many distractions on the path to being a professional screenwriter and explains the goal that is most important... writing a great script.
Ray Morton is a writer, senior contributor to Script magazine and script consultant. His many books, including A Quick Guide to Screenwriting, are available online and in bookstores. Follow Ray on Twitter: @RayMorton1. Read Ray's full bio.
Many inexperienced screenwriters find it difficult to stay focused on the one thing that anyone interested in being both a good and a successful cinema scribe should be making their main priority – making their screenplays the best they can be. Instead, these aspirants put their energy and attention into a wide range of screenwriting-adjacent activities they think are important but actually aren’t.
Some of those activities include:
- Selling: Every spec writer is eager to sell a script, but some neophytes are too eager. After finishing an initial draft, they immediately want to bring their work to market and so, rather than focus on the hard work of rewriting and revising and improving their scripts, they instead put all of their energy into contacting (by making calls, writing inquiry letters, posting on script tracking sites, attending pitchfests, and so on) producers, production companies, studios, and financiers looking for someone to buy their work. The problem, of course, is that no one is going to buy a spec that isn’t terrific and it is highly unlikely that any first draft – no matter how talented the writer – is going to be terrific. All experienced writers know writing is rewriting – it is only in the intensive process of revision that a promising idea becomes a great screenplay. However, many of these overeager writers consider any time spent rewriting as “taking too long” – as a frustrating delay in their quest to launch their careers – and so send their work out well before it is ready. It’s a near-certainty that these unrefined pages will be rejected, which means all of the effort these young authors have put into getting their wares to market will be for naught. And when these writers finally realize they need to spend more time honing their scripts, it will be too late, because once a potential buyer has rejected a script, the chances of them being willing to look at it again (even if the piece has been greatly improved) are slim.
- Finding Representation: It’s hard to sell a script and/or establish a career in the mainstream entertainment industry without a rep – an agent or a manager. All of the major studios and most reputable production companies will not even look at a script that has not been submitted through an established agent or manager. There are two main reasons for this: one is to manage the flow – to have the thousands of specs floating around out there vetted and thinned by a reliable third party, who will (hopefully) weed out the chaff and only submit work that has a reasonable chance of becoming a film. The second is to provide a layer of legal protection to guard against lawsuits by writers who might claim the studio stole their material if a similar project happens to be developed. So, it’s really important for an aspiring screenwriter to secure representation. The way to do that is to submit one’s work to an agent or a manager for consideration and this is where up-and-comers make the same mistake as premature marketers. Eager to land an agent and anxious about “wasting time” in getting their career started, many newbies will jump the gun and send out their work before it has been sufficiently honed, which almost inevitably leads to rejection.
The two preceding examples are about jumping the gun, but there are a number of other ways some aspiring screenwriters distract themselves:
- Trying to Impress: Inexperienced up-and-comers don’t want to seem inexperienced, so they will often do things they think will make them seem more experienced and more credible than they actually are. Some will make up fake production company names (Joe Blow Productions; Blow Entertainment, etc.) and plaster them on the front page of their specs. The newbies’ hope is that doing this will make it seem as if they are serious industry players (“Of course I’m the real deal – I have a production company, don’t I?”). Others will retain an entertainment lawyer (or, more likely, a non-entertainment lawyer who attempts to pose as one) and insist that anyone who wants to deal with them go through the attorney. Once again, the idea is to make it seem as if the writer is a serious industry heavyweight because all somebody’s who are somebodies in Hollywood have lawyers, don’t they?
- Promotion: There are aspiring screenwriters who think promotional stunts are a good way to draw the industry’s attention to their scripts. Some do relatively small-scale things such as create fake movie posters advertising the movie they hope will be made from their screenplays and send them along with (or sometimes ahead of) the scripts, presumably to inspire potential buyers to envision the script as a movie (because I guess they assume producers and studios don’t envision the scripts they read as potential movies?). Others create tchotchkes featuring the script’s title or representing its characters (I’ve received lots of these over the years – pens, pencils, pinback buttons, baseball caps, t-shirts and so on. My favorite was a rubber bat sent along to promote a vampire script). Some create self-published novelizations or comic book adaptations. Some go really big – one aspiring writer recently rented billboards all over Los Angeles to advertise his screenplay. Another shot a home-made, full-length version of his script on his iPhone and sent that along with his manuscript.
Protecting Your Stories – Borrowed Elements or Stolen Idea?
- Security: Some neophyte screenwriters lucky enough to get their scripts read are so afraid their brainchildren will be stolen that they go to extreme lengths to prevent the abduction. Most spec writers register their scripts with the WGA and copyright them with the Library of Congress, but those worried about script theft will then take it a step further and stamp the WGA registration numbers and copyright notices on the covers of their scripts (and sometimes even on the inside pages – I read one script where the author put the notice and number on every page of his screenplay). Some suspicious scribes go even further by requiring everyone who reads their script to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Others refuse to submit their scripts electronically, fearing this will somehow make it easier to steal. One of my potential consulting clients wouldn’t even give me a hard copy of her script and insisted that I meet her in the food court at a local mall and read her script in her presence. I declined.
The main problem with these activities is that they don’t work:
- Putting a fake production company name on a script works directly against the goal of selling it: a real production company only puts its name on a screenplay after the piece has been acquired and is in the process of being developed or made. If a neophyte writer puts a prodco name on his script, he is making it look to a potential buyer that the script has already been acquired, which will cause the potential buyer to not read the script (why waste the time if the piece isn’t available?) and not buy the script. Plus, everyone knows that an unknown spec writer doesn’t have a production company so it just makes you look foolish. The same goes for making the world deal with you through your brother-in-law the real estate lawyer. Experienced screenwriters do not interact with the industry in this manner (sure – many use lawyers, but for deal-making purposes, not for the day-to-day to and fro). All doing this accomplishes is to make it way harder than it needs to be for people to get in touch with you and so greatly increases the odds that they won’t bother trying.
- Posters, knick-knacks, and billboards won’t persuade anyone to read your work. All they do is make you look desperate (and a little sad).
- Newbies think that by putting a WGA registration number or a copyright notice all over their scripts they are telling every reader and prospective buyer that “This script is super-duper, ironclad protected, so don’t you even think about stealing it, you evil potential script stealer you” but all it really says is “I am a complete and total amateur.” So does making people jump through hoops to read your script. If some of my consulting clients ask me to sign an NDA, I’ll do it just to humor them, but just see what happens if you insist an agent, a manager, a producer, or a studio exec sign one. They won’t. And they won’t read your script, either. Look, no one wants their work to be stolen. I’m not going to say it never happens because it does, but very rarely. But the thing is, if someone decides to snatch your screenplay, none of these measures are going to stop them – all they will do is annoy the people you are imposing them on. The only way to absolutely guarantee your work will never be taken is to never show it to anyone and that’s just not realistic. If you want people to consider buying and/or making your spec, then you have to let them read your stuff and not make it impossibly hard to do so. Yes, register and copyright and if something happens use those protections to fight for justice, but don’t make reading your script a chore because no one likes chores.
Apart from being ineffectual, engaging in these activities takes time away from what a writer should be doing – improving his work. While it is certainly possible that writers who busy themselves trying to impress or to promote their material in outrageous ways or protect it from thieves have written wonderful, fully-realized screenplays that need no additional work, the chances are incredibly slim. I have never encountered a script written by anyone who employed these tactics – and I have encountered quite a few – that has ever been any good. Or good enough, anyway.
The single most important think you must do as a screenwriter is to make your material the very best it can be and accomplishing that takes a lot of time and energy. Yes, it is important to protect your work, to obtain representation, and to sell your screenplays, but all of that is secondary to writing the best script possible. If you don’t put all of your time and energy and focus into that task, then it won’t matter how much time, energy, and focus you put into the others. So, put your screenplay first and then you can worry about everything but the script.
Copyright © 2018 by Ray Morton
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