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Nancy Nigrosh on Breaking Into the Screenwriting Industry

breaking into the screenwriting industry

Screenwriters World Conference brings together a wide variety of executives and teachers to give screenwriters a unique perspective on the industry.

Meet Nancy Nigrosh, instructor at UCLA Extension Writers' Program. Nancy has an MFA in Film & TV (Screenwriting) from UCLA, and an MA in Education from Antioch University. She serves as a Judge for UCLA’s Masters’ Screenwriting Competition and is an Instructor onsite and online for UCLA Extension's Writers’ Program. She is a former talent and literary agent at Innovative Artists and Gersh Agency, and has represented many award winning writers and directors for film and television, including Academy Award-winner Kathryn Bigelow (The Hurt Locker), Stuart Beattie (Collateral, Pirates of the Caribbean), Amanda Brown (Legally Blonde), and Leslye Headland (Bachelorette), among many others. Her company, Literary Business, serves fiction and non fiction authors to develop p-books and ebooks, as well as advising screenwriters. She serves on several boards including BookWorks, the Los Angeles Historic Theater Foundation, and American University Preparatory School.

Script: Is trying to break into the screenwriting industry as a screenwriter a more difficult endeavor than authors publishing their first novel?

Nancy Nigrosh: This is a much more complicated question than you might think. It’s true new authors have much more apparent options, but aspiring screenwriters often miss the fact they have a lot of options too.

Script: With the Herculean task of selling scripts, getting paid gigs, fighting for writing credit and always getting fired, I have to ask, what made you want to represent writers in the first place? You must either love a challenge or be a masochist.

Nancy: Perhaps because I’m a voracious, lifelong reader was I able to become visibly valuable in a business that relies on the ability to complexly discern levels of writing skill, leading me from a starting point as an assistant, to becoming the head of the literary department at The Gersh Agency.

I came from a household where both parents were avid media consumers - conservative republican dad, (who loved TV), and left of liberal mom, (a film nut), so we saw everything. At NYU film school, the need to consume cutting edge pop culture, especially in terms of global cinema, morphed into a hyper encyclopedic mode, making me the ‘google’ of my world. At NYU, I got my first exposure to professional filmmaking as the script supervisor for the New York location shoot for Marty Scorsese’s early masterpiece, MEAN STREETS, while Terry Southern (Dr. Strangelove, Easy Rider, etc.) gave me an eye opening, mind-blowing glimpse into the pressures of the professional screenwriting career in his Master class. Terry offered to co-write a script I’d pitched in class and subsequently encouraged me to apply to UCLA where I was accepted into the MFA Screenwriting program. My teachers there were Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver), James Tobak (Bugsy) and William Froug (The Twilight Zone, Gilligan’s Island). I leaned towards film editing for a while, and studied at UCLA with the legendary Slako Vorkapich, the master of dynamic visual montages for the studios during their heyday. I got a job as a film editor, and at the same time worked as a freelance reader for a number of production companies, followed by a career as a literary agent in Hollywood. I was really good at my job and got to represent amazing artists.

Nancy Nigrosh

Nancy Nigrosh

Film editing uses many of the same editorial skills we associate with print media. It is an invisible art. Not everyone can see what is invisible. It takes a certain expertise. Agents don’t receive screen credit, although sometimes we receive a ‘thanks to’ nod in the roll up, or a writer will mention the support of their reps in accepting an award or sometimes before a public screening. These are the writers who do tend to fully grasp what their agent actually does and see the relationship as a team effort. However, most writers – even those who’ve been in the business for a number of years, don’t see what is invisible to them beneath the surface.

Script: Given the way the industry has treated writers over the years, making them share credits, what would your dream solution be when it comes to writers getting credit?

Nancy: Read my 'Lone Screenwriter’ article.

The following is an excerpt about the struggles of writing credit from Nancy's article:

The screenwriters who do not receive credit lose their sense of professional self worth. They lose credibility and they lose money. They are not invited to the screening or any other film festivity. It is as though they never existed. Their contribution is expunged. The credited writers - and it typically is more than one writer who is awarded credit by the Guild - do not share the credit with grace. It is not like sharing a Nobel prize, a ride or a campfire. Unless you hire your own hardworking publicist you'll be sitting at the kiddie table and arguing politely with security at the star's tent at the premier because here's the other thing: nobody cares. Even the spotlight and the red carpet show the credited writer(s) no love. Even if the credit is stand-alone, there are unexpressed whispers in the air. The writer is a slight embarrassment because how do you congratulate someone whose contribution is diluted and unclear? Who really wrote it? Aren't they just someone who survived the process of elimination? What about the forgotten writer whom the Guild excluded whose scenes and character work possibly still persists? The most successful writers, the ones with the most credit, the ones who work the most, know this plight from every emotional angle, including the rarest terrain that is the most frozen of all Siberian tundra: award season. Another uncomfortable fact of life being there is no financial bounce for financier X for a screenwriting award anyway.

Script: What about those writers who sign NDAs, rewrite scripts and just take a fat check? Obviously, they never see a writing credit, but what are the pros and cons of that in terms of their careers?

A fat writing check is never a bad thing - plus not getting credit is often a good thing in a troubled situation. The next biggest plus is that agents can get a client a lot of traction at the highest levels if the writer gets hailed as an expensive savior.

Meet Nancy Nigrosh at Screenwriters World Conference, August 15-17th, in L.A.

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