Jon James Miller discusses strategies to get a powerful A-list actor attached to your script.
Jon James Miller is a screenwriter, novelist and frequent online presenter. His first novel, a historical fiction based on an original screenplay, will be published Spring 2015. For more information, go to: www.jonjamesmiller.com Follow Jon on Twitter @jonjimmiller.
One of my favorite scenes in a movie is from Bowfinger (1999) where Steve Martin’s character is a down and out movie producer desperate to get his script into the studios. He’s at an A-list eatery in LA, pretending to talk on the phone with a star (Kit Ramsey played by Eddie Murphy) in front of a studio executive (Robert Downey, Jr.). Downey feigns interest in the property and promises Martin that if he can get Kit to star – he’ll greenlight the movie. The reason I love this scene is because it’s happened to me in real Hollywood meetings: Get a star to attach themselves to your script and they’ll buy it. And screenwriters, the eternal optimists, trip over themselves thanking the studio executive. That is, until you walk back out into the stark light of day and wonder just how in the hell are you (read: a nobody) supposed to get a powerful actor attached to your script?
Twenty years ago, it wasn’t out of the question to take some risks, albeit harmless, to get your work in front of an actor. A cadre of aspiring scribes, myself included, would strategize for months on how to approach an actor that we thought would be perfect for our main character and/or had the juice to get a project greenlit. When I think back on those times I’m filled with a sense of nostalgia and nausea. Nostalgia at how young and ambitious I was. Nausea at how naïve and utterly out of my league in the shark tank that is Tinseltown. I literally thought that if I could get my script into the hands of an actor, I would be able to get them A) to read my script, and B) sign on so I could bring it before the movie gods and have it blessed with production. I believed all those urban legends of people sending their scripts attached to offerings of food, sunglasses, hats and clothes that would magically make a multi-millionaire actor feel like aligning their career with an absolute nobody. Such is the level of denial and desperation among the thousands of wannabe scribes walking the streets of Hollywood holding star maps back then.
Today it’s a dicey proposition at best for an unknown screenwriter to attempt to get talent attached in the hopes it will move the needle for their project. We live in a perpetual state of heightened security, one that frowns heavily on sending anything unsolicited to anyone, let alone in-demand Hollywood talent. Even attempting to send a star something these days can end you up with a restraining order, or worse, as a footnote on TMZ for stalking such-and-such movie star/rock star/writer. But before giving up on the idea of attaching talent altogether, why not consider modifying your strategy to a more social media savvy approach? Many stars today have twitter accounts and are more accessible to their fan base than ever. They still don’t want to be harassed but are (at least some of them) are open to receiving direct messages (DM) from their fans who might have a story that’s perfect for them. And stars are not the only ones who are on twitter, but producers, directors, managers, agents and virtually everyone else who’s connected to the entertainment industry and under a certain age. But before you start soliciting everybody under that hot Los Angeles sun with a barrage of requests, take a little time to consider what exactly you’re asking for, and who from.
Most A-list actors are out of the equation when it comes to an independent screenwriter trying to get an attachment. When you consider how many people are soliciting them from legitimate quadrants of the industry, your chances of getting through to them (and them being on the other end of the twitterverse managing their own accounts) are nil. Do miracles occasionally happen and people get through to talent this way? Yes. But the talent in question is rarely A-list and virtually never actors. A social media savvy scribe is far more likely to get a response from lesser known yet no less important industry professionals. Engaging managers, producers, directors, and yes, lesser known up-and-coming stars of tomorrow is a much more strategic approach to getting your material read. And the single most important aspect to this strategy is having that material ready to go out to talent. In fact, that is the single most important strategy to any scribe trying to break into Hollywood no matter what course they pursue. Your chances of getting someone’s attention go up exponentially if the writing is of such a high-standard that your talent can’t be denied. But talent alone will not be enough. And that’s where a screenwriter has to be more than a great writer. They have to have the ability to anticipate an industry professionals needs and bring them exactly what they want when they want it.
How in the hell does one do that? The answer is research, research, research. There are so many avenues into Hollywood these days but few are as viable as doing your homework and being thoroughly prepared for when an opportunity rears his or her head. It behooves any serious screenwriter to learn as much as they can about the person they wish to engage, whether it’s in a twitter message, an e-mail, phone call, snail mail or even sky-writing (don’t do that last one). And the single most important morsel of information when approaching talent with your pitch, script or project is knowing what in the world their motivation would be to entertain talking with you, a total stranger. In a nutshell, the answer is knowing their previous work, their current taste for material and what value-added your particular project would bring to their career – at the exact stage in their career they are at when you approach them.
Maybe you’ve heard that Hollywood can be a fickle mistress. Careers in show business ebb and flow and everyone wants to be in bed, I mean business, with the hottest young actor or actress. But consider this: there are actors and actors out there who have not yet hit it big who will look at your material. There are also huge stars of yesteryear looking for a project to break back in. And there are managers, producers, agents and everybody in-between looking for the next hot writer to validate their own careers. Now, will most of them respond to you? Probably not. But some will and that’s when you want your stuff to be the best it can be to take full advantage of your moment in the sun. And remember, always be gracious if they pass, knowing that you gave your best shot and all you need down the road is one yes. Oh, and always be nice and courteous. Because nobody likes a nasty message from a nobody.
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