Award-winning screenwriter Dan Goforth explains how writing a short film screenplay launched his feature writing career.
I recently signed my first NDA for a feature-length writing assignment. I did it without an agent (although I've had one), without living in L.A. (although I was born there), and without pinning a producer to the file cabinet with brass brads until s/he agreed to read one of my scripts (although I have almost done that).
So, how did I do it?
I did it with a short screenplay.
My introduction to shorts came through the Sidewalk Film Festival. Movie Maker magazine has called Sidewalk one of the "top 25 coolest film festivals" and Time magazine named it one of the "top ten festivals for the rest of us." They were running a short screenplay competition, and the prize was a big wad of cash plus a copy of the Final Draft software - which I had been coveting, after years of writing with my own custom-built Word template.
I'd never written a short. Knew nothing about them. Hadn't even considered it. But for cash and software, I was in! So, I took what I'd learned from years of spec feature writing and crafted what I felt was a great "mini movie."
And it won! Over the course of time, the script would win not only at Sidewalk, it would take Best Short Screenplay at the LA Screenwriting Expo and was a finalist in almost every competition it was entered in. David Trottier (The Screenwriter's Bible) even wrote me, "'I thoroughly enjoyed your clash of cultures. Especially the characterizations; these characters are real people."
But the attention really started when I was named as runner-up at the British Short Screenplay Competition. The BSSC is the largest and most prestigious program in the world for the short screenplay format, open to pros and amateurs alike. They receive thousands of entries each year and the judging panel consists of renowned film professionals like Kenneth Branagh and Sir Alan Parker. I soon began to get emails from people all over the world, wanting to read my script. By that time, I had already decided to (someday) direct it myself and ended up declining a few producing offers. But I learned the basics of how to Skype and found myself ghostwriting for a couple of English directors' pet scripts/ideas.
This is when the road led back to features. About this time, New Baby Productions, which had produced several fantasy graphic novels, announced they were looking for a screenwriter to do the screenplay adaptation for their new upcoming science fiction graphic novel, The Chronic Argonauts. Reading it, I was completely drawn in and knew I had to be the one to write the script. Eric Mullarky, the publisher, and I hit it off right away, talking about the characters strengths, weakness, motivations, desires, etc.
I will state unequivocally that the fact that I was an "award winning screenwriter" in some fairly well-known venues opened the doors to our talks. I was able to send them a copy of my "award winning short screenplay," as well as a copy of a new feature-length sci-fi script I'd just completed. As a result, I landed the job as the assigned writer for the graphic novel screen adaptation.
But can shorts really be considered a viable path in building a career as a screenwriter? I decided to consult with fellow screenwriter, Marjory Kaptanoglu. For those of you who may not be familiar with Margie's work, her short script, Dead in the Room, won the Slamdance Screenplay Competition. A wickedly funny parody of pitch festivals, it's considered "must see" viewing for anyone wanting to become a screenwriter (You can view it in its entirety at the Slamdance site. Directed by Oscar-nominated director Adam Pertofsky, it was cast with some very talented actors, including Patrick J. Adams of the USA Network series Suits.
Like me, Margie started out writing just features. But she intentionally branched out into shorts, thinking it might be easier to get one produced (which turned out to be true). Of the five shorts she's written, three have been produced, one is in pre-production, and the fifth one is currently riding in a contest which will arrange for the production of the top fifty scripts.
I asked Margie just what led to her love affair with shorts. Here's what she said:
"Writing shorts helps keep me motivated as I contend with the difficulties of breaking into the feature world. Once I’ve written a short, I typically enter it into contests to get some credits (and with luck, a cash prize, as I won from Page Awards) before posting its logline at InkTip.com. Two of my scripts were discovered and picked up by filmmakers who saw the loglines on InkTip and requested the scripts.
"I’ve accompanied my shorts to a number of film festivals, and it’s been wonderful to sit in the audience and hear people laugh or gasp over my words. Dead in the Room even got a standing ovation in San Diego. Moreover, I’ve met a lot of filmmakers at these festivals. After seeing my film, they expressed interest in reading my work. No specific deal has come out of it at this point, but I now have a lot more contacts who are open to reading anything I write.
"Three of my films can now be viewed online, at YouTube and Vimeo. I provide links to them whenever I contact people in the industry. I believe that having visual calling cards has helped garner greater interest in my writing. As an indirect result, I attracted the interest of a manager and recently signed on with her. In summary, writing shorts provides opportunities for getting your work in front of audiences and for networking with people in the industry."
Short screenplays can help jump-start your career. So, what are you waiting for? Get writing…
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