You’re an aspiring screenwriter intent on breaking into the business. Time and again you throw yourself at The Fortress walls, but to no avail. Bitterly you decry the fact that they are clearly designed to keep you out.
I’m not going to give you seven secrets, ten tips or even twenty-two tactics to break in.
It’s time to take a long, hard look at your ideas.
You enter contests and do well. You’ve wracked up some encouraging coverage. You send countless query letters and get no response. You pay for queries and get rejected. You travel to Pitch-a-Paloozas and nothing happens. You do everything we “Insider Advice Givers” suggest, but it’s useless information. You try and you try and you try and you just can’t get no satisfaction.
You’ve got ED.
Not the medical condition that plagued Bob Dole and is cured with little blue pills.
You’ve got Execution Dependency.
I’m speaking out now in the hope that writers with ED will seek treatment for a condition that affects millions of screenplays preventing them from ever scoring.
What is ED?
Perhaps ED is best defined by clarifying what it is not. ED is not High Concept.
I call strong movie concepts “Hooky Ideas.” A Hooky Idea immediately intrigues our minds. It gets you hooked and it sticks with you. It conveys images, worlds and tone in a very few words. When you hear a Hooky Idea, you know what the movie will feel like. You can tell who the audience is. You know if this is a movie that you want to see or not.
A Hooky Idea will catapult you past the shark-infested moat, over the sky-high wall and into a nice wagon full of cushy hay within The Fortress.
Put yourself in our shoes for a moment. And trust me, they’re not that easy to walk in.
Ready? Here’s the pitch:
A comedy with heart. Convinced their chubby, no-talent little girl is beauty queen material, her parents drag the rest of the family along on a cross-country road trip in a dying VW van to a beauty pageant. Her struggling motivational speaker father pushes her to win, while her silent, sullen teen brother, suicidal, gay uncle and nursing home-reject grandpa each have their own issues.
If this was all you had to go on, would you bite? Can you tell it has the potential to be a hit film, one that will draw a huge audience, making its budget back many times over and making moviegoers laugh out loud and delivering an uplifting message? Would you choose to devote a sizable chunk of your limited time and energy to reading THIS script out of HUNDREDS?
It’s Execution Dependent.
What makes LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE truly wonderful is writer Michael Arndt’s 100,000 brilliant choices, not the idea alone.
With an Execution Dependent idea, the deliciousness is in the details. Not the best written query nor the most amazing pitch could convince an industry professional to ask for these scripts. It's the execution that makes it appealing, not the concept and concept is really all you can convey when you’re trying to break in.
The ED Test
Some of the warning signs you may have ED:
1) You can’t tell your story in a minute and have somebody understand what it is about.
2) You’re writing in a genre that seldom sells as a spec. Dramas of all natures, period pieces, true stories, family films versus thrillers, action and comedy.
3) You find yourself having to explain what’s so terrific about the story.
Do you recognize your script in these symptoms? Hey, it happens to everyone sometimes. It’s painful to be diagnosed with ED, but it’s the important first step to change.
Get EDucated about ED
When your ideas suffer from Execution Dependency they are not going to get anyone hot and bothered.
It’s not that ED ideas are “bad” ideas. Some may even be very good ideas. In fact, if you look back at Academy Award® winning Best Pictures, most have ED. It’s the recognition that ultimately comes to these movies that are both very hard to get made and very worthwhile.
But when you are clawing your way into the business, do you want to work with a toothpick or a sledgehammer?
Trying to break in with an Execution Dependent idea is a very difficult task. Traditional paths will not get you there.
Living With ED
Life is hard when you’ve got ED. A Hooky Idea for a movie transcends execution. That’s right. A great idea with mediocre writing can and will move forward. Even a poorly written script can get off the ground when there’s a terrific idea at its core. While an Execution Dependent idea, brilliantly written, may never get any traction. That hurts.
While there’s no prescription, there are some possibilities for leading a normal lifestyle.
Polish your script until it sings. Each and every line, every single scene. Make certain that it’s a visceral experience for the reader. If you’ve written a tragic romance, we should be in tears. If you’re telling a true story that’s a period piece, we should walk away with the contemporary relevance ringing in our ears. Best case scenario would be you’ve been at the writing game long enough to have developed a distinctive voice, a clear point of view on the world and some outstanding screenwriting strengths. Yup, that means that you have quite a few scripts under your belt. Not even worth mentioning that you must have mastered the craft.
Give up on query letters and pitch fests. Focus your energy on arenas that recognize quality writing. Big prestigious contests. Boutique contests that bring industry connections. As you get people to read your work, they will become your fans. Even if this script is not for us, we want to know talented writers, and want to read what they write next. Aim for The Black List. What could be better than being among the best unproduced scripts out there? Perhaps becoming a former Black Lister, among the hundreds that have gone on to be filmed and win Oscars.
Cultivate relationships at every opportunity. Your best hope is to use relationships to get someone to take a look and your material and they fall truly, madly, deeply in love with your ED story. Be persistent. If you strike a chord, you’ve found someone excited about pushing that boulder up the hill. And chances are it will take a whole lot of people pushing to get to the top. Did you see how many producers and production companies were listed on THE KING’S SPEECH?
Give us something fresh. According to the always fascinating Scoggins Report, six spec scripts sold last month. That’s a solid number for September which also hosted Labor Day, the Toronto International Film Festival and two High Holidays. Three specs sold in a three-day period for “a reported” seven figures. What did they have in common? Yes, they were all concept-driven pieces in commercial genres by writers with chops, but what made them sell so fast and for such a high price? They each had familiar elements combined with something new, fresh and exciting. A twist is always a turn on. No little blue pill needed to get excited about these ideas.
If there were a cure for Execution Dependence, you might decide that the side effects outweigh the benefits. You might just be an ED writer and you need to embrace that.
Accept that the competition out there is stiff. High Concept ideas are hard to beat. But ultimately, even with ED you can find satisfaction. Your key to success it a beautifully written script, a compelling story with strong visceral appeal and the relentless pursuit of passionate players to champion its way to the screen where it will finally find the love and respect it so richly deserves.