How to Be The Screenwriter Hollywood Needs

If you want to get your script noticed in Hollywood—and your talents compensated for—then you cannot be just a ‘good’ screenwriter, you’ve gotta be great!

Before you go and pay for another screenwriting class on character development or plot points, perhaps all you need to do is simply change your perspective on what makes a screenwriter ‘great’ in the eyes of Hollywood’s decision makers.

screenwriter

A Great Screenwriter ‘gets’ what Hollywood needs…

A great screenwriter delivers what the Hollywood system depends upon, not by blindly guessing or chasing trends they’ve heard from friends (or friends of friends), but rather truly knowing that:

  1. Hollywood functions as an actual movie-making system, by making and distributing films that earn more money than they cost to produce.
  2. When starting out, focus on the part of Hollywood where your work, ideas and talents are most desperately in need: Independent Hollywood (not the big studios).

Indie Hollywood isn’t on the hunt for more character dramas or indie ‘coming-of-age’ gems. It’s seeking films that have a reliable audience and a high probability of generating revenue.

Genres that are considered ‘reliable’ and ‘stable’ would be the kinds of films you see on TV:

These include, family films (with kid heroes, even better with an animal side-kick), Action films (especially ones that offer the opportunity for an aging male actor to make a comeback role), and Female-driven thrillers (the kind you see on Lifetime).

If you want proof, go check out a Redbox machine.

You’ll notice that aside from major studio titles and video games, it’s usually the above-mentioned genres getting placement (despite having no major A-list celebrity actors).

Comedies are harder to sell since their style and tone are subjective and difficult to play overseas (since the humor doesn’t always translate and dubbing is expensive!)

When writing for independent Hollywood, rather than the big studios, you must be conscious of where the money comes from. Foreign sales are as important as U.S. and Canadian placement so avoid overly heavy ‘Americanisms’ like football or Thanksgiving.

While we are on the subject, avoid dramas (they are too boring), make your lead protagonist female (woman make the ‘movie viewing’ decisions more often than men), and despite what many screenwriting books suggest, do keep your script ‘budget-oriented’.

So you want to write for the big studios and have a laundry list of solid ideas?  Great!

Save them until later…

As a serious screenwriter, you first need to sell a few scripts in the indie zone to build a strong reputation before big-studio Hollywood will pay attention.  For more examples, get on Netflix or Hulu and look for the movies you’ve never heard of (but happen to be placed next to a big Studio title. Those are the indie films you stand a solid chance of getting hired to write!)

A Great Screenwriter Follows Principles, Not Trends

There will always be a new ‘it’ genre or trend, which it seems all the Studios are following. I’m sure you’ve noticed the zombie films and reboots?

But trends come and go, some much quicker than others. But the principles stay the same.

Writing on Principle means focusing on genres that are consistently and reliably selling. In my book, Writing for the Green Light, I refer to these as ‘Gold-Mine Genre Types.’

Is FOX hell-bent on Vampires this season? Great, let them focus on that and you stick true to your reliable Family title or modestly budgeted Action film.

Is Paramount investing heavily into paranormal-themed content this summer?  Again, let them… Don’t veer off course just because the studios make a new decision…

Stick true to your reliable genres (Family, Action, and Female-Driven thrillers), and you stand a much better shot of giving indie Hollywood what it needs to stay in business.

A Great Screenwriter gets passionate about what sells!

There is nothing wrong with being passionate about content that sells!

You are no less a serious screenwriter just because you write Tween-Girl Romance movies or Family Safe Adventures rather than hard hitting dramas.

By entering the entertainment industry with a ‘business’ mindset (focused on seeing your work produced and your efforts compensated for), you will be taken more seriously by the Decision-Makers running Hollywood.

Once you’ve built a name for yourself as a reliable and steady deliverer of quality content, you will have already built that network of contacts who can take your work to the next level.

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Scott Kirkpatrick is the Director of Distribution for MarVista Entertainment, a Los Angeles based production and distribution company that produces original Lifetime and SyFy channel films, co-produces TV movies with Disney and Nickelodeon, and has managed international TV deals on major franchises including Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, Digimon, and Julius Jr. Scott has also produced and directed TV series and feature films including Eye for an Eye, Muslims in America, and Roadside Massacre. Check out his book, Writing For The Greenlight.

How To Sell Your Screenplay

If you want to know how to sell your screenplay, you’re in luck. When I was working for an indie producer in New York, one of my jobs was to read screenplays and hopefully find a gem.

During that time, I learned some valuable lessons (from inside the production office) that I would like to share on how to sell your screenplay.

How To Sell Your Screenplay

How To Sell Your Screenplay

The goal in Hollywood is to produce product. And as a screenwriter, your job is to create a blueprint for a potential product.

In this case, your product is a new movie. Like any new product, your movie has never been made and is therefore unproven. And because you are unknown, you are asking a company (in this context, a movie producer with a a relationship with a studio or financiers) to produce an unknown product to be marketed to a (hopefully) receptive audience.

To get your screenplay made into a movie, a producer will have to drop whatever projects they are working on and devote months and in some cases, years to get your unproven product produced. They will have to attach actors, financiers and distributors to the project. And that is the easy part.

Every day, these producers will face rejection, obstacles and countless crazy people. They will cry, lose sleep and possibly fail. So if you really want to get your work produced, you need to downplay risk and amplify the reward. With this said, the way I see it, there are four methods you can use to get your screenplay produced.

As a screenwriter, you can:

1. Sell Your Screenplay: Write Query Letters – With this approach, you can write query letters to agents and production companies with the hope of getting your work evaluated. The truth is, someone will read your snail mail. But it probably won’t be the agent or producer. It will most certainly be an assistant. So I suggest writing your letter with the assistant in mind.

All assistants want to eventually move into their bosses’ role. This is where you can shine. What’s in it for an assistant to actually read your work? How will they benefit? Answer these questions in your initial query, and you’ll be ahead of 90% of other writers who merely send out anonymous emails.

2. Sell Your Screenplay: Make Your Contacts Count – Long before I moved to Los Angeles, I found out my actor buddy from college had scored a small role on a popular movie. So I reached out and send him my screenplay. I’m happy I did. After reading the script, he offered to host a reading with some of his actor friends.

Next thing you know, I’m in LA, walking into a room where “real” actors were presently reading and acting out my screenplay. Since I was familiar with many of the actors (because they were on TV and in movies) this was a surreal experience and is still one of the major highlights in my LA life.

You can approach people who know people in the industry and see if they will read your script and make introductions to Hollywood heavyweights.

3. Sell Your Screenplay: Enter Screenwriting Contests – You can send your script to screenwriting contests. If you place well in the contest, your work will get noticed by industry judges. Additionally, a win will give you just enough leverage to contact agencies with your news.

With that said, make sure you only focus on reputable screenplay contests. Have you heard of the contest? If not, can you reach out to past participants and find out about their experiences? This will help you determine the pros and cons of each screenwriting contest.

4. Sell Your Screenplay: Become A Movie Producer – The biggest reason I left my hometown for New York was so I could  work in a production company. I figured if I was on the inside, it would be far easier to add my script to the stack than merely sending a query letter. But what I gained was so much more valuable.

After months of working with the producer, I realized that real power players do not ask for permission to make movies. Instead they ask themselves this key question: “Given the resources that I have right now, what is the feature I can make this year?” Once you start producing (and possibly directing) your own work, you become a powerful force to be reckoned with.

And I’m speaking from experience. After producing my first feature, a lot of good stuff started happening. Aside from selling many units of the movie, everybody involved found bigger and better work. And our writer found an agent with one of the big Hollywood agencies.

Regardless of your strategy, making a movie is risky. Anytime a movie gets produced, someone has risked their reputation and livelihood to make it happen. And here is the quick catch 22. As soon as you are a produced writer, people will often scramble to read your material. To get this this point, you need to actually get something produced.

If you have a screenplay, your story better be better than good.

Wait… It better be great!

Otherwise, do not bother sending it out. And even if your screenplay is great and you find a bunch of industry pros enthusiastic about your material, there are no guarantees. It may still take months and possibly years before you see any money for your work. Just check out the Hollywood Screenplay blacklist for examples.

Sell Your Screenplay NowSo the question is, why depend on someone else to get your movie made? You can do it yourself. If you have been reading Filmmaking Stuff for any length of time, you probably know I would rather climb my own ladder than some ladder I don’t own. Stop asking for permission.

If you liked this article, you might benefit from my entreprenural screenwriting product at: How To Write Your Movie

Screenwriting Agents Do Not Have Time To Read Your Script

Somewhere in the world someone has just finished the first draft of her first screenplay – ever.

Full of enthusiasm, the unknown screenwriter breaks out a hammer and puts the final touches on the two brass brads that hold the 90-120 pages together. It is at this point when this writer asks himself the obvious question:

“How do I get my movie script produced?”

This is the point when things get confusing. Should the unknown screenwriter send his screenplay to contests, to screenwriting agents, to the family friend attorney who is willing to pose as the “entertainment attorney” and hopefully shepherd the script through the guarded gates of Hollywood?

Or should the first time screenwriter decide instead to send the work to producers? And what if somebody steals the idea? And why don’t producers accept unsolicited screenplays? UGH!

Screenwriting Agents

Screenwriting agents

One of the reasons I am excited you’re reading these words is because I can help you avoid my early mistakes. What I just described was me a decade ago.

I was still living in Pennsylvania. I had just finished the first draft of my first screenplay.  And frankly, I thought I was brilliant. I thought my story was awesome. And I actually thought Hollywood would just knock down my door. Of course it didn’t happen like that.

After I wrote my script, email was the new thing. So I started sending email query letters to various production companies and screenwriting agents. And surprisingly, a few folks did respond to me. But after I sent out my script, it wasn’t long until I either got a rejection letter or heard nothing.

Back then, I still had a lot to learn. . .

“Would you like me to tell you the secrets of getting your work produced?”

I don’t have all the secrets.

The truth is, if you have an amazing script that is totally polished, marketed towards your intended audience of producer types (or screenwriting agents) who have a history of producing your type of work – and you have a way of accessing them and getting your brilliant work read, then your success is (a little more) probable.

But for the rest of us, taking that route is an eroded path and (in my humble opinion) requires that you ask too many people for permission. I mean, doesn’t it make you feel a little whorish to ask so many people for validation?

“Please read my screenplay, it’s great!”

UGH. I hate asking for permission.

And screenwriting agents? Forget that route. At least right now. Yes, you can send out query letters and market the heck out of yourself. But if you’re an unknown screenwriter living outside of LA, the odds of getting your work read by legitimate screenwriting agents are slim to none.

Remember, screenwriting agents make a living getting material sold. And chances are, those folks already have a dozen clients. They don’t have time to take notice of your material unless your work already has buzz.

So how do you break through?

Here are some screenwriting tips… But I don’t think you’ll like them.

  1. Quit asking permission. Production is less expensive. Start producing.
  2. Start with genres that sell. Horror. Women in peril. Girl with a horse story.
  3. Relationships are everything. Not in LA? Then attend major film festivals.
  4. There are contests. Most suck. Some are good. At lease you get read.
  5. Cold call filmmakers. You will be surprised how accessible they are.

If you start thinking and acting like an entrepreneurial screenwriter, you will be amazed how many people will start to take you seriously. Of course, a large majority of screenwriters will think these ideas are bonkers. And if you think I’m bonkers, then please ignore me and keep writing query letters to screenwriting agents.

But if you’re willing to go the distance, then do whatever it takes to get your work on the screen. If this means you grab a camera and make a dozen, 2 minute movies for YouTube – At least you’re doing something. And in my very humble opinion, it is far more valuable to get small projects produced than to put your work in a dark drawer, only to never be seen.

If you’d like more information on getting your screenplay finished, check out the Indie Producer’s Guide To Writing Movie Scrips that Sell.

Screenwriting Advice: Write The WORST Scene Ever!

Guinevere Turner is a writer, director and actor who has been working in film and TV since her 1994 debut film Go Fish. She went on to act in several films, including The Watermelon Woman, Chasing Amy, and Treasure Island. Eventually she teamed up with Mary Harron to write American Psycho and then The Notorious Bettie Page. She stopped by Filmmaking Stuff to share some useful screenwriting advice and let you know about her latest project, Creeps.

Screenwriting Advice

I’ve been privileged enough not only to work as a screenwriter for the last 20 years, but to talk to many other screenwriters about what they do and how they do it. So I am going to steal some screenwriting advice from them.

Creeps The MovieOne of my favorites is from writer Mike Werb. He says when he feels stuck he just says out loud: “I am now going to write the WORST scene ever written!” and then he starts typing.

I do this all the time because of Mike and it works. And you will write the worst scene ever and then you will rewrite it and then there will be progress.

Don Roos says he forces himself to write for one hour, with a timer, every day. Every single day, no matter what. And he has a husband and kids. He says, “Even if I just write, ‘Oh my god, I’m so fat’ or ‘Oh my god, Dan is being so selfish today’, I have written for an hour, and I am writer, and then I can go on with my day. “

I’ve tried Don’s method and it doesn’t work for me at all – I don’t respond well to structure like that – but it just brings up the real issue which is this: as a writer, you must find your way.

What works for you, what makes you productive/creative/inspired. Some people like to have music. John August says that he actually gets a scented candle and lights it when he starts to work on a certain project – so that he has a smell associated with a story and it puts him in that world.

For me, it’s about morning, quiet, solitude and no Internet to plug me into the cacophony until I have written something. Also about not having a conversation with anyone. Which might be why I am single. I have often woken up to a person next to me who says in a sleepy affectionate way “Hey – what are you up today?” and I answer but all I am thinking is “You killed it! It’s over! Now I can’t write today.”

Working in TV was great for me though, because I learned to get over myself and just get the damn thing done. In film, you can lie on your chaise lounge with a Garbo-esque hand to the forehead and claim that you “Just don’t feel inspired today” and get away with it for a bit – in TV you either finish the script when you are told to, or you are fired. And there’s a line of people around the block who are ready to do your job.

Finally, I just want to say that you should never describe anyone as “ruggedly handsome”, and don’t tell me that Bob is thinking of his grandmother. I can’t read Bob’s mind. Tell me what Bob looks like when he’s thinking of his grandmother. And the biggest peeve I have in movies and TV is people saying each other’s names.

Notice, the next time you are with a lover, a sibling, an old friend, that you NEVER ever say their names. Really, it’s weird but true. People who know each other well only say names when they are very mad or very in love.

An equation that constantly surprises me is this: writing something = happiness. Not writing something = anxiety, fear, grief. So… just write something.

Speaking of screenwriting, please check out my current project, Creeps.

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Guinevere_TurnerI am Guinevere Turner – writer, director and actor who has been working in film and TV since I first got into the game in 1994 with my film Go Fish. I’ve been in some movies, including The Watermelon Woman, Chasing Amy, and Treasure Island. I teamed up with Mary Harron to write American Psycho and then The Notorious Bettie Page. I was a staff writer and story editor on Showtime’s The L Word, and I played the nightmarish Gabby Deveaux on that show. I’ve written and directed five short films, two of which showed at Sundance, some of which played on TV and around the world, and some of which were completely ignored.

 

Write or Acquire a Screenplay

Screenwriting is the heavy lifting for your movie. Without a good script you limit your chances for success from the onset. Your goal is to only work with the best material you can get your hands on. You will want to decide if you will write your screenplay yourself, with a writing partner or if you will acquire a screenplay from someone else.

If you choose to write your screenplay yourself, do not be afraid to write a crappy first draft. Most screenwriters in Hollywood claim to have a screenplay, but that is not true. Rather most would-be screenwriters have the first 15 pages to screenplay and they will never finish. This is because they are afraid of failure. But not you. Your goal is to write, and write, and write. Finish a crappy first draft. Then refine it.

In the event you simply want to acquire good material, many filmmakers post an ad on craigslist.com whereby seeking a competent screenwriter. But if you do this I guarantee you will be inundated by gazillions of writers seeking a producer. I suggest that you research established but new screenwriters who have a similar vision. You may have to pay, but at least you will know the type of work you are getting.

For additional screenwriting resources, check out the Indie Producer’s Guide To Writing Movie Scrips.