Screenwriting

Screenwriting is the heavy lifting of all movie projects. The screenwriting articles at Filmmaking Stuff reveal real world tips for how to write a screenplay, how to sell a screenplay how to market your screenplay, how to get a screenwriting agent and how to write movie scripts that sell. Even if you do not live in Hollywood or have any industry connections — by reading the following screenwriting articles, you will get closer to writing awesome screenplays.

Writing For The Green Light: Scott Kirkpatrick Interview

Scott Kirkpatrick is a man with a plan. “I want to help writers build a career by offering a manageable game plan.” In his new book, Writing for the Green Light, Scott offers “real and practical advice to help screenwriters speak to professionals or pitch their work.”

As the director of distribution for MarVista Entertainment, a production and distribution company that produces over twenty films per year, Scott has the experience and foresight to know what young writers need to do for a successful screenwriting career.

“I’m not here to tell you about the craft of writing or how to develop compelling characters. There’s dozens of great books that offer that insight.” However, he continues, “most of these books fail new writers and filmmakers by not answering the most important question of what they should do with their work after it’s complete.”

Writing for the Green Light is here to answer those questions. You can plan on it.

Writing For The Green Light

Writing For The Green Light

Anna Kemp: What is the biggest misconception for new writers straight out of film school?

Scott Kirkpatrick: For me, the biggest misconception film schools unintentionally plant into the minds of newbie writers and filmmakers is that their early works must shake the system apart and be ‘different’.  I argue that first newbies should embrace the Hollywood system, support it by writing Gold-mine Genre Types for the indie zone, and build a reputation as a dependable writer; then, later, they have the merit and authority to break the rules apart.  One should never put the cart before the horse. Filmmaking is a business, it’s about supply and demand.

Anna Kemp: Should new artists forget about their passion project?

Scott Kirkpatrick: If a writer has a non-commercial script that they’re passionate about, all I’m suggesting is that they keep it in their back pocket so that once they have the reputation and career in place, they can pull it out and see real traction.  But, following the simple advice of simply ‘writing the scripts Hollywood needs’ will jump-start a newbie’s career much faster than anything else.  I’m in no way suggesting one should abandon a script they’re passionate about—quite the contrary.  First, there’s nothing wrong with getting passionate about ‘what sells’.  And second, the commercially viable scripts that Hollywood execs are on the hunt for offer just as many artistic challenges as any pet project.  I want novice writers to write commercially viable scripts first so that they can build a strong reputation and gain the contacts they’ll need to get that passion project into the marketplace later on with the real opportunity of seeing it produced.

Anna Kemp: Some writers fear that being commercially successful comes at the cost of losing artistic integrity. You argue that talented artists can be both commercial and artistic.

Scott Kirkpatrick: This has been an age-old dilemma for Artists throughout time.  If you’re feeling conflicted as an artist about these concepts, you are not alone.  In fact, you’re in the same sphere as ‘the greats’…but remember, most of Michelangelo’s works were commissioned pieces, same with Charles Dickens.  And for how this fits into the world of screenwriting, remember that Robert Towne, who wrote that epic script for “Chinatown”—that nearly every book claims to be the best screenplay ever written, is also the same screenwriter who delivered Jerry Bruckheimer with “Days of Thunder”.

Anna Kemp: What is the likelihood of new talent selling his or her script to a major producer or studio? Is that just a pipe dream?

Scott Kirkpatrick: I’ve never heard of it truly happening. The best example someone tried to provide me of it being a reality is Troy Duffy and “The Boondock Saints”—a story so old that if it were a person it could legally drive a car.  Certainly, a few scripts and stories have risen through the ranks and reached the studio level. However, then they are almost always handed over to another writer to ‘fix’. And if these small scripts actually do get produced into a real movie, they are so far removed from their original story that an honest comparison could never be made. Major studios are very difficult to reach. There’s so many barriers built around them that make it next to impossible for novice writers to truly get in. Besides, studios generally only commission writers with long histories of credits under their belt to write their movies.  So the question isn’t ‘how can I sell my script to a studio,’ it’s really more ‘how can I gain writing credits today that will later attract the attention of studio executives?’  And since this is a common catch-22 in Hollywood, Writing for the Green Light answers the age-old question of how exactly an unknown writer with zero credits can get their foot in the door and secure those first few deals.

Anna Kemp: And that answer isn’t with big studios?

Scott Kirkpatrick: The real trick is not looking to the studios, but instead looking to ‘independent’ Hollywood. This is where the majority of Hollywood’s movie output actually comes from and offers unknown writers the best chance to building a career.  Focus on the Six Gold-mine Genre Types that I outline in the book (e.g., female-driven thrillers, family films with kid heroes, action films for aging males stars, etc.) and you will see traction.  Forget the studios, a novice writer should focus on where their talent will really get them noticed, paid, and will build them a career—indie Hollywood!

Anna Kemp: Regarding the Gold-mine Genres, what if a writer isn’t talented with one of them?

Scott Kirkpatrick: The great aspect of these six gold-mine genres is that they cover such a very wide spectrum of film genres. They’re not here to restrict your creativity in any way, instead they’re just ensuring a minimum set of requirements are included so that producers and executives see them as ‘marketable’. Also, even if a writer’s passion is a Sundance-feeling coming of age drama, I’m not suggesting they quit working on it. I’m just suggesting this isn’t a great ‘out of the gate’ script to approach Hollywood with.  Find one of the six ‘gold-mine genre types’ and go for it first.  Once you have a reputation and a stellar list of ‘go to’ contacts, then you can pull out the passion projects.

Anna Kemp: How many writers come to LA with the intent of selling themselves based on their ability to write quickly within a specific genre?

Scott Kirkpatrick: Very few. Most have a single story they’re extremely passionate about and don’t realize they’re too close to their story to be objective to it. The idea of Writing for the Green Light is to expose that a writer’s best chance of success is to focus on the scripts indie Hollywood needs and present themselves and their spec work with the mindset of securing ‘commissioned’ work from producers and creative executives. Indie Hollywood is the writer’s true entry point.

Anna Kemp: What is the number one reason writers do not make money?

Scott Kirkpatrick: Most writers struggle is not from a lack of talent. It’s simply that most writers write the wrong types of scripts or don’t know how to talk about their work in the way Hollywood producers or creative executives need to hear it.  But I don’t blame the writer’s. I blame the fact that most film schools and most ‘how to write a screenplay’ books don’t give any real insight into how to actually write scripts that get the attention of Hollywood—or what to do with their scripts after they’re written.  In Writing for the Green Light I try not only to answer these questions, but also several other obstacles that are much easier to navigate than most sources would have novice writers believe.

Anna Kemp: Regarding what to do after a script is written, my screenwriting courses focused a great deal on query letters. But that was over a decade ago. Are these still important and if so, what should be the highlight of the query letter?

Scott Kirkpatrick: There always has been and will be value in reaching out to Hollywood producers and creative executives to showcase what you can bring to the table.  However, what I outline in the book is that most novices approach query letters and pitch meetings in the wrong way. A query is much more about what you can offer a company, not just how great your scripts are.  So the content of your message should be much less about the subject matter of your scripts and more about your ability to deliver well written scripts on demand, write commercially viable scripts that help a production company with their bottom line, and lastly that you can work fast, cheap and meet deadlines when needed.  A query letter should be more of a cover letter asking for a job—of being a writer they can commission when needed, rather than just a blind request for someone to read your work.  You should be pitching yourself and your overall talent as much, if not more than, your work.  That’s the kind of approach that lands you a returned phone call or email and is your best way to wedge your foot in the door and land a pitch meeting.

Anna Kemp: What’s the worst thing a writer can do in a pitch meeting?

Scott Kirkpatrick: Have an attitude of self-entitlement. No one is questioning the importance of a quality script, otherwise there would be no pitch meeting to be had.  However, if a writer enters the room hell-bent on sticking to their own guns and dismissing the ideas or suggestions from the creative executives on the other side, they will not see their work or their careers progress much further.  If you want to be successful, and see your work produced, then listen to the ideas and suggestions of those interested in working with you.

Anna Kemp: Have you been in many meetings where the writer refuses with ideas or changes that are being suggested? If so, can a writer recover from that?

Scott Kirkpatrick: Yes, and when a writer shuts out the ideas of others—especially those who are trying to employ him or her, the meeting usually doesn’t last long and there is rarely a follow-up.  It’s important to remember that a writer’s talent and work is what secured them with a pitch meeting. Creative executives and producers saw something in they’re work that made that writer stand out. But that’s only the first step.  If that writer refuses to meet those execs and producers half way or hear out their ideas and incorporate them wherever possible, then there is no working relationship that can exist. Don’t make the mistake of thinking a writer cannot or should not stand up for their work, or politely reject an idea that doesn’t work for the story. However do not act in a stubborn, closed-minded or entitled manner and simply dismiss all ideas that are presented.  Remember, no script is ever truly complete until the film is finished—and the real challenge for a writer is balancing all those ideas.  Can a writer recover after a bad pitch meeting?  Probably not with that immediate team of producers. Keep an open mind, be tactful, and understand that you will have to hear out ideas you never expected. You might even have a ‘why didn’t I think of that’ moment.  And remember, you wouldn’t be in the room if you weren’t talented as hell!

Anna Kemp: I would imagine word travels fast too. It must be highly important for a writer to establish themselves not only as a talent, but also possessing a good attitude and work ethic.

Scott Kirkpatrick: Word always travels fastest on the extreme fringes. If you have a stellar reputation as a writer that can deliver a quality, ready-to-shoot script on time, and write a script that meets budget constraints that is line producer friendly, and you are open to the ideas of others—then yes, word would travel quickly that they’re a good writer to hire and that writer would see ‘repeat business’. Same holds true for the writers holding onto a sense of entitlement, who refuse to listen and make the jobs of those trying to work with them more difficult by doing things like missing deadlines or being critical of suggestions.  Word would travel fast that they’re difficult to work with and cause problems. Their phone calls would drop off quickly.  The old saying is very true:  Los Angeles is a big city, but Hollywood is a small town.  Remember, production executives and producers are very busy people. They want to hire someone who can simply do the job they need completed.  And if a writer puts up a fuss or places entitlement about the opportunity, then there is plenty of competition that will jump at that opportunity if you do not.

Anna Kemp: In Writing for the Green Light, you stress the importance of a confident attitude to sell yourself in situations like pitch meeting. But can confidence be easily taught?

Scott Kirkpatrick: Confidence is vital if you’re going to convince another party to review your work and take you as a writer seriously.  Some people are born naturally confident. Good for them.  Most of us, myself included, must learn how to ‘fake it’.  Many simply wish their work will speak for itself, but there is so much competition already out there that you, as a writer, need to be able to pitch your work and yourself in a way that gets you noticed.  A great example would be for writers to take improv classes.  These are fun and allow you to be in a room with artistically minded actors who will be open to helping you and can offer you valuable insight as to how actors view and perceive scripts.  A writer will quickly realize that the same rules and principles that govern improv are extremely valuable when pitching your work and conducting yourself in a professional pitch meeting.  Even if you are self-conscious as hell, unsure of yourself or your talent—that’s all very normal!  No writer or artist is ever totally confident in themselves or their work. All I’m suggesting is you fake it to get your foot in the door.

Anna Kemp: That’s great advice. I’ve gotten to know a lot of actors and have gleaned insight on what they look for in good characters. How important is it for writers to learn other aspects of the industry, both on the creative and business ends?

Scott Kirkpatrick: It’s extremely important. In fact, writers should make a conscious effort to make friends with professionals who have nothing to do with writing.  It’s very common for writers to hang with other writers and talk about writing issues. Same is true to hopeful actors and hopeful directors.  The problem is they never meet with anyone who has the opportunity to take them out of that turn-sty and give them insight from ‘the other side’ of their same industry.

Anna Kemp: That would include distributors?

Scott Kirkpatrick: Writer’s should make an effort to learn as much about all other components of the business.  Not just from other writers, but also not just directors, editors and actors either. It’s important to learn that the process of greenlighting, shooting, and completing a film is a very limited window in the lifespan of a film.  Take time to truly understand all the different places that film can be placed, why and how it gets from Point A to Point B.  And whenever possible, try to meet people who work in that world, like distributors, sales agents, producer’s reps, marketing teams, etc. These are jobs that help studios and production companies make money. Writers, directors, actors and editors cost studios and companies money.  It’s very important to learn how these individuals think, what their opinions are when compared to your own, how they discuss story, character, etc.  These are the ones who know how films get financed, produced and greenlit.  Although you do not need to be fluent in their language or be completely on the same level with their opinions, these are the people you will eventually have to persuade to take you and your work seriously.

Anna Kemp: Along with understanding all aspects of the business, a writer should also learn about how to negotiate and navigate through the system without an agent or lawyer. However, most new writers believe that having an agent establishes legitimacy. How important is representation?

Scott Kirkpatrick: It’s a common misconception that a writer needs to get an agent as their first professional move. In reality, for a newbie writer with zero credits, signing with an agent too early can actually delay their progress.  Agents make money brokering deals that come to them, not by going out and finding you work.  You will still have to hustle and promote yourself regardless… And agents have dozens of clients.  Their attention will be only on those that are earning them money. A few might help get your career moving forward for a while, but if your scripts aren’t selling, just watch how quickly your phone calls and emails asking about status stop getting returned.  If you’re pushing and promoting your own talents, securing your own deals, then you are entitled to 100% of your earnings. Later in your career, when negotiating a new writing contract is interfering with meeting deadlines on a commissioned writing job, that is the time frame of when you should seek an agent—and since you’ll be a ‘selling’ screenwriter, that 10% cut you can offer will make agents come after you. Which is how the process should be.  Don’t put the cart before the horse. Focus on yourself and your career and worry about an agent later on.

Anna Kemp: Does Writing for the Green Light teach how to negotiate without agents and lawyers?

Scott Kirkpatrick: Yes.  In fact, I breakdown the two most common types of agreements a novice writer might receive: a ‘purchase’ agreement and an ‘option’ agreement. I explain both in simple, understandable terms.  Additionally, there is a lot of text from a few chapters that explains the pros-and-cons of both and what a novice writer should expect.  Given this question, a writer should never feel they ‘need an agent’ to be successful. An agent is only a tool. They should come later in your career.  A lawyer, on the other hand, can be a useful tool whenever their services are needed.  If a writer is uncomfortable negotiating a contract on their own, it’s perfectly okay to hire the one-time services of a lawyer to help out.

Anna Kemp: Along with the business of screenwriting, your book offers other viable information. One of my favorite topics describes how to kill your chances with a spec reader. Why was this important for you to include?

Scott Kirkpatrick: Think about the role of a spec reader for a moment. They are usually working for free and for most, this is their first professional job.  They are given stacks of scripts to read. Day after day, page after page, they come across several trends that start to annoy the hell out of them.  Factor in that they are human and get bored, tired or might have just been dumped by their boyfriend or girlfriend. And they’re a tough crowd.  Besides, you have no control as to whether they’ll pick up your script first (when their either fresh from a good night’s sleep, or exhausted from a night of partying) or last (when they’re tired of reading in general and hate your script before they’ve opened it).  Don’t get discouraged though. Reader’s are looking for that great script from a talented writer… it’s just that most develop a tendency to judge a script too quickly for superficial things.  What can a newbie writer do?  They can take back control by fixing the most likely things that normally piss off a reader.  I outline the top ten in Writing for the Green Light, they range from having too many characters, jumbling a story’s narrative events, down to things like grammatical errors.  The most important component here is that ALL of these are well within the control of a writer to fix ahead of time.

Anna Kemp: How vital is a solid spec script to a writer’s success?

Scott Kirkpatrick:  A writer’s spec scripts are simply tools, examples of what they can bring to the table.  But the goal every writer should have is using these samples, coupled with their own drive, to get a production company to commission their talents and kick-start a full-blown writing career and not to complete a single sale of a script.

Scott wants to remind writers and filmmakers that, “Hollywood is never going to call you. You have to sound the alarm that you have what they need.” Writing for the Green Light teaches you how to plan and develop your writing career in a strategic manner.

“Artistically-minded people are incredibly motivated. I hope the information that I spell out it helps many cross that bridge to screenwriting success—or at minimum gets them thinking about their careers in a more strategic way. It’s all about using Hollywood’s unwritten rules to your advantage.”

It’s integral for new writers to understand these rules, create a strategy, develop a game plan, and realized that “luck has nothing to do with you succeeding at screenwriting.”

Grab your copy of Writing For The Green Light.

Three Reasons to Be Your Own Screenwriting Agent

The ongoing myth that you ‘need an Agent’ to get your screenplay seen by Hollywood’s gatekeepers continues to hold back countless writers from gaining real traction with their careers.

Does this mean a screenwriting agent serves no purpose?  Or that you won’t someday work with one?  Or that agents are only out to screw you over?  Of course not!

screenwriting agent

Three Reasons to Be Your Own Screenwriting Agent

Agents are extremely valuable figures in the Hollywood landscape. But signing with one fresh out of the gate, before you secured your first solo screenwriting deal, might actually do more harm than good.

1. Screenwriting Agents Are In Business for Themselves, NOT You!

Agents make money by brokering deals, not by finding new writers and promoting their scripts. Just because an Agent signs your script (or you as a writer) doesn’t mean they have any obligation whatsoever to broker a deal on your behalf.

Most screenwriting agents are not looking for talented writers. They are looking to keep talented writers from slipping through their fingers and getting gobbled up by their competitors! Additionally, they want to keep an overabundance of available ‘properties’ (scripts) to meet requests from Production Companies.

This means a typical screenwriting agent will take on more scripts and writers than they know they can adequately broker deals for. Obviously this is good for a screenwriting agent. But it is bad for you.

Don’t get me wrong. There are certainly stellar agents out there. A good screenwriting agent will work with you—for a period of time—to get your portfolio into strong shape. But if your work doesn’t sell soon after, all the attention and accommodation will fade away and get focused elsewhere, even though your contract still has several more years prior to expiration.

2. Everything a Screenwriting Agent Can Do, YOU Can Do Better!

But don’t you need an Agent in order to sell that first script or commission your writing talents?

Nope!  In fact, I would argue that when starting out, it’s much easier for you to get your work in front of Hollywood decision makers and close a deal without a screenwriting agent. And while agents do negotiate deal terms for agreements between writers and production companies, there’s no reason you cannot bypass this process and simply negotiate on your own behalf.

Negotiating a deal is really about finding common ground.  If you’ve presented your scripts (or your ability to write) to a Production Company and they want to work with you on an upcoming project, then there’s plenty of common ground for the two of you to build a deal from.

That Production Company will send you an offer. You agree to the points you like and ask questions or draw attention to the points you don’t like.  And if you’re confused about terminology or meaning, you can always consult my favorite reference: Google.

If you’re really uneasy about negotiating a contract on your own behalf, remember that you can always commission the one-time services of an entertainment attorney. Yes, you will have to pay them, but you’d have to pay your agent regardless.  And a Lawyer will be much more accommodating to your direct needs since you’re the one hiring them.

This means you’re the one dictating the rules. Once the current deal is fully negotiated, your obligation to the Lawyer would be over. With an agent, the term can go on for several more years.

3. Agents Won’t Help You Hustle Your Work

One other major misconception newbie writers have about agents is that the moment they sign on the dotted line, that this ‘suit’ will somehow take over all the hard work and be out their pitching and promoting their work… But this is yet another myth!

Whether you have an agent or not, you will have to be the one out pitching your work, making blind phone calls to get production companies to take notice, in a constant hustle for an opportunity. However, once you’ve got a solid lead and someone likes your script, rather than following up all on your own (which makes the most sense), you now have to introduce whomever you’ve been dealing with to your agent—and once that intro takes place, you have little control over how your agent will handle it.

Since agents are out for themselves, that balance of ‘common ground’ outlined in point 2 gets shifted. Now the deal is no longer just about the production company and the writer. It’s also now the agent wedging themselves in for a 10% cut.

I’ve seen positive conversations between writers and producers turn sour (and good writers lose jobs) from the overly aggressive tactics of eager-beaver agents. Again, having a screenwriting agent can be a great thing, but tread carefully when choosing. Don’t sign with one prematurely.

As I explain in my book, Writing for the Green Light, you cannot view an agent as some sort of “career messiah” who will make all your dreams come to life after entering a deal with them. You must only think of a screenwriting agent as someone who assists you in managing your workload. An agent is not the gatekeeper to your screenwriting success.

Quit Waiting for the Phone to Ring!

Once you’re out securing your own jobs, building a stellar reputation as a writer who can deliver, agents will be coming to you.. But until then, you will have to be the one creating your own opportunities for work. No one will do that for you. Signing with an agent will not put you ahead or increase your odds of getting screenwriting work.

So when is a good time to get an Agent?  Later in your career. After you’ve closed a few deals on your own, either by selling your own scripts or successfully commissioning your writing talents.

A good rule of thumb would be to seek out an agent only when the time you spend negotiating your new writing gigs starts to interfere with your ability to meet current professional writing deadlines.

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Scott Kirkpatrick is the author of Writing for the Green Light: How to Make Your Script the One Hollywood Notices and is the Executive 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.

Top 10 Screenplay Contests

We took a poll of several Hollywood executives to get their perspective on the best screenplay contests for discovering new writers. Below is a list of contests that were mentioned.

screenplay contests

Photo © olly / Dollar Photo Club

Top 10 Screenplay Contests

In no particular order, here are the best screenplay contests and events based on our recent talks with film and television executives, managers and agents.

1. Nicholl Fellowship – In terms of the best screenplay contests, the Nicholl Fellowship is probably the most famous competitions for screenwriting. The Nicholl is consequently one of the hardest to win. Over $35,000 worth of prizes are given each year.

Last year the Nicholl received over seven thousand entries!

A Sony Executive who wished to remain anonymous said, “The Nicholl is a real star maker. It’s still the contest we all turn to, demand coverage for, and track. If you win the Nicholl people will know your name.”

Submissions usually run from May through August with winners announced in November.

2. ScreenCraft – Last year all three of ScreenCraft’s Fellowship winners got representation from managers and agents, and this year so did both the ScreenCraft Comedy winners. ScreenCraft’s writers have sold projects to top production companies.

Jeff Portnoy, of Heretic Literary Management (and formerly Resolution Agency) had this to say: “ScreenCraft has, for me and many like me, become a dependable and invaluable resource for discovering talented screenwriters – It’s one of the best resources for writers who want to expose their work to the entertainment industry. I couldn’t recommend it more.”

Jen Grisanti, a television executive and acclaimed Story Consultant had this to say:

“I love collaborating with ScreenCraft because of their genuine passion to find new voices. I admire their commitment to the creative process by having programs like their Fellowship that offers an extended mentorship to writers and guides them toward making their dream a reality.”

ScreenCraft has several genre-specific screenplay contests as well as the annual ScreenCraft Fellowship (Applications due by December 15th) and the Family Friendly contest ends on December 30th.

3. The Black List Website – While not exactly fitting the category of screenplay contests, the Black List has been around for ten years. But the website is fairly new. Founder Franklin Leonard sought to create a web forum where industry execs, agents, and managers could log on to view scripts that had been vetted by top readers. Writers from the site have signed with every major agency. CAA, WME, Paradigm, Verve, APA, UTA. The site hit the ground running in 2012 and quickly built a devoted fan base among managers and agents with many writers gaining management along the way.

Adrian Garcia, a literary agent at Paradigm Talent Agency says, “the Black List makes it easy to make my weekend read each week with the selection for Feature and TV scripts.”

4. Story Expo – STORY EXPO 2015 is the world’s biggest convention of writers from all mediums – screenwriters, TV writers, novelists, filmmakers, gamers, journalists, graphic novelists, actors, business people, comic book writers and more. Featuring over 110 world-renowned speakers, 100+ classes and 30+ exhibitors, Story Expo covers all aspects of story and writing – from craft to business to pitching to career.

Spike Scarberry, an executive at Bad Hat Harry said, “Story Expo is easily my favorite pitchfest of the year. The people who run the event are great, extremely helpful and nice. I feel like it’s flown a little under the radar the past couple years but I don’t think it will be that way for long.”

The next Story Expo will be in September of 2015 – will you be there?

5. The Virtual Pitchfest – Membership is simple. Once you purchase a package, you can submit your query letter to different Industry Pros or you can submit multiple letters in any way that suits your needs. You are guaranteed a response and comments back from our Industry Pros within 5 days of your submissions!

Scott Stoops, a coordinator at Benderspink said, “One of my favorite services is VIRTUAL PITCH FEST, which allows users to submit pitches online to creative professionals in the community – reps, producers, etc. I find it really helpful because it keeps things short, sweet and manageable, and it is a great way to connect with filmmakers at any time. Honestly, when I do Skype pitch fests or other events, I tell writers to get on VPF a lot because it’s a way they can get in touch with me, pitch something, and then follow up, send me more material, etc. It’s been really great so far and I’ve found some great talent from it.”

6. Final Draft Big Break – The Big Break contest takes both television pilots and feature films scripts, awarding eleven prizes across different genres. Winners are flown to Los Angeles for industry meetings and an awards dinner. One Feature Grand Prize and one TV Grand Prize winner will be chosen from the 11 Feature Genre and TV Format award winners.

These two Grand Prize Award Winners are flown to Hollywood for the Final Draft Annual Awards Event where we honor the Big Break winners along with recipients of The Screenwriters Choice Awards and The Hall of Fame Award. They give out $15,000, an iPad, among other great prizes.

An anonymous executive at Fox says “Big Break is a contest designed for finding what kinds of scripts you want because they separate scripts into genre categories and you don’t have to waste your time sifting through ideas you’d never develop.”

Big Break runs in July and it is highly competitive.

7. Script Pipeline – In terms of winner pedigree Script Pipeline has a long list of winners who have gone on to do great things including series at Fox, SyFy, and feature film development deals. Their famous winners is Evan Daughtery, writer of Snow White and the Huntsman, won the 2008 Script Pipeline contest and it helped him gain agents and managers and eventually sell Snow White for $3.2 million. They offer television as well as feature contests and a student section that has become popular.

You’ll have to get your script together fast because the Pipeline feature deadline is December 31st 2014. But their other contests like the Great Idea, Student, and Television contests are open into the New Year.

8. The Great American Pitchfest – The Great American Screenwriting Conference & PitchFest is a two day conference, and one day pitchfest.  GAPF was created by writers, for writers.  If you need an agent or manager, are looking to option your material, or would like to be hired for writing assignments, you will find the connections you need for your career to move forward.

This one is one of the largest pitchfests in the country. Though many of the people who responded to the poll showed their disapproval of pitchfests but this one in particular was seen as one of the good ones though one unnamed exec said she was not happy with the fest “sharing email addresses and other information with the pitchers.”

This generally sells out, even with its high prices, and writers are encouraged to get their passes before April 1st of the new year. The competition takes place in June.

9. Scriptapalooza – Past winners have won Emmys, been signed by agents, managers, had their scripts optioned, and even made into movies. Scriptapalooza will promote, pitch, and push the Semifinalists and higher for a full year.

One Agent, who chooses to remain nameless, wasn’t a fan of their “1990’s style website,” but did think “they pull exciting scripts and have a good feedback team.”

The first deadline for this year’s contest is January 6th with the final deadline being April 29th 2015.

10. Austin Film Festival – One of the most fun and screenplay-driven festivals, Austin wears its heart on its sleeve when it comes to celebrating scripts. With panels headlines by John August, Richard Kelly, Cris Carter, Rob Thomas, Frank Daranbont, Shane Black, and other writer celebs, this has quickly become one of the best places to get your voice heard.

This years ScreenCraft Comedy Contest winner Jared Frieder also won the Austin contest. Jared “Loved Austin’s environment and being at a screenplay driven festival.”

This year’s deadline is April 30th.

So that’s our round-up of the best contests according to recent phone calls and emails with Hollywood executives. There are many more that have notable success stories. And there are many contests that don’t merit mentioning. What’s your favorite screenwriting contest or resource for aspiring writers?

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Jason Hellerman is a screenwriter making impressive inroads in the entertainment industry. Shortly after coming out to Los Angeles after graduating from Boston University, his script “Shovel Buddies” was voted onto the 2013 Black List by Hollywood industry insiders. He has worked for top producers and entertainment industry stars including producer Michael Costigan and actor Jonah Hill. You can follow him on Twitter at @JasonHellerman.

Should Screenwriters Stick With Movie Formula?

While in high school, I taught myself how to write a screenplay. It looked more like Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet with a few slugs thrown in on the page rather than an actual screenplay. Fortunately this was enough to garner acceptance into film school.

When I finally had the chance to write a full feature length real-deal-legit screenplay, I had to knock the socks off of my professor. So I ignored any sense of constraining movie formula and I simply wrote. After turning in my work, I spent the next days imagining he would finish reading my pages of courier 12, take off his glasses and exclaim:

“This girl is about to change the film world!”

Of course, this didn’t happen. Not even close. When my first draft was handed back to me, it was littered with spelling corrections and comments like “where is this going?

I wrote a romantic comedy.

And the typical movie formula got the story moving: girl meets boy, girl loses boy, girl gets boy. But it continued from there. I crammed those key beats that compose entire 120 page scripts into the first 50 pages and stumbled down a somewhat romantic rabbit trail of girl meets new boy, girl loses boy 1, girl gets boy 2, girl loses boy 2, girl gets back with boy 1.

Yes. This plot could work. But not for screenwriting 101.

No matter how much ambition, textbook education, Nora Ephron binge-watching weekends, or decades of subscriptions to Entertainment Weekly – First time screenwriters should NOT try to stretch the boundaries of movie formula.

Quite the opposite is true.

Movie Formula

Photo © Sergey Nivens / Dollar Photo Club

Just Stick With Movie Formula

Movie formula writing should be embraced, particularly for new writers. And don’t get me wrong. I’m not much a fan of big, blockbuster commercial films. I’ve always leaned toward films that are a little quirky and awkward. “Ugh, you always get these weird Miramax movies,” was my mom’s typical reaction to my movie rentals growing up.

I’m not bashing tentpoles and popular fair either. But my tendency toward “weird Miramax movies” influenced me to push the limits of formula. Which was a terrible idea. And despite my professor’s blatant consternation toward my story-telling, I tried again and again to alter what I considered to be the confines and constraints of formula.

Five years later, I now realize that my professor wasn’t trying to stifle creativity or close outside-the-box thinking. He wanted his students to master the craft. Learn the rules before you break them.

Years after struggling to tighten my floundering screenplays, I made the decision to remove the self-inflicted pain and pressure that resulted from abandoning movie formula to instead have fun writing within format and genre. Guess what happened?

I wrote a script in less than two months. And it was tight. It had the obvious beats. It was enjoyable to write and I received positive response from industry types.

This is in sharp contrast to spending up to four months working on a story that meandered, was challenging to write, and frankly, was sometimes embarrassing to ask people to read.

I thought I was alone in my realization. However, I recently came across an article in Creative Screenwriter Magazine. Turns out a lot of writers, if not most, want to be original and resist the cookie-cutter story. And to a point, we should.

In his article “Formulaic is Good!”, Dennis MacGee Fallon interviews Michael Hauge, a major motion picture coach, consultant, and author of Writing Screenplays That Sell. In this short article, Hauge reasons why:

The film industry is first and foremost a business. People who invest in films want a return. Give them something that has a proven track record and you’re more likely to sell a script.” Adding “Once we have accepted this rule (willingly or begrudgingly), it does not mean we have sold out! There are still opportunities to get a little crazy.

Understandably, for most new screenwriters, writing to a movie formula creates fear of being boring and predictable.

We think writing with movie formula in mind sets us up for those fears to be actualized, right? After all, by definition formula is a template of how to tell your story; a design constructed from repeatedly told plot lines. No one wants to hear “I’ve seen this a thousand times!

But from personal experience, I’ve created my some of best characters when adhering to a formula from fear of hearing those very words. And I would advise you to experiment with movie formula too.

Do you have a story… Or just a movie premise?

Do you have a story… Or just a movie premise? by Jurgen Wolff

If you’re a screenwriter you’ll have a lot of people excitedly tell you that they have a great story for a screenplay.

If you’re foolish enough to ask them what it is (or unable to get away from them before they force it on you), often you’ll find they have a movie premise, not a story.

Unfortunately, even screenwriters themselves often get so excited about a premise that they pitch it, not fully aware that they don’t have a story, either.

What’s a movie premise?

A movie premise is the basis of a story, the core idea behind it. Often it arrives in the form of a “what if?” like these:

  • What if a guy travels back in time and falls in love and has to choose between staying back there or returning to his family in the present?
  • What if a soldier sees his best friend being captured by the enemy and realizes the only way to save the rest of the platoon is by shooting him?
  • What if an rock band re-forms and goes on tour across the country only to find that their old rivalries are just as strong as they were 40 years ago?

All three of these are incomplete. If you pitched these to a producer, he or she might say, “Hmm, interesting. What happens?” The “what happens” is the rest of the story.

movie premise

What’s a story?

A story is the telling of a sequence of events and has a beginning, middle, and end. That may sound obvious but that doesn’t mean every film has those.  Scriptmag.com featured an interview with Diane O’Bannon, widow of Dan O’Bannon (who co-wrote Alien and Total Recall) and Matt Lohr, who completed a book Dan started (he wrote about 75% of it before he died).  It’s called Dan O’Bannon’s Guide to Screenplay Structure.

Diane said, The thing that’s surprising is people often don’t get what a story is. How about Prometheus? Prometheus is a fabulous film, it’s visually stunning, but it’s not a story. It wanders. At no point do you feel like you know who to watch next.

Ridley Scott is a fantastic filmmaker, but he didn’t think it was important not to frustrate and anger a lot of viewers. Or he didn’t notice that he didn’t have a story that went from A to B, that brought you up, that brought you down, and completed itself!”

Matt Lohr added, “A string of incidents is not a story, even if they involve the same characters. Prometheus is a string of incidents.”

The importance of cause and effect

What’s the difference between a string of incidents and a story? Largely it’s cause

and effect. Each major incident in a story should have an effect on the characters and what they do, although it may not be immediate. In fact, often it’s more interesting if it’s not immediate because it allows us to speculate what the consequence will be.

If you provide a mixture of what we expect and what we don’t, you create a satisfying experience.!

Let’s take the example of the old band members going on the road. If they just have funny or interesting unconnected adventures in half a dozen locations as they go we have a string of incidents. They may be amusing but they don’t comprise a story. It will feel more like a series of sketches than a coherent narrative.

However, if each of their adventures somehow has an impact on how they behave in

the next situation and ideally also affects their ultimate goal and perhaps leads to a change in them, then we have a story. A good example of a road movie that has these elements is Rain Man.

Developing your movie premise

Having a strong movie premise is great, it’s just important to remember it’s only a starting point. It can motivate someone to ask you to tell them more, but you’d better have more to tell them.

The movie premise usually identifies your protagonist. In our example, it’s the guy who goes back in time, the soldier who sees his friend about to be captured, and the band member who decides to organize the reunion (this one will be an ensemble piece but it’s still better to have one character who is at the center of all the action).

Often the movie premise also identifies the central dilemma. The guy who has gone back in time has to decide whether or not to return to the present, the soldier has to decide whether or not to shoot his buddy. With the band, it’s kind of implied that they’ll have to decide whether or not to complete their tour even though they still can’t stand each other.

A dilemma isn’t very visual

Those are three interesting dilemmas, but the problem is that decisions don’t make good movie material. In a novel you can go inside the character’s head and explore all of his or her emotions, in a movie you have to show something happening.

In the case of the time traveler, so far the conflict is all in his head. He thinks, “Should I stay or should I go?” Not cinematic. The same with the soldier—it would be a very tense 30 seconds during which he has to shoot or not to shoot, but we have 120 minutes to fill.

We know the old band members had conflicts in the old days that resurface so at least we know we’ll have something to work with, but in all three cases we’d need to check whether they really have the ingredients of a strong story: character, conflict, and resolution (perhaps including transformation).

Moving from movie premise to story

One way to find out whether your movie premise is the good foundation for a story is to take it to the next step and examine the opposing forces or situations in terms of conflict you can show on screen, and what happens before and/or after the big moment.

With the time traveler, what’s his life like in the present, what’s his life like in the past, and why do we care which decision he makes? If one situation is bad and the other is good, there’s really not much conflict.

If both are good or both are bad, there’s not much conflict, either—whichever way he decides, he’ll be happy or unhappy.

To make the story interesting, we need a real conflict. For instance, maybe he’s happy in the present but something terrible happens to someone he loves; only by going into the past and trying to change something can he try to stop this terrible thing, but he has only 48 hours before the time loop (or whatever) closes.

If he runs out of time he will be stuck in the past forever and the terrible thing will still happen in the present. If it’s a Hollywood movie, he’ll make it just in time.

The soldier either shoots his friend or doesn’t. If he shoots and it saves his platoon, he feels terrible about shooting his friend, but then what? Maybe it burdens him so much that he takes more and more chances until he is killed himself. Sounds like a foreign film. The conflict is internal but in the context of a war the enemy can represent the part of himself that thinks he deserves to die.

The premise about the rock band could turn into the story of a bunch of guys who get a second chance to grow up, something they never managed to do the first time around or since.

That hints at some interesting character transformation and probably some good comedy. Even so, to sharpen the conflicts it would be useful to have somebody—maybe one of the members of the group—who has a reason for not wanting the tour to succeed and tries to sabotage it.

Sometimes an exciting movie premise leads to an equally exciting story, sometimes not. As long as you know the difference and what it takes to turn one into the other, you have a great chance of coming up with a story and script that sells.