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: 5 Tips For New Screenwriters

Screenwriting is a tricky art. Long before I started producing my own movies, I worked for a development company. Part of my job was reading screenplays.

screenplay writing

Jason Brubaker Writes

At first, I thought reading screenplays was an AWESOME job.

I have to admit. I felt pretty cool leaving the NYC office each night with three to five screenplays in my bag. On the subway, I would pull out a screenplay and start reading.

My goal was to find material that would eventually become the next Sundance award winner. I lived to find something awesome. Something that would garner me a promotion and clout with the producer. Something great!

But what I read was terribly disheartening.

I read hundreds of screenplays. Some were from new screenwriters. Some were from veteran screenwriters. Some were from screenwriters who (I could only imagine) didn’t know English.

And without fail, what I found was a bunch of discombobulated stories with weak plots and unrefined characters.

I felt sick.

Most of submitted screenwriting was garbage.

(I really wish I was kidding here.)

I’m not trying to sound all high and mighty either.

I tried. I really did!

At first, I read EVERY screenplay, cover to cover. I wanted to give the writer the benefit. They worked hard. So I kept reading. I was convinced that the bad story I presently read would improve. I just needed to keep going. . . I just needed to keep reading.

But I was wrong…

The stories never improved.

After some weeks of reading CRAP screenplays, I just couldn’t do it anymore.

I started slacking. And worse, I really didn’t care.

If the screenplay didn’t grab me in the first 10 to 15 pages, I quickly thumbed through the rest of the script.

After that, my next task was to complete coverage reports for the producer. The goal of a coverage report is to either recommend or pass on the screenplay. Most of the screenplay coverage reports I wrote ended up being some variation on the following:

This writer shows some promise. But this screenplay lacks the necessary plot and character arc to grab interest. The characters all sound similar. Additionally, this story requires expensive sets, locations, seasonal conditions, animals and children. As a consequence, this screenplay necessitates a complete rewrite in order to proceed. My recommendation is to PASS at this time.

I don’t know if this sounds harsh or not. But it is a screenwriting reality.

Most producers will never read any unknown screenplay. Instead, most producers will have an assistant to do the horrible job of reading awful screenplays from terrible screenwriters.

The assistant protects the producer from reading crap screenplays.

And speaking as a former assistant, I can honestly say that many screenwriters should avoid submitting unrefined work in the first place.

But this rarely happens.

Screenwriting Is The Heavy Lifting

All of this being said, you know that great screenwriting is essential for a great movie.

There is no way around this. It is the law of narrative filmmaking.

Your screenplay is the blueprint for your movie.

And if you are a talented up-and-coming filmmaker, you probably noticed this.

The truth is, many produced movies are far from great.

Have you ever asked this question?

…How did THAT movie ever get made?

Good screenwriting question.

Somehow bad screenplays STILL get made.

And  I think there is a reason crappy screenplays get made into crappy movies.

There really is no ONE answer.

And not to digress too far, but here is my theory on how mediocre writing becomes successful screenwriting:

Fact: Most screenplays are complete crap.

Opportunity: If your screenplay is even marginally better, It will SEEM like it’s TONS better than it actually is.

(Reread that again if you need to.)

So based on this premise, the unknown assistant RUNS to the producer to share his great fortune.

“I found screenwriting GOLD. Let’s make a movie!!!”

But the reality is, the screenplay is not gold.

The screenplay is good, but it is not great.

But compared to crap, it seems AWESOME.

This is because years of reading crappy screenplays have knocked the standards pretty low.

And regardless, the bottom line is this… You probably think you can do better.

The good news is, you’re probably right!

During my time reading screenplays, I was able to see first-hand how much garbage is floating around. If you have ANY talent as a writer, your material may get noticed.

This should be good news for the screenwriting profession!

Here is a quick video on screenwriting. It may help you:

Big obvious lesson here?

Write or acquire a GREAT screenplay!

Screenwriting for Filmmakers

I am assuming you want to actually write or acquire a screenplay so you can make your movie. So I am NOT going to provide too much advice on how to “sell” your screenplay.

That being said, whether you plan on producing your own material or selling it, there are still a few factors applicable to your end-goal. The first thing you have to do is get your hands on a great script. If you’re the writer-director type of filmmaker, then starting with a blank screen may feel intimating.

If this is difficult for you, you might consider finding a writing partner and then sharing a story credit.

Or you will just have to sit there until the ideas fill the screen.

To help you out, here is the down and dirty screenwriting lesson for today:

Screenwriting: 5 Tips For New Screenwriters

1.   Get some screenplay software. Final Draft and Movie Magic Screenwriter are the industry standard. Or you could do a Google search for “free screenwriting software.”

2.   Once you have the software, consider writing a feature script on the cheap. Think in terms of limited locations, with limited actors, with a short schedule that you can eventually shoot with limited equipment on HDSLR.

3.   Consider making your story edgy. Drama is hard to market. Horror and thriller and action is universal.

4.  The story should be fun with a STRONG, marketable CONCEPT. People should remember your idea.

5.   The name of the game is FUN. If you can’t have fun, you’re doing something wrong.

Putting the final polish on a screenplay is an amazing accomplishment. But just make sure you’ve created your best work. As they say, you only get one chance to make a good first impression – That same thinking applies to screenwriting.

screenwriting_guideYou only get one chance to grab the attention of a potential actor or department head who may or may not decide to help you with your project. You might get some benefit from this screenwriting resource (It’s my own) – The Indie Producer’s Guide To Writing Screenplays That Sell

 

Screenwriting With Jim Makichuk

As a screenwriter, your goal is to get your writing made into movies. So you write and write and write. And through perseverance you get an agent and eventually get your story sold and produced. With a little more luck and hard work, you make a living doing what you love.

If you want to see your writing translated onto the big screen, you will love the following screenwriting tips from Jim Makichuk. With a screenwriting career spanning over 30 years, his advice is no-fluff and useful.

Jim Makichuk took some time to stop by Filmmaking Stuff to share tips and also tell you about his latest book, titled The Working Writer’s Screenplay.

Jason Brubaker
Hi Jim. Thanks for stopping by Filmmaking Stuff to share tips on screenwriting. Before we get too far into our conversation, could you tell our readers a little more about your background?

Jim Makichuk
Sure. I am a writer and director living in Los Angeles.

Jason Brubaker
What did you do before you got started in the industry?

Jim Makichuk
I was raised in Canada and worked in TV news, documentaries, commercials and was a newswriter, cameraman and producer/director before I wrote and directed my first feature Ghostkeeper in 1980.

Jason Brubaker
What led you to writing your first script?

Jim Makichuk
Back then, I really didn’t have access to many screenwriting books. I learned how to write screenplays by getting produced screenplaysand reading and writing over them.

Jason Brubaker
And eventually that led to actual work.

Jim Makichuk
So far, I have 19 feature-length movies behind me and 30 hours of episodic TV. Currently I have optioned a screenplay to a French company in Paris and am working on making a sequel to Ghostkeeper.

Jason Brubaker
Given your experience, perhaps you can answer a question. I get a lot of emails from screenwriters who never finish a script. Why do you think that is?

Jim Makichuk
Well, that’s an odd question. I really don’t know many writers who haven’t finished their script, I have 40 specs on my shelf.

Jason Brubaker
Well, many of the people asking that type of question are beginners.

Jim Makichuk
Having taught ULCA extension classes in screenwriting, I found the biggest problem for beginners was that they didn’t have a good idea in the first place.

Jason Brubaker
If there was a trend, I’d say most get stuck in the second act and never finish. Any tips for second-act slowdown?

Jim Makichuk
They haven’t written enough subplots. Subplots carry the second act of any film or TV show. The first act provides intros for everyone and the third act resolves it.

Jason Brubaker
But you’re saying the second act needs subplots.

Jim Makichuk
The second act needs subplots to make it through. This isn’t advice, it’s reality.

Jason Brubaker
How much research do you put into your stories?

Jim Makichuk
This depends on the project or on how much you already know. I wrote a Christmas story for Hallmark and didn’t really research anything, just the characters, whom I always base on people I know or have seen. My last screenplay is about a heart transplant and I did about 40 pages of research, as well as research on presidents, Amendment 25 and others.

Jason Brubaker
You recently finished a screenwriting book called The Working Writer’s Screenplay where you share your real-world screenwriting experience.

Jim Makichuk
I wrote the book based on my 30-plus years of writing.

Jason Brubaker
A lot of screenwriters do not have your experience. I especially like how your book incorporates how-to screenwriting tips with an actual case study.

Jim Makichuk
Yes. The book was written in three sections. You start with basic screenwriting, beginning with my most recent movie in which I use the actual complete screenplay with marked notes as well as text that adds more detail.

Jason Brubaker
I thought the screenplay notes were interesting.

Jim Makichuk
Also included in the book are chapters on the specifics of movies. For example, I detail how to find real characters, dealing with conflict, dialog and many other important aspects of writing all based on working in the trenches rather than mythical formulas and secrets.

Jason Brubaker
I also liked your tips for breaking into the industry. I get emails all the time from discouraged screenwriters.

Jim Makichuk
The second part of the book deals with the issues of breaking in, hanging on and making it work.

Jason Brubaker
Your book provided actionable tips. Especially when it comes to finding agents and navigating Hollywood.

Jim Makichuk
Finding agents, working with producers and actors, adapting books, rewrites, pitches and finding those golden moments of writing. In total, it is about a life in the movies which you can share and learn from.

Jason Brubaker
What is your best advice for any screenwriers who want to have an awesome career in Hollywood?

Jim Makichuk
If you pick up the basics and have some imagination and curiosity, with a little luck and lots of perseverance, you might make a good writer. And don’t expect miracles and shortcuts and graphs and promises, the only way to write is to write. And write.

– – –
Jim Makichuk was born and raised in Canada and got his first job at a local TV station in Windsor where he worked on a TV news crew in Detroit. After attending a film course which he and a friend failed he moved to Vancouver and produced commercials and documentaries, one of which won numerous international awards and was a finalist in the 1976 Academy Awards. In 1980 he wrote, produced and directed his first feature, Ghostkeeper which had it’s 30th anniversary DVD in 2012. Jim moved to Los Angeles in 1990 and worked on 40 or more screenplays, of which 19 were made as well as 30 hours of episodic.

Currently Jim a screenplay optioned by a Paris company to be made as a French movie and is working on a sequel to Ghostkeeper. And in spite of failing in that course, Jim and his friend were the only two people in their class who went on to careers in film. To grab a copy of Jim Makichuk’s latest screenwriting book, click here.

Jason Faller Makes Movies

I am always impressed by filmmakers who wake up, take action and get their movies made outside of Hollywood, without asking permission. Jason Faller is one such filmmaker.

With his company Arrowstorm Entertainment, he produces, markets and sells his own movies.

Jason Faller stopped by Filmmaking Stuff to share some tips on how to become a successful, entrepreneurial filmmaker.

Filmmaking Stuff
Hi Jason. You’ve been doing some interesting stuff. Can you tell our readers a little more about you?

Jason Faller
My name is Jason Faller, I’ve been producing feature films for about 10 years. I grew up in Eastern Canada in Ottawa, Ontario. That’s the capital of Canada. I went to film school in Utah, and put together a crew and ended up staying.

Filmmaking Stuff
So would you consider yourself more of a producer?

Jason Faller
I do a lot of screenwriting. But more particularly I am a producer. I do a lot more producing than I do writing.

Filmmaking Stuff
What is a history of your company?

Jason Faller
My current company is Arrowstorm Entertainment, which has exclusively produced “genre films”, all of them action films in one way or another.

Filmmaking Stuff
Like what? Horror? Zombies? Kung Fu?

Jason Faller
Fantasy is our most prolific genre, we have focused on fantasy themes for most of our films lately. Medieval fantasy, high fantasy, Earth-hybrid fantasy.

Filmmaking Stuff
How many movies have you made?

Jason Faller
In one way or another I have produced ten films in those ten years. Only two have had theatrical releases, but all except one have been profitable.

Filmmaking Stuff
That’s an amazing track record. What was your release schedule?

Jason Faller
I started out making about one every two years, but every since we started Arrowstorm, I’ve been much more productive. We made two in 2011 (principal photography, anyway), three in 2012, and I expect we’ll do five this year.

Filmmaking Stuff
What is your business model?

Jason Faller
We stick to a small crew, limited to 12-15 crew on set, but professional high quality department heads.

Filmmaking Stuff
You guys also use a lot of VFX too.

Jason Faller
Yeah. VFX is a big part of our success. All our films have VFX. Additionally, star power is good when we can afford it, but we also have found that sometimes star power is “Dragon”, rather than, let’s say, “Steve Zahn.”

Filmmaking Stuff
And how do you decided on which movies get made?

Jason Faller
We tell stories that we are excited about, but which are commercially driven. I like the movie “Pi” (about a mathematician on the verge of unraveling the mathematical essence of the universe, which is fairly unmarketable as a concept) but I also like The Empire Strikes Back.

Filmmaking Stuff
Does potential for return on investment play into this decision?

Jason Faller
I choose to make something inspired by Empire rather than Pi, because then I can make money. I don’t believe that filmmakers have to make commercial failures to be artists. They just need to think about the films they love that are commercially viable as concepts.

Filmmaking Stuff
How do you find investors for your project?

Jason Faller
We raised private equity from local business owners and film enthusiasts. We pay them dividends on their investment, but now all our capital comes from the revenue our past films have generated.

Filmmaking Stuff
This is what I mean about modern moviemaking. You guys really are a mini studio.

Jason Faller
As long as our films continue to be profitable, we can keep making more movies with the profits.

– – –
Here is an example of a Jason Faller Film


– – –

Filmmaking Stuff
What are your distribution strategies?

Jason Faller
We sell to foreign territories through international sales agents at all the major film markets including Cannes, MIPCOM, MIPTV, AFM, and Berlin. Then we sell to the domestic market, mostly TV rights sales.

Filmmaking Stuff
Is there still a market for DVD?

Jason Faller
DVD used to be more than half of our revenue, but these days DVD is dropping off, and it’s more about TV rights. We talk with distributors and sales agents BEFORE greenlighting a concept. This provides us with insight about what they’d like to see us produce. This is based on what buyers are looking for for their channels.

Filmmaking Stuff
What marketing strategies have you used to sell your movies?

Jason Faller
Trailer and Key Art. That’s pretty much it. Our sales agents take it from there in terms of advertising at the markets. Buyers who are looking to license rights can usually make a decision based on the trailer and the key art.

Filmmaking Stuff
So oftentimes, it’s not necessary for them to even watch the movie?

Jason Faller
The actual film is less important in a sense. But having a great film to deliver in the end is what builds reputation, which is also crucial. Crowdfunding is great for raising extra capital for finishing funds in post production. We do some minor social network marketing for that.

Filmmaking Stuff
What about festivals? Is that part of your strategy?

Jason Faller
We don’t do film festivals, for the most part.

Filmmaking Stuff
How have changes in the movie industry affected your business?

Jason Faller
Because DVD is disappearing, hard R rated material isn’t as profitable now. TV doesn’t pay much for trashy horror films or smutty indies. In addition, the decline of DVD worldwide means that the Key Art is becoming less important, because TV buyers need a film that will hold an audience through commercial changes. Having a strong first half of the film is essential for TV, because if the audience makes it through the one-hour commercial break, they will likely finish the film, which is everything to TV…

Filmmaking Stuff
Any closing thoughts?

Jason Faller
Digital cameras, advances in VFX, and crowdfunding have made it a lot easier to make the stories we want to tell, and to make a quality product without huge budgets.

Filmmaking Stuff
Thank you for stopping by.

Jason Faller
Thank you for having me.

Aspiring screenwriter: Go Hollywood or go indie?

Aspiring screenwriter: Go Hollywood or go indie?
By, Screenwriter Jurgen Wolff

Because I’ve written a few books about screenwriting I sometimes get questions from people just starting out on their careers. One query that has started coming up more often recently is whether it’s better to chase the Hollywood dream or get involved with indie films, including ones made for the web.

Well, as Socrates once said, “That depends.”

Hollywood is hard to crack. At any given time, people tend to say it has never been harder, but maybe that’s actually true as far as mainstream feature films are concerned these days. It won’t have escaped your attention that the trend is toward movies with huge budgets. Knowing that a picture is going to cost $200 million or more makes decision makers prefer to go with writers and directors with a track record.

Sometimes they do gamble. For instance, they got a guy who’d never directed live action to direct “John Carter.” The outcome of that one probably set back the cause of risk-taking for a few years. On the other hand, maybe that was offset by the success of “The Artist.”

Of course hiring a name director is no guarantee of success, but it gives the decision makers more of an excuse: “His last three were big hits, how could I know this one wouldn’t be?”

The upside of screenwriting for Hollywood

If you do break into that small circle of (mainly) guys who are tapped to write the big summer action pictures, the financial rewards are considerable. The smaller the pool of A-list writers, the more they get paid. It also gives you power. If you write a couple of hits and want to direct, you’ll get the chance. If you want to make a small picture that nobody think will make any money, if they want you badly enough for a big script assignment, you’ll get that, too.

You will also find entities like HBO and Showtime will be interested in hearing your ideas, if you decide at some point you’d like to do a series.

The downside of Hollywood

The power I referred to lasts only as long as your projects are a success. There can be a lot of reasons for a movie to fail other than a bad script. The first time it happens they’ll cut you some slack. If it happens again, the phone calls will slow down. Three strikes and you’ll wonder if your cell phone is broken.

Also, your power doesn’t extend to having final say on what happens with the script. Even the hot writers get rewritten. How’s your tolerance for seeing other people make those decisions without you? Once you’ve turned in your draft, generally they don’t want to have you around any more. As a courtesy (actually, to satisfy the Writers Guild agreements) you’ll get a copy of the script after everybody else has finished messing around with it. A few of those experiences and you may get into the habit of pouring yourself a stiff drink before you turn to page one.

The upside of indie films

The definition of independent cinema has always been a bit vague, and now that people are starting to make films directly for distribution on the web and having success with documentaries and a variety of harder to categorize formats it’s getting even more blurred. For the sake of this discussion, though, let’s assume that we’re talking about anything from no- to micro- to-low budget, and distribution via DVD (not for much longer), or Netflix, or other means via the web.

The upside is that you can write a story that doesn’t have to bring out the teen audience in massive numbers on opening weekend. The breadth of the subjects you can deal with, the pacing options, the opportunity to experiment are all huge advantages.

You’re much more likely to remain involved in the later stages of production, too. Generally indie producers and directors are happy to have the writer around to make adjustments that may be needed during the shoot. It’s much more likely to end up being the story you wanted to tell.

When it comes time to promote the film you’ll probably be asked to help with that, too, because there’s no big star involved who sucks up all the media attention.

There’s also a new model emerging of raising finance through crowdfunding, which Jason has written about on this site a number of times. The idea that you don’t need to convince a banker or manager of an investment fund of the viability of your story, that you can pitch it to your final customers, is exciting and this method of financing is only going to grow.

The downside of indie films

Money, lack of. Starving for your art can be romantic for a while, but eventually you do want to eat something other than peanut butter sandwiches. You may want to start a family, buy a place of your own, take a nice vacation once in a while. All the stuff that sounds hopelessly middle-class when you’re 20 seems a lot more attractive when you hit 35. Of course some indie films break out and make a lot of money, but it’s far from the norm.

The low budget can also impact the quality of the final product. Even if nobody changes your words, the limitations in terms of the cast, the sets, the number of shooting days, and so on can mean the film isn’t as polished as you’d like.

Above I mentioned that you’ll be more involved all the way along, from raising the money to helping to market the film, and I classed those as positives. It’s actually a mixed bag because all that takes time. It can eat up a lot of time you could be spending writing.

What’s the bottom line?

I think it comes down to what you value and your temperament. If you’re a good team player and can separate your ego from the process, and you are excited by the lifestyle that comes with earning a lot of money, then Hollywood may be your best bet. That’s especially true if you like the kinds of films they’re making.  If you think they’re crap, don’t kid yourself that you can fake it. Never works.

Even though you’ll have to be able to put your ego aside, you’d better have a strong one to start with. Confidence is a prerequisite. Even arrogance is rewarded in Hollywood more often than it’s punished—assuming you have the writing chops to back it up.

If your primary drive is to tell stories and your values are not heavily weighted toward material things, the indie route is more your thing. There are a number of indie filmmakers whose definition of success is that they make enough money on their last film to be able to make the next one.

If I were starting out today, I’d go for the indie route.  But, hey, maybe that’s because I love peanut butter.

– – –

Jurgen Wolff has written more than 100 episodes of television, the mini-series “Midnight Man,” starring Rob Lowe, the feature film “The Real Howard Spitz,” starring Kelsey Grammer, and as been a script doctor on projects starring Eddie Murphy, Michale Caine, Kim Catrall and others. His books include “Your Writing Coach” (Nicholas Brealey Publishing) and “Creativity Now!” (Pearson Publishing). For more tips from Jurgen Wolff, also see www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com