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.

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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

Tennessee Williams’ advice to screenwriters

OK, I’m fibbing, it was actually Tennessee Williams’ advice to playwrights, but it applies just as much to screenwriters:

“What shouldn’t you do if you’re a playwright? Don’t bore the audience! I mean, even if you have to resort to totally arbitrary killing onstage, or pointless gunfire, at least it’ll catch their attention and keep them awake. Just keep the thing going anyway you can.”

Of course you don’t really want totally arbitrary events in your script, but if you need to capture their attention, put it in and then in the next draft work your way backward in the story so it has some motivation or at least is foreshadowed and work your way forward in the story to make sure it has a consequence.

(Jurgen Wolff offers a new screenwriting tip here every Tuesday; also see his site, www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com and his book, “Your Writing Coach.”)

 

Should You Go To Film School?

If you’re just starting out as a filmmaker, deciding if you should attend a traditional film school is something you need to decide. And it’s a costly decision – some of my friends here in Los Angeles are over fifty-thousand dollars in debt.

While most of my friends value having a college education, all agree that having a  film school degree will not guarantee success in Hollywood. Like any industry, becoming successful requires passion, commitment and hard work.

Last year, I was introduced to filmmaker Seth Hymes. When he was in high school, he worked as Production Assistant, Sound Tech and an Editor. After high school, he went off to film school. In fact, he graduated from NYU with honors. From there, he was an editor for Fox News Channel and also managed to get two features into production.

So I sat down with Seth and asked him some questions about his experience.

Jason Brubaker
Seth. After visiting your website and chatting, you seem to have an interesting perspective on formal film school education. What are your thoughts? Is there any value in film school?

Seth Hymes
No, there isn’t. And it’s a great question. What does “value” mean? It means that something adds merit or worth to your life for a reasonable cost. A lot of people say things like “you learn the basics” and it’s a “good place to experiment”.

Jason Brubaker
So in your experience, you think film school is over priced?

Seth Hymes
Well, in film school, you write a check for $100,000. In return, they give you a $2,000 video camera and tell you how to push the on button. Are you going to learn something? Sure. Is it valuable? No. There is no value in learning basic technical concepts for an obscene mark up in cost.

Jason Brubaker
In the past, students enrolled in film school because held the promise of networking, as well as access to equipment. You’re saying this sort of stuff is no longer relevant?

Seth Hymes
The 3 main “values” of film school are no longer relevant. They are, access to equipment, lessons in filmmaking craft and connections. In the 60s, 70s, and 80s, when people like Lucas, Scorsese, and Spike Lee went to film school, it was probably a good investment. You couldn’t just pick up a high quality HD camera and start shooting. Filmmaking equipment cost a ton of money and was hard to find. You really couldn’t learn about things like continuity and storyboarding without either apprenticing with a filmmaker or going to school. And it was a good place to meet other creative professionals.

Jason Brubaker
But all of that has changed.

Seth Hymes
Yeah. If you look at today, High Definition filmmaking equipment costs less than a semester at most film schools. The craft of filmmaking, from lighting, editing, shot composition, writing – all of it is available to learn on websites like yours, as well as other sites all over the net. And these days, most connections happen through the net. And further, many new filmmakers find their agents because they produce a short and get some heat on youtube, rather than meeting them in school.

Jason Brubaker
Sort of a silly question. But would you recommend that anybody attends film school?

Seth Hymes
I do not recommend anybody attend film school. It is an unholy waste of money and time. And not only are the schools making a huge profit, they also neglect to teach their grads about anything of real value or importance when it comes to having a career in the business. Things like real networking, fundraising, or film distribution.

Jason Brubaker
So instead of film school, what suggestions do you have for any students who is considering a degree in filmmaking?

Seth Hymes
If you’re considering film school, here’s the litmus test. If it’s a community college or vocational school where classes are anywhere from $60 to $1000, go for it. If anyone is charging more than that, they are making an obscene profit and should be dismissed outright. You will be mocked within the film business for attending such an institution. Instead, I recommend that students save their money, buy their own equipment, and learn how to shoot their own movie.

These days, filmmakers can learn everything you need to know in a week or less.

Jason Brubaker
Reading your posts on other websites and the comments that follow, I can see why some filmmakers, especially the filmmakers sitting on film school debt can get a little emotional with your perspective.

Seth Hymes
Most film school grads and filmmakers agree with me, but there are a few haters. Some people hate hearing the truth. It’s hard for some people to admit they got hosed out of $100K, but the consensus everywhere is that film school is a waste.

Jason Brubaker
I took a look at your website. Tell us what you teach there.

Seth Hymes
I teach people first, exactly why places like NYU are a complete joke and secondly, what to do instead of film school. There’s a lot of pressure to go to college, and I understand that. My book “Film Fooled” is a powerful reality check, a class by class account of NYU’s film curriculum to help people realize that no, they are not missing out on anything by skipping film school.

Jason Brubaker
Sounds like you think film schools should improve their curriculum.

Seth Hymes
Yeah. I get into the stuff they should be teaching in schools. Mainly, how to be taken seriously as a director from day one, how to get on real film sets, meet real working filmmakers, write feature scripts, manage a set, hire film students, and get seen. Anyone taking my course will be 4 years ahead of any film school student in just a week.

Jason Brubaker
Ok. So tell us about your online film course.

Seth Hymes
Ok. To find out more about my courseware at Film School Secrets, prospective filmmakers can Click Here!

Jason Brubaker
Thanks for stopping by Seth.

Seth Hymes
Thanks for having me.

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Screenwriting: Why Kim Cattrall got mad at me

I just saw Kim Cattrall mentioned in the news and it took me back to a long time ago when I did a rewrite of one of her early movies, “Mannequin.”

It was my first script doctoring job and I was in a hotel in Philadelphia, every night faxing the new pages to the studio in LA. where the head of the studio read them the next morning. I wanted to make it as easy for him to visualize the script as possible, especially since he was reading in installments of about ten pages a day. Because of that, I used “parentheticals” like “angrily” or “wearily” much more often than I normally would.

Then the cast came in for the first read-through. Kim Cattrall took out a big marker pen and started marking stuff out. Somebody asked her what she was doing. She glared at me and said, “Crossing out all the places the writer told me how to act.”

Ouch. But I was right, because I was writing a reading script, one that was being read under difficult circumstances.

If you’re writing a script to be read by someone who is possibly going to buy it, you want to make it as easy and entertaining as possible. Yes, it’s easy to overdo the parentheticals, ideally your dialogue itself suggests how it will be delivered. But when it helps, go ahead. A sarcastic remark from an actress is not too high a price to pay.

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For screenwriting tips from Jurgen Wolff, come back here every Tuesday and also see his site, www.ScreenWritingSuccess.com and check out his book, “Your Writing Coach,” available from Amazon and other online and offline booksellers.

Are screenplay contests worth entering?

I’m pretty skeptical about script contests as a way to further your career. There are success stories but I think they’re the exception. So I was interested to read the view of Chad Gervich on the Script website. He says that winning a script rarely gives you the edge. He’s been a judge in script contests and says winning only shows your script was the best, but that the standard is generally atrocious.

How bad are these scripts? Out of 500 he estimates that ten to fifteen “have some semblance of real voice, character, or storytelling. That doesn’t mean they’re good…” On the one hand that’s good news because it means if you have a good script you have a reasonable chance of winning. On the other hand, if people in the business know that these contests have a low standard, they may not pay much attention to them.

Listen, having won a contest is better than nothing and there have been some successes, but it’s good to have a realistic view, especially when some contests have a hefty entry fee. Here are a few specific tips:

Look at the ratio of the entry fee to the prize–if it costs $50 to enter, and the prize is only $500, I figure somebody’s making money on this.

Of course it may be access to important people in Hollywood that you’re after, in which case you need to check whether the contest is specific about who will see the winning entries. Simply being told that “the winner will be sent to important Hollywood producers and agents and directors” isn’t good enough. First, who are these people? Second, have they actually agreed to look at the winners, or are they just going to get them sent to them and throw them away or hit the delete key?

Finally, does the contest list previous winners? If so, why not email a couple of them and ask them what their experience was–did it help them? If so, how? You should be able to Google them or find them on Facebook or you can write them a letter c/o the Writers Guild if they’re members.

Good luck!

(Jurgen Wolff offers screenwriting tips here every Tuesday as well as on his site, www.ScreenwritingSuccess.com. Also see his book, “Your Writing Coach,” available from Amazon and other online and offline booksellers.)