As the former director of distribution for MarVista Entertainment, Scott Kirkpatrick wants 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.”
“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.
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. In Writing for the Green Light, 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.” If you’re interested in reading Writing For The Greenlight, you can grab a copy of the screenwriting book here.