VARIOUS ITEMS...

The Web-series...

We held the auditions for the Web-series last week. It went really well. We had some talented people come in and read. Sad to say, there were a lot of not-so-talented people too. But I think we’ve found our main cast and I’m pretty excited with who we’ve chosen. Our director is planning a table-read with the actors in a couple weeks. If all goes well, we should be shooting by mid-February. I’ll keep you posted.

R.I.P. VHS...

I just read a rather sad story in the L.A. Times. It was about the demise of the VHS tape. Yes, it’s finally happened. But it had a good run – 30 years. I remember the very first VHS tape I purchased. It was in 1978 (or maybe it was 1979). It was a copy of my second all-time favorite movie: Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. The cost was rather high, especially for the late 70s, and especially for a teenage kid: $50.00. But the idea that I could get my favorite movies on tape and play them at home...? Whoa, that was pretty cool! Sure, I still occasionally watch stuff on VHS, but I’m a confirmed DVD guy. I guess Blue-ray is hot on DVDs tail and is becoming the new trend, but I’m sure they’ll find a replacement for that in a few years. Anyway, here’s the article from the L.A. Times:

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/valley/la-et-vhs-tapes22-2008dec22,0,5604036.story

HAPPY HOLIDAYS!!

Well, Christmastime is here. Here’s a little gift from me:

(David Bowie meets Bing Crosby)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gKTHvW2JcAA

(Mariah Carey – All I Want For Christmas Is You)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-8rY0Fyws20

(A Charlie Brown Christmas)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RRm5qofw5vs

Back from NYC and Web-series news...

I got back from my trip to New York City just a few days ago. As always, I had a blast there in the Big Apple. Yes, it was cold and rainy, but hey, I love that sort of thing. I met with some friends, ate some good food, did a LOT of walking, took pictures, and just soaked up the atmosphere of that great, great town. (Nothing like NYC just before the Christmas holidays!) I also brought along a script I've been polishing and got most of it done. So, a truly fab trip.

Web-series news:

So I met a young actress this past summer. She told me how she wanted to do a project that could showcase her talents. I told her a Web-series might be a good way to go. I figured I could write up a handful of episodes, then we could shoot them and put them up on the Net and see what kind of response we got. If people seem to dig it, then we could do more episodes. If nobody watches (a very distinct possibility), then we haven’t wasted much time or money getting those initial episodes created. My young actress friend agreed.

I saw this young lady as the cute, comedic type. Not glamorous, not necessarily “hot” and sexy (though she’s certainly attractive and cute); no, I definitely saw her as more of the funny, quirky type. So I pitched her an idea that I (coincidentally!) had kicking around in my brain for a few months. There just happened to be the perfect role for her. She’d play the quirky, funny best friend of the male lead. She really liked my pitch, loved the character I had in mind for her, and said she’d love to read the script when I had it completed.

So I took a few weeks and wrote several episodes. The actress loved what I wrote. She then contacted a young (well, younger than me) director/producer she knew and sent him the script. He really liked the script, too. The three of us had a meeting. Good meeting. Lots of great ideas tossed around, each of us in total sync. So we all shook hands and the director started putting a crew together. He also started the casting process. In fact, we’re having auditions all day tomorrow. From what I’ve been told, the response to the casting notice was quite high, so it should be a fun and interesting day. Always a thrill having actors bring on-the-page characters to life.

I’m not sure where any of this will go. I’m hoping people respond to this Web series once we put it out there. If not, well, I’m really enjoying the process, really enjoying working with smart, enthusiastic, talented people. For me, that’s a big part of why I’m in this business. I’ll keep ya posted.

Share YOUR success stories!

Wow, I can’t believe 2008 is nearly history. I’m happy to report that I’ve had some nice successes and advancements this year. Some of them I’ve shared with you in this blog. I expect further success in 2009.

Now I’d like to hear from YOU.

I’d like to hear about any successes, big or small, that you’ve had in the past year. It could be a screenplay you’ve had great coverage on. It could be an option deal or perhaps even a sale. Maybe you’ve had a movie, big or small, produced. Maybe a Web series you penned was, or soon will be, posted to the Net. Maybe you signed with a manager or agent. If any of these successes apply to you, share ‘em with me and your fellow Working Screenwriter blog readers.

Why share, you ask? Well, because I think it’s important for all budding screenwriters to know that a modicum of success in this crazy business is definitely possible to those talented individuals willing to work for it. Sharing your success might provide a glimmer hope to other writers still waiting for their break. Besides, I bet you’re more than willing to brag just a little bit. (It’s OK, you deserve it. )

So e-mail me a quick summary of your success to theworkingscreenwriter(at) yahoo.com and I’ll follow up with a brief written interview. (If you prefer, I won’t use your real name when I post your interview here on the blog.)

C’mon, claim your bragging rights—let’s hear from you!

"Where'd Jim go?"

A few of you have written, asking: “Hey, Jim, why haven’t you been posting much of anything in recent weeks?” Well, the truth is, I feel that between my website and this blog, I’ve said pretty much everything I have to say. The outlining process, the rewrite process, formatting “rules,” navigating the “Hollywood maze,” the exhilarations and disappointments of the screenwriting life—it’s all there, all you have to do is look for it.

Another reason I haven’t posted very much is simple: I’m working on a lot of stuff.

As of this moment, I’m completing a submission draft of a psychological thriller (which I’d like to get out before the looming holiday season), I’ve recently completed writing four episodes of a proposed web-series, I’ve just outlined a story for a dramatic character study (a spec), started outling another psychological thriller (also a spec), and I’m doing final tweaks on the El Salvador assignment (see posts from March/April ’08). Add to this the occasional script critique, and dealing with the minutia of day-to-day business (producers, representation, etc.), along with trying to maintain some semblance of a social life...well, there's not always a lot of time to come up with blog posts.

Fear not, when I have a distinct point of view to offer on the art, craft, and business of screenwriting, or when I have some interesting behind-the-scenes tidbits, you’ll be hearing from me. But right now I just need to focus on getting projects done, getting them out into the world and, hopefully, produced.

But always remember, I’m only an e-mail away. If you have a specific screenwriting-related question you’d like me to tackle, feel free to send it my way. I’ll post my response here on the blog.

So, friends, until then...WRITE ON!

Paul Newman (1925 - 2008)

The world lost a great man and great actor yesterday. Paul Newman. He was a true great, a true icon. I grew up on Paul Newman. He starred in two of my all-time favorite movies, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and The Towering Inferno. So many great roles and great movies: Cool Hand Luke, Harper, Winning, The Life and Times of Judge Roy Bean, The Sting...and the list goes on and on. But there's no reason for sadness here. Paul Newman had a long life. Up until very recently, he was quite healthy and very active. Not only did he have an unbelievable film career, he had a loving family, a fantastic wife (50 years!), a racing career, and did a lot of great charity work with his Newman’s Own products. I’d say he was one lucky man. And we were awfully lucky for having him for 83 years. Thanks for the memories, Mr. Newman.

You can find a million clips of Paul Newman on YouTube, but here are just a few that I found. Enjoy!

GREAT SCENE FROM “BUTCH CASSIDY”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2y87EaadjqM

“COOL HAND LUKE”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xYqwYrbwHeM&feature=related

PAUL NEWMAN TRIBUTE (music is from “Cool Hand Luke”)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d9yhD4qZNvw

“BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID”
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uBV9_QzUPac

TRIBUTE VIDEO
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gvwdBiEGrKg

WEBSITE REDUX: THE DOLLAR OPTION...

Q: A producer is offering me a “dollar option” (aka “The Free Option”) on my script. Is this something I should consider?

A: It depends on who the producer is. If he has a reputation for getting movies produced, and if he’s someone you get a positive vibe from, then a free option for a few months might not be a bad idea.

Then again, if this is a legitimate producer, why can’t he come up with some cash?

If he believes in your script, he should be willing to put up some dough, right? But if this “producer” is some kid fresh out of AFI or USC, then I’d think twice before signing my script over for any significant length of time.

Why? Well...

It’s difficult enough for an established producer to get a movie made, so what makes you think some guy out of film school can get your script off the ground? But again, a freebie 3 month option, to see if they can get the project up and running, isn’t a big deal. Anything longer than that, tell ‘em to whip out the checkbook.

I’ve accepted the “dollar option” twice. One (very early in my career) was a complete and total waste of time and I’m sorry I did it. The other turned into an interesting and educational rollercoaster ride and I ended up making some bucks on the second year renewal. Then I optioned the script again to another producer!

***

APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.com and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)

WEBSITE REDUX: OH, THE REJECTION!!

Q: I’ve sent my script to four production companies—and they’ve all rejected it! Should I just give up?

A: Oh, you poor thing. How awful! Look, get used to rejection—it’s a staple of the screenwriter’s diet. I’ve had several scripts passed on by one producer and then optioned and/or purchased from another.

I recall giving a horror script to one well known script consultant about seven years ago. I met him at his apartment in North Hollywood. The guy never even called me back! Since then, I’ve optioned that script three times and it’s currently in development with a producer here in L.A.

This is a numbers game. Fact is, not everyone is going to “get” your script. Some will love it, some will hate it, most will be somewhere in the middle. That’s the way it is.

If the first guy doesn’t want your script, move on to the next guy. And if that guy doesn’t want it, move on to the next guy. If your script is truly great, someone will eventually say yes. (Probably.) And, as we all know, it only takes one “yes” to sell a script.

You need a thick skin to be in this business, so I suggest you start hanging out with some armadillos!

WEBSITE REDUX: COLLABORATION...

Q: I don’t think I can write a script on my own. Should I collaborate with another writer?

A: First, ask yourself WHY you need a writing partner. Is it because you’re lazy and don’t want to do any of the work? Is it because you can’t come up with any ideas of your own? Is it because you’re good with dialogue but not good with story, or vice-versa? If you’re basically just lazy and don’t want to do any work, or if you can’t come up with any ideas...then why on earth do you want to write screenplays?

If you’re good with dialogue and not story, or if you’re good with story and not dialogue, then finding a collaborator who compliments your lack of proficiency is a great idea. Problem is, finding an adequate writing partner is a very tricky thing. I’d say it’s akin to finding the perfect mate—and we all know what the divorce rate is, don’t we? Actually, I’d say it’s probably even higher for writing partners.

I’ve had the misfortune—er, pleasure—of collaborating with a few writers over the years. (The term “writer” is used very loosely here.) For the most part, these collaborations boiled down to me tossing out all sorts of plot points and visual imagery while my partner sat there nodding and saying, “Yup, good, I really like that.” Then I’d come up with more plot points and visual imagery. Again, my partner would nod, “Love it, Jim, really cool!” Gee, pal, how ‘bout a little feedback, a little embellishment, a little discussion? I don’t need a “yes” man—I need a collaborator!

Then, if you’re successful enough to actually get a story laid out, how do you divide the actual task of getting it down on paper? Does one do all the typing while the other paces the room dictating? Do you take turns typing and pacing? Does one write the first ten pages, then the other writes the next ten? Who edits the pages? Believe me, it can get awfully complicated, if the two of you are not in perfect synch with each other.

But some people do it—and they do it very successfully.

I remember a conversation I had with one particular collaborator many years ago—and it went something like this:

ME: I think we need to pump up this scene...add some more tension.
HIM: So how much you think we’ll get for this script?
ME: Huh? Oh, I don’t know. Now, about this scene...
HIM: C’mon, you must have some idea.
ME: Nope. No idea.
HIM: C’mon, ballpark it.
ME: Really, I have no idea.
HIM: A hundred grand? Two hundred grand?
ME: Sure, I suppose it’s possible. Now, about this scene...
HIM: More than 200 grand, ya think?
ME: Read my lips: I don’t know.
HIM: I’m gonna buy me a new car. A Porsche! What’re you gonna do with your half?
ME: Can we just write the script first?
HIM: I really think we can get upwards of 500 grand if we play our cards right.
ME: We ain’t gonna get nothin’ if we don’t write the &$%$#&& script!!

Needless to say, this “collaboration” lasted only a couple days.


Q: My writing partner wants to write a serial killer script, but I’m just not into that type of story. Should I keep my mouth shut and write it anyway?

A: Unless he’s going to pay you (which I highly doubt), then I’d pass on the collaboration. Do yourself a favor and write scripts you feel passionate about. No, you don’t necessarily have to think it’s the greatest idea that must be told at all costs—but it should be something that you’ll look forward to living with and working on for, most probably, several months.

A quickie story:

Not long ago, I was hired to write a script. A comedic thriller. I thought the initial idea was decent, but it certainly wasn’t anything overly special. At least not to me. The story just didn’t feel like it had enough of a comic element.

So I rolled it all around in my noggin for a couple days and came up with a new angle. I kept the basic idea, but tweaked in a new direction. Now it was a dark, sort of sexy thriller.

I pitched it to the producer and she loved it. I had a story I could grab hold of and run with. I made it mine. If you can do that with your own work—whether a spec or an assignment—you’ll be a much happier person.

UPDATE...

Scriptwriters Network member Jake James picked up a book the other day and here's the note I just received from him:

"Jim...Just want to drop a note saying I read, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter in one sitting (and that's rare for me...) and then a few hours later I read it through again. Both reads were enjoyable experiences (and I've bookmarked several pages for future reference). I especially like that fact that the writers you spoke with were not of the Shane Black or Joe Eszterhas fame level. It's important to represent Hollywood for what it is: a town of working stiffs. Sure, the "names" get the ink, but it's the working screenwriter who slugs it out, makes a tolerable living, and has a solid career. The lessons from Q & A: The Working Screenwriter are valuable and practical and underscore what it really takes to have a career in this business. Aspiring and established writers alike will pull something useful from your book. Thanks for sharing." -- Jake James

Thanks for the great review, Jake!

Q and A: The Working Screenwriter -- An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today's Film Industry available here!

WEBSITE REDUX: WORDS OF WARNING...

Every so often I get someone writing to me, asking if they should send a script to some "producer" they found on CraigsList (or some similar site). From my website:

During the past year or so, many budding screenwriters have told me that they’ve responded to “Script Wanted” postings on Internet screenwriting boards. These writers know I’m a big proponent of knowing who your script is going to, so they’ll usually ask the “producers” to provide information about themselves. For instance: “What type of budget are you working with?” “What have you produced previously?” “Will the writer get paid up front? Or would it be a step deal? Or will payment be deferred?” “What plans do you have for the completed movie (i.e. festivals, theatrical or direct-to-DVD release)?”

After posing these questions, most never hear anything back—or they get only a terse response with just an address. Sorry, but that just seems WRONG.

All riled up, I searched a few of these screenwriting boards, and queried twelve so-called producers. I let them know I had a script I’d love to send, but first I needed them to provide some background on who they were, etc. Five didn’t respond at all, 4 responded with merely an address to where I could send my script, and 3 responded with very friendly messages that provided absolutely no useful information whatsoever...but oh, they'd love to read my screenplay and here's a post office box I could send it to.

So, would I send a screenplay to one of these unknown entities? NO!!

Something else to keep in mind: Folks rummaging around on the Net in search of scripts are probably not in any position to get a movie made. It’s highly doubtful they even have the clout to get a script into the hands of someone who can get a movie made. In fact, I doubt these people even know anyone in the film industry. Also, it's a pretty safe bet that most of the people looking for scripts via the Internet are film students—or people who want to make their first film and need a script they can get for free or ultra-cheap. And that's fine…just let us know this up front!

So please...KNOW WHO YOU’RE SENDING YOUR SCRIPT TO. Get information from the people you query. Do Google searches. Protect yourself!

AN INTERVIEW: AGENT X!

I recently had a chance to conduct a brief interview with a Los Angeles-based literary agent. He asked that I not reveal his actual identity, but rest assured he’s the real deal. Now, without further ado, my interview with...Agent X!


Q: For a screenwriter, what are the true benefits of having an agent?

A: All agents operate differently, but the main purpose of an agent is to get you work and give you good advice. You need an agent to sell your scripts and negotiate your deals, and pretty much make sure you are not being screwed over. Remember, we know all the projects in town, so having an agent can also save you months and months of writing a script that is already set up at a studio.

Q: What's the best way to get a script onto an agent's desk?

A: There are several ways, and my first blog explains the best ways to achieve this. I would say, if the script has any heat on it, it will go to several agent's desks.

Q: Do query letters work? If so, what makes a query letter make you say, "Wow, I gotta read this script!"

A: It's rare, but I guess if you have no other option, then this could work. I have read scripts based on query letters, but very few. Maybe 1-2% of the scripts that I have read are from query letter. Short query letters grab my attention more than long ones.

Q: What do you look for in a potential new client?

A: The first thing is the quality of writing. Even if it's an indie. Secondly, is what type of person is this screenwriter? If this client shows signs that he/she is going to be out of control and is going to call me 20 times a day and email me 40 times a day, I will just drop them.

Q: What do you look for in a marketable screenplay?

A: Anything I can pitch to a producer and a studio executive easily. If the script has a great hook, that's gold.

Q: Should a screenwriter have more than just one marketable screenplay in his briefcase?

A: This always helps. But if the screenwriter does not have another screenplay, they better have several ideas to either pitch or write.

Q: At what point in a screenwriter's career do you want to be introduced and get involved?

A: It really doesn't matter. Sometimes it's good to get a new screenwriter just because they are not tainted by Hollywood. Other times, I like getting screenwriters who have been at other agencies so they know how this world works and what to expect.

Q: What qualifications should a screenwriter look for in a literary agent?

A: There are a lot of lazy agents out there, so this is a good question. First check to see what clients the agent or agency represents. If they rep screenwriters who wrote movies back in 1960, then that's a sign that this agent isn't up to date with current info. Aside from this, you want to build a partnership with this agent. Make sure you feel comfortable with your agent.

Q: Of all the scripts that are submitted to your agency (or to you specifically), approximately what percentage simply aren't marketable?

A: Most of the scripts submitted to me are not marketable. If they were, I would be signing 10 clients a day. I'm still amazed screenwriters don't go watch blockbuster movies and see why they worked.

Q: Have you ever discovered true talent from any of the myriad screenwriting competitions?

A: There are a few that have been submitted to me from these competitions that have been good. I can't remember signing a client from these competitions, but I've certainly read them.

Q: When you pick up a screenplay, what immediately tells you it's been written by a rank amateur?

A: Formatting and spelling mistakes. Also, if I see a lot of long descriptions and very little dialogue, I won't even read it.

Q: OK, so a script arrives at your agency and receives fantastic coverage. What happens next?

A: Scripts that get great coverage make it to the top of my pile, although I don't always trust the coverage that comes in. I've read great scripts and seen terrible coverage on them.

Q: Should a writer have an accompanying treatment and/or synopsis of a script to aide you in the sales process?

A: Not really. If I signed the client off of the script, then it was good enough for me to remember and I can pitch it without a synopsis. I like scripts that come with a synopsis, because I can read the first 10 pages of the script, and take a look at the synopsis to see where the script is going.

Q: Do literary agents give opinions and/or feedback on the quality of a client's writing? In other words, if an agent feels a script has problems, will they typically ask the writer for another draft?

A: We get so many scripts that there is no way we are going to give any real feedback. You will hear the basic "I wasn't passionate about the material" type of response. You have one shot to make an impression. Also, I sometimes get writers who will send me two scripts to read. Don't. I'm only reading one, so don't leave it up to me to pick. Make sure you have the agent read your best script.

Q: Do certain genres sell better than others?

A: This constantly changes. Although, you can pretty much bet on comedies and thrillers to sell well.

Q: Would you discourage a screenwriter from writing a dramatic period piece?

A: Depends on the writer. But yes. If you want to have the best shot of getting your foot in the door, why limit yourself to writing a dramatic script that very few agents are going to take on?

Q: Do you think a majority of agents are more interested in selling "big budget" scripts as opposed to smaller, indie material—or do they just want to sell good material?

A: Big budget = big commission. Indie material = lots of headaches.

Q: Would you agree that writers shouldn't focus quite so heavily on selling their spec scripts, but focus more on having great "calling card" material that can potentially get them hired for rewrite and/or assignment work?

A: You need to have a sold spec to position yourself in a better position in the assignment world. No new writer should focus on getting assignments if they have not sold a spec. For more established writers, they know how tough assignments are. You are up against a dozen other writers, doing a lot of work. Most of the time, you won't get the job. Why not put all that work into writing a spec script and control your own destiny? This question depends on the writer though. Some writers love going for assignments, and some are great at getting them.

Q: A screenwriter writes a really marketable script, but you still have no desire to sign him with your agency. Why?

A: I have seen some marketable scripts, and there are a variety of reasons why I won’t sign them. Maybe the writing was not great. Maybe I have four other clients who write the same genres who I feel are more talented. Maybe the writer is just a dud in the room. There are a myriad of possibilities.

Q: What qualities and/or traits should a successful screenwriter have?

A: They should love to write and be very prolific. Also, I want to make sure they will actually listen to what we say. I have clients who think they know more than what they actually do...and they don't. I'm an agent for a reason; you are a writer for a reason.

Q: What are the advantages of using a literary agent as opposed to negotiating a deal through an entertainment attorney? Or should a screenwriter have both on his team?

A: If you have the option of picking one, you are better off having an agent. The attorney can negotiate the deal, but can't find you jobs. The agent can get both, so why not go for the agent? If you become more successful, you should have an attorney as well to look over the contracts in detail.

Q: Any final piece of advice you'd like to give the budding screenwriters of the world?

A: Stop writing personal stories. No one cares about those except you. Get your foot in the door and write a commercial script, then once you have made your career, then go off and do the indie script you have been wanting to write since the beginning. Also, read scripts that have SOLD. There are several resources on the Net that you can download scripts.

* * *

I want to thank Agent X for his time and insight. I hope you’ll take a few moments and visit his informative new (and very anonymous) blog.

APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.con and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)

WEBSITE REDUX: GETTING THE SCRIPT OUT...

It really is strange. Well, maybe that’s not the right word. Perhaps “frustrating” would be more appropriate. I conceived my website (http://www.theworkingscreenwriter2.blogspot.com/) as a place for novice screenwriters to visit and get solid, nuts-and-bolts answers to many of the questions they have. The site has been up for nearly two years and it’s become quite popular. Very popular. But sometimes I really gotta wonder: Are folks actually reading the information I have posted on the site? Sure, many are, but there’s always a handful that don’t seem to be paying full attention.

On a fairly regular basis I’ll get an e-mail from someone who writes, “Stopped by your site. Thought it was great. I learned a lot. Oh, can you tell me which brads I should use for my script?” If this person had really read my site, they would’ve found the answer right there in front of them.

Truth is, based on site tracking statistics, and adjusting for the length of time each site has been up, more people visit this blog than the website. Not really sure why that is. I guess most people assume blogs are more informal and less academic. So I guess that makes them more fun. It’s sort of like the difference between Us magazine and Newsweek magazine. With this in mind, I’m going to start posting on this blog some of the stuff from my site.

For those of you who’ve already read through my website—actually read it—my sincerest apologies. But hey, a little refresher of old material never hurts, so...

Q: Whoo hoo! Someone has requested to read my script! But how should I send it—and what should I send with it?

A: First of all, calm yourself. Congrats on getting the request, but it doesn’t necessarily mean much. Sure, they like your pitch and/or your story/concept, but getting them to love your script (then ultimately want to option and/or purchase it) is an entirely different matter. But hey, first thing’s first, right?

So, to send your script: Print a clean copy of the script on 20 lb., 3-hole punched paper.

(You folks in Europe have different paper to deal with. I think you call it A4. Not sure what you use to bind your scripts. If you have a local Writers guild, check with them.)

Check the numbering of your script pages. Are they in sequential order? Are any pages missing? I learned this the hard way several years ago. I sent a script to a well-established producer here in town and the next day I got a call from his assistant: “Where’s page 54?” So I had to scramble and fax the missing page. Not a huge deal, but a tad bit embarrassing.

Bind script with two Acco #5 brads. (Fine, use three if you really must.) If you want to use those little washer things, go ahead. I don’t and I don’t recommend it. (They tend to get snagged in copy machines. Trust me on this—I used to work in the copy room at William Morris.) Those Acco brads will hold your script just fine.

Note: The #5 brads fit a 100-120 page script perfectly; if the brads are too small, then your paper is too heavy (i.e., too thick) or your script is too long. And please...DO NOT use oversized brads and fold them, or worse, cut them. When cut, those things can slice your hand open. Seriously.

NO card-stock cover for the script is necessary. But if you do want to use a card stock cover, use any solid color. Blue, red, gray...nobody really cares (though I’d shy away from yellow or neon pink). Also, if you use a card stock cover, leave it blank. No title, no contact information, no drawings. Blank.

DO NOT send artwork. The only exception I can see to this would be if you’ve written a script about a superhero and if the artwork is really exceptional. I mean, if it’s good enough to get the producer’s juices flowin’, go for it.

DO NOT send props or gimmicks. (Did you hear about the goofball who wrote a script about a bomb squad—and how he sent along a prop bomb packaged with the script? Oh yeah, that went over real well.)

DO include a cover letter. Most producers, agents, managers and development executives receive many scripts each week, so make sure you send a cover letter and remind them (briefly) who you are and what your script is about (again, briefly). Keep personal information to a bare minimum. Nobody cares if you’re a single parent (unless, perhaps, this is what your script is about), or if you spent five years living in a nudist colony (unless, of course, this is what your script is about). However, if you’ve won a screenwriting contest (especially if it’s one of the well-known ones), mention it.

DO address your cover letter personally to your contact (i.e., “Dear Edward” or “Dear Mr. Jones”) and NOT “To Whom It May Concern.” Always thank the agent/producer/development exec for their time and consideration.

DO NOT include a casting wish list.

DO NOT suggest actors or a cool soundtrack.

DO NOT make excuses or apologies for any possible typos or a high page count. They only want to read your script.

RELEASE FORMS: If the producer or agent doesn’t ask you to sign a release form, don’t worry about it. Release forms generally only protect the person(s) you’re sending the script to. Oddly enough, some writers balk when asked to sign a release. Hey, if that’s the prodco’s policy, you have to abide by it. So, you have two choices: 1) sign the release and send it with the script, or 2) don’t sign the release and don’t send the script...and your script won’t get read. Your choice.

Should you include a self-addressed stamped envelope (SASE) for the return of your screenplay? Why go to the expense of sending something that’ll probably end up getting lost, trashed, or used for other means? But ask yourself what the purpose is to getting your script returned. Is it so you can save on Xeroxing and send it to somebody else? Sure, it might come back in pristine condition, but chances are decent it’ll be dog-eared, or have coffee stains on it, or have notations on some of the pages. Sorry, but this is not a script you want to re-send to anyone. Do you want the script returned because you don’t want it floating aimlessly around some production company? Seems that would be a good thing. You want your script out in the world! After all, you never know who might “discover” it, read it, and respond in a favorable manner. I say save yourself the time and expense of requesting your script be returned.

Place script in a manila envelope (10” x 13” works best). Mark envelope “REQUESTED MATERIAL.”

Send script via regular First Class mail. No, DO NOT send Fed Ex or Express Mail or anything else that costs a fortune and guarantees your package will get there in six hours. Nobody (usually) wants your script that quickly.

Tip: Here in the United States, you can also send via Media Mail. It'll take a few extra days to get where it's going (a week or more if you send from coast to coast), but you'll save about half off First Class rates. This will save you some money if you're sending multiple submissions. Nifty, eh?

NEVER send your script without querying first and getting the go-ahead to send the script. An unsolicited script can (and will) end up in a pile that goes directly to the trash bin. (I worked security at a big movie studio once upon a time and I’d always see stacks and stacks of unsolicited—and unopened—scripts piled up just outside the mail room.)

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “C’mon, Jim, does it really matter what brads I use, or if I put the WGA number on the title page, or if my script comes in at 127 pages?”

Well, I think producers, agents, managers, and development executives make a knee-jerk assessment of a script, the moment they get their hands on it. I know I do.

Believe it or not, I can virtually always tell the quality of a script based on certain aesthetic values. If the script is held together with flimsy brads, if the font and font size is all wrong, if the script is as thick as a phone book, or if the WGA registration # is emblazoned on the title page, then chances are quite good I’m dealing with a novice writer who a) hasn’t done their homework, and b) more than likely isn’t capable of writing a viable screenplay. So, by page one, I’m already dreading the experience. This is not the first impression you want to make. The only thing that’s going to reverse this feeling is if your writing is truly solid from FADE IN. If you haven’t captured the attention of your readers in those first pages, it’s doubtful you’ll ever get them back. I think this is generally true. And yes, I know this all sounds really silly, but it’s what you’re up against. Face the fact that producers, et al. have all read a million scripts—most of them dreadful—and they’re looking for pretty much any excuse to NOT read your script (at least not right away). I might be wrong about this, but probably not by much.

My book -- Q and A: The Working Screenwriter -- An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today's Film Industry -- now available!

What's OLD is NEW...

Somebody on one of the screenwriting forums recently asked if a screenwriter could launch a career with just one completed screenplay. This seems to be a question many budding screenwriters have. Sure, it’s quite possible to get a career rolling on one script—and it happens all the time (Diablo Cody, anyone?)—but I’m a firm believer in having at least two or three really solid scripts in the ol’ briefcase when hunting for an agent, manager, or producer.

Apologies to those of you who are dedicated readers of my "how-to" blog, but...

In the “Questions & Answers” section of the blog, I have the question, “I’ve only written one script. Should I have more than that before I try to market myself as a screenwriter?”

This was my response:

"I think it’s important for managers and agents to know your creative well hasn’t gone dry after penning just one script—and it’s also important to have more than just one script in hand when you start meeting with producers. For instance...

Not long ago, my manager and I had a meeting at the home of a fairly well-known producer/director. We brought along three scripts that we felt might compliment his abilities. So we pitched the first script, a comedy. Nope, he doesn’t want to do comedies anymore.

A psycho-thriller? Nope, not his cup of tea right now.

A creepy horror tale? Bingo!

He took the script, promised he'd have it read soon.

This sort of thing has happened to me several times. If they don’t like one idea, hit ‘em with another, then another, then another.

Nope, I can't imagine having just one or two scripts in my repertoire.

If you’re a writer, WRITE!"

QUICKIE UPDATE: By the way...that aforementioned producer/director passed on my creepy horror script. Well, that's okay, I optioned it to someone else.

UPDATE: DARREN HOWELL

The latest edition of Creative Screenwriting magazine (July/August 2008) has a full-page article on UK screenwriter Darren Howell and his writing partner Toby Wagstaff. As you know, I interviewed Darren for this blog last month. The CS article (which you'll find on page 12) provides a further behind-the-scenes perspective of how Darren and Toby’s screenplay Arena got written, into the hands of agents, picked up by Summit Entertainment, and eventually slated for production. It’s an interesting and informative read!

A COUPLE OF QUICKIE UPDATES...


Update #1:

Last week I received payment on a one-year option extension for one of my scripts. This script has been in the hands of these particular producers for a couple of years now.

Believe me, this been a real roller-coaster ride. For a few months things looked really good, then the next few months things looked dismal. A few months up, a few months down—ugh, I was getting nauseous! In recent months the producers were doubtful they’d ever go forward with the project.

But recently, things turned around. Though it won’t actually happen until next year, the producers now feel very confident they’ll get the project off the ground and into production.

Based on what was paid for the option extension (not exactly a paltry sum for a low budget project), it seems they have quite a bit of faith that this will actually happen.

Gosh, I sure hope so. I’ll keep ya posted.

Update #2:

Today I turned in the first draft of the script that sent me down to El Salvador three months ago.
Not including the six days I spent in El Salvador doing research, it took approximately five weeks for the outline, about a week for the treatment (which was sent to producers for approval), and 22 days for this first draft. I now await notes from producers.

I really enjoyed writing this script. I think it’s a fun story with a nice message.

INTERVIEW: DARREN HOWELL

Last April, Summit Entertainment optioned the sci-fi action spec Arena written by first-time feature writers Toby Wagstaff and Darren Howell. The story of Arena revolves around a group of modern-day soldiers mysteriously transported from the thick of battle to a terrain-shifting landscape where they must fight the best warriors from different eras and histories in a gladiatorial fight to the death or be killed by the all-powerful operators of the "Arena."

The UK-based Darren, 39, was in L.A. a couple weeks ago for a round of meetings with producers, agents, and lawyers. By pure chance I met him in a bar at the hotel where he was staying. We got to talking and the next thing I know, he’s agreeing to be interviewed for this blog. Cool! OK, let’s get started, shall we?

JV: First of all, big congratulations on selling Arena! When did the script sell?

DH: Thank you! I think we kinda knew at the beginning of March that Summit Entertainment was going to option it. Then there was a period of to-ing and fro-ing between them and our lawyer—which seemed to take ages! But I remember it was Good Friday when we got their "official" offer. Couldn't have happened on a more aptly named day!

JV: How long have you been writing screenplays?

DH: I've been writing for absolute ages. It started as a hobby, you know, creating worlds and then knocking them down. All for fun! I wrote a [book] manuscript about ten years ago that got rejected about six times in the UK, so I thought I'd turn to movie scripts. I'd like to go back to the novel one day, or at least convert it into a screenplay.

JV: Whereabouts in England do you live?

DH: I live in a town called Cheam in Surrey, which is just south of London.

JV: What was your occupation prior to selling Arena?

DH: I was, and still am, a tube driver. You know, the subway. It's all very boring, but pays the bills for now. It's funny, our agents took us out for lunch while I was in town, and all they wanted to talk about was the Underground. They seemed to think it was really exciting! It was all pretty surreal.

JV: Will this script sale give you the freedom of becoming a full-time screenwriter – or do you anticipate going back to a "regular" job?

DH: At the moment I'm not in a position to leave the Underground, what with the dollar to pound exchange, but who knows. That's my dream, to write full-time.

JV: Do you have plans to move to the Los Angeles area – or are you perfectly happy in England?

DH: Well, I have two small children, so I don't know if LA is somewhere I'd consider moving to. (No disrespect!) Although, maybe somewhere quiet and sleepy in California could be an option. It would make sense to come out on a more permanent basis, but I'd like to get another couple of sales under my belt before I decide. My manager seems to think it's an option I'll have to consider eventually.

JV: In learning how to write a marketable screenplay, which do you feel helped the most: how-to books, seminars/classes, studying pro screenplays, watching a ton of movies, trial and error, a little of everything?

DH: When I decided to write a screenplay I did a lot of reading: books for advice, and screenplays online to get the "feel." I've always been an avid movie fan/buff, so I think that helped as well. But ultimately, I have a great writing partner. I've learnt so much from him and we get on fantastically well. I couldn't have done it without him. Thank you, Toby!

JV: To date, approximately how many screenplays have you completed?

DH: As a lone entity I've done about six or seven, both TV and movie. As a partnership, we've completed two, including Arena, but we have the seeds for about another three or four, plus we have my solo projects to return to.

JV: Have you ever entered a screenplay into a competition? If so, what was that experience like?

DH: Never entered a competition.

JV: While writing Arena, how did you and Toby, who is based here in Los Angeles, divide the work?

DH: At the beginning of the project, there was a lot of idea exchanges via email and Skype. Thank God for the Internet! Then, when we'd got the story into something we considered solid, we'd go off and write our own takes and then marry them up. For us it seems to work pretty well.

JV: How exactly did you get your script into the hands of the powers that be in Hollywood?

DH: Well, I went out to L.A. in 2005 for the Fade In Pitch Fest. I met my manager there and pitched him a script I'd already written. He liked the idea and asked me to mail it to him. He read and loved it, and assigned Toby, who worked for him at the time, to develop it with me. We worked well together and decided to become co-writers, which was great for me, having a full-time job and two children. It kinda took the heat off me.

JV: Did you and Toby have an agent prior to the sending the script out?

DH: No, we only got an agent off the back of Arena. We had two of the big five after us, which was nice!

JV: OK, you get the call that Arena had just sold – what happened next?

DH: I had a lovely bottle of Champagne waiting on ice! Although, if I'm truthful, I don't think it's still fully sunk in. It's all still a bit of a dream.

JV: Tell me a little about your experience visiting Los Angeles earlier this month.

DH: We had some great meetings. Everyone really loved Arena, so that helped us get a foot in the door. They liked what we had to offer and we were pitched several projects, which we're taking a look at.

JV: So what is the current status of Arena?

DH: From what I understand Summit is eager to get going ASAP. They're currently in the process of attaching a director and are down to the last couple of guys. No, I can't tell you who they are! We met with one of the candidates while I was in L.A . He seems like a very cool guy. We've had some general notes and ideas for improvement, but it's nothing that's going to change the dynamics of the plot drastically, and we're not getting into rewrite mode until the time comes.

JV: Producers are fairly notorious for kicking loose the original writer(s) and bringing in a writer with a fresh perspective. Do you anticipate staying with the project from start to finish – or do you think the producers have other plans?

DH: Who knows! I sincerely would like to stay with Arena until the end, and we seem to have a good relationship with the producers, but again...who knows!

JV: Most novice writers think they’ll be on Easy Street once they’ve sold that first script. Do you think there’s any truth to this notion?

DH: To sell one script is fantastic—to sell another would be the cherry on the cake! I'm just taking each day as it comes, but I don't think either of us is under the illusion that we're on Easy Street after just one sale. If anything the pressure upon us has increased since the sale—especially now we have an agent and lawyer to feed! For instance, we have our first script, "The Duritz Find," we're getting ready to rewrite, now interest in it has reignited due to Arena's sale. Plus, we're doing a treatment for New Line, through Benderspink (Arena's producers), for a big sci-fi comic book adaptation. Plus, we're bouncing ideas at the moment for three projects pitched to us during the meetings. And, of course, we're always throwing ideas out between ourselves for future ideas.

JV: From your perspective, what’s the MOST FAVORABLE aspect entering the world of professional screenwriting?

DH: It's just a dream—to do something you truly love. To get to this point, it's been a great ride.

JV: From your perspective, what’s the LEAST FAVORABLE aspect of entering the world of professional screenwriting?

DH: The flying! I hate it! Another good reason to move out to L.A., I guess. Plus, I'm not good in meetings or pitches. I find them really daunting. It's strange, I can talk general bullsh*t with anyone, that's no problem—and I can do karaoke no problem—but talking about stuff I've done? I freeze. Thank God for Toby, he seems to love meetings!

JV: And finally...what’s your best advice for screenwriters who aren’t necessarily located in the Los Angeles area?

DH: With the advent of the internet, and technology as a whole, I don't think [living in Los Angeles is the] necessity as it probably once was. Everything we could do face to face, we can do online. Although, I do kind of miss that personal interaction, so I think it's important to try and get out when I can. Hopefully, as things progress I'll be able to get out more often, despite the flying!

JV: Thanks for your time, Darren. I wish you the best of luck with Arena as well as all your future projects!

***
APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.com and Kindle e-book! (You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!)

Ya never know who'll you'll meet...

I did another round of barhopping with my friend Craig last night. We were at a cool little spot in Beverly Hills, chatting away with the bartender/budding actor, when a gentleman plopped down onto the seat next to mine. He got himself involved in our high-spirited, somewhat geeky conversation about which actor portrayed the best James Bond. (By the way...though Daniel Craig is doing a fine job, James Bond will forever be Sean Connery. Don’t even try arguing with me about it.) Our new bar buddy, whose name is Darren Howell, was from England, was a screenwriter...and had just sold his first feature screenplay to Summit Entertainment. He was in town having meetings with producers, directors, and agents. Darren sat with us for more than an hour, discussing movies and, of course, the crazy/exciting world of professional screenwriting. He had a very interesting POV of being a UK writer selling to Hollywood, so I asked him if he’d like to be interviewed for this blog. He seemed pretty enthusiastic about it. Darren heads back to England this weekend, so I plan to conduct his interview shortly thereafter. Stay tuned.

Variety blurb about Darren’s script sale:
http://www.variety.com/article/VR1117984713.html?categoryid=1236&cs=1

FIRE!!

Universal Studios Hollywood suffered a bit of a loss over this past weekend. Once again, a major portion of the back lot burned down. (The same exact section of the lot burned in 1990.) I was on the road last Sunday, driving from Los Angeles to Dallas, Texas, when I got the call from a family member (who happens to live a couple hundred yards from where the massive conflagration raged). All I could think was, “Not again!” Then I got to thinking about the four years I spent working security on that back lot. I worked the graveyard shift and spent many a night patrolling those dark, lonely streets. I must say, of all the jobs I’ve had, that was certainly the most enjoyable. For a movie guy like me, and a guy who has no problem being all alone for hours on end, I was like a kid in a candy shop. I spent countless nights on the historical New York Street, Brownstone Street, and Courthouse Square. Yup, lots of fond memories.

Here’s a comical memory:

I was out on New York Street one Thanksgiving, desperately trying to eat my boxed holiday meal as a chilly wind buffeted me. I was really struggling to eat my meal. It was pretty pathetic. I got to laughing so hard, I nearly choked on my sliced turkey!

Here’s a weird memory:

One evening I watched an odd bluish-white light swirl in a high window in one of the upper floor façade windows. The light wasn’t coming from outside the building and I don’t see how it could’ve been coming from inside the building since there was nobody up there. So I called dispatch and requested a supervisor to come check it out. He arrived quickly and did a thorough search. He found nothing.

Here’s another weird memory:

One November night, about 2:00 in the morning, I confronted a dark human-shaped figure standing stone-still mere yards from me. I quickly got on my radio and called for back-up. When I looked back a moment later, whoever it was—or whatever it was—had vanished. My supervisor and a couple other officers did a thorough search of the immediate area, but found nobody. Kinda creepy.

Here’s a geeky memory:

There was the time when my security buddy and I reenacted the famous “Did he fire six shots or only five?” speech from the classic flick Dirty Harry. We performed the scene in the precise spot where it was shot for the movie. I played Harry and my buddy was the wounded bank robber. “Well do ya, punk?” Pretty geeky, sure, but fun for a movie guy like me.

Here’s a fun memory:

On more than one occasion, my pals and I would chase each other around the New York and Brownstone streets in our security vehicles. Sure, not exactly the smartest thing to do (something that could easily get a person fired), but hey, you gotta break the inevitable monotony of patrol once in a while.

Here’s another fun memory:

There were nights/early mornings when I’d put a little excitement into the lives of new recruits and pretend to be a trespasser. I’d remove my badge, or turn my jacket inside out, and wander around at the far end of the street. They had no idea who I was and would try to stop me...and that’s when I’d take off running. They’d chased me all over the place, screaming into their radios, “602 on New York Street!” (FYI: I told the gal who worked dispatch to ignore imminent calls about trespassers. Also, "602" is code for "trespasser.") I finally allowed the guards catch me. They sure had a good laugh when they discovered I was one of their own. Welcome to the team, boys!

Yet another fun memory:

One night I freaked out a new hire who kept hearing strange noises in one of the facades. I kept telling him the noises were just animals roaming around. He insisted they were not animals. I wanted to teach him a lesson, so I asked my supervisor to go hide in the façade and rustle around. When the new guy called in to report the noises, I responded. I had the new guy follow me into the eerily dark, eerily quiet façade. At just the right moment, as my flashlight beam searched high and low, my supervisor leaped out, screaming like a banshee. Man, that poor guy must’ve jumped about ten feet in the air. After he finally calmed down, he shook my hand and congratulated me on a good scare. He quit the following day. What a wimp.

Here’s a potentially malodorous memory:

One night I was posted on Courthouse Square (which is where the clock tower from Back to the Future is...um, was). I was sitting alone on a stage. I looked down between my knees and discovered a skunk directly beneath me. You can pretty much find every variety of animal life on that back lot—skunks, deer, snakes, raccoons, rabbits, opossums, and coyotes. Luckily, I was pretty used to being in close proximity of the lots’ skunk population, so I didn’t make any sudden moves. If I had, I’d probably still be trying to get the stink off me!

Here’s a cooooold memory:

There were all those nights, in the dead of winter, standing alone for an entire shift in 40 degree weather. (I know, all you folks in colder climates are saying, “A 40 degree winter? You call that cold?!” But still, pacing back and forth in 40 degree weather for 8 or 12 hours ain’t exactly a picnic in the park.) If I was lucky, there’d be a work lamp out on the street and I could warm my hands over it. Every so often I’d make a quick trip to the restroom on Brownstone Street and put my cold hands under hot running water. Ahhhh, it felt sooooo gooooood.

The aftermath...

I got back to L.A. on Tuesday and picked up my car from my brother’s house—as I mentioned, he lives extremely close to where the fire occurred—and my poor car looked like it gone through a war, covered in ash and burned bits of plastic. Scary.

I had four fun years on that studio lot and I’m sure sorry to see a big piece of it go up in flames like that. But fret not, friends, if the powers that be at Universal decide to rebuild New York Street, Brownstone Street, and Courthouse Square, they’ll have it completed in about three months. Trust me, those Hollywood guys in can do anything.

To view video footage of the Universal Studios fire, click here.

To see some fun pics from my Universal Studios security days, visit the photo section of my MySpace page: myspace.com/theworkingscreenwriter

HARVEY KORMAN 1927 – 2008

This post has nothing much to do with screenwriting, but it does have something to do with comic greatness. We lost the great Harvey Korman a few days ago. If you’re like me, you grew up watching him on the hysterical Carol Burnett Show back in the '70s. You’ll also remember him from the Mel Brooks comedies Blazing Saddles and High Anxiety. After watching any of Mr. Korman’s performances, you’d know he was certainly one of a kind.

Here’s a tribute video I found on YouTube:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z0Or25z5Pbc

Here's a very funny clip from the Carol Burnett Show (with the great Tim Conway):

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q9T8i4FkNVo

I invite you to search YouTube for more fabulous Harvey Korman clips. I think you’ll like what you find.

Thanks for the laughs, Harvey!

MY UPCOMING SEMINAR...

I’m currently preparing my next IMPROVE-YOUR-CHANCES-OF-BECOMING-A WORKING-SCREENWRITER seminar. The exact date is not set yet, but it’ll be in late August here in Los Angeles (North Hollywood). During this eye-opening 2-hour seminar, I will be discussing the many methods you can use and the mindset you must have in order to vastly improve your chances of becoming a working screenwriter. The cost is $49.00. Attendees will also receive a copy of my book, Q and A: The Working Screenwriter -- An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today's Film Industry.

For more information, e-mail Jim(at)theworkingscreenwriter.com.

This will be a fun and motivating event, so don’t miss out!


And now, just for fun, I present my semi-regular installment of...

Only in La La Land

Recently, my friend Craig and I were—surprise, surprise—barhopping in Beverly Hills. We were driving down Rodeo Drive, on our way to Mr. Chow, and there’s producer Joel Silver barreling past us, cellphone to ear. (As I’m sure you know, Mr. Silver has produced numerous movies, including Lethal Weapon, Predator, The Matrix, V for Vendetta, and the recent flopperoo Speed Racer). Alas, Mr. Chow was packed—besides, they don’t allow you at the bar if you’ve not eating there—so we went down the street to The Grill On The Alley. So Craig and I are enjoying a drink at the bar (as usual, I’m having cranberry juice) and he nudges me, saying, “Hey, there’s Neil Sedaka!” I glance over and, sure nuff, it’s ol’ Neal himself. Sitting with him were—drum roll, please—Judge Judy! Wow, Neal Sedaka and Judge Judy! My life is now complete! OK, so fast forward a few more days and Craig and I are doing yet another round of barhopping in Bev Hills. We’re at the bar at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel. I’m sipping my drink (a Diet Coke this time) and I glance over and see—another drum roll, please—super-producer Jerry Bruckheimer! Like Joel Silver, Mr. B also had cellphone to ear. Man, what did guys like this do before cellphones?? All I can say is...only in L.A.!!

CONFESSIONS OF A COMPETITION WINNER...

I get the feeling many novice screenwriters think if they could just win a screenwriting competition—just one!—their career would be on a fast track to success.

If you’re a regular reader of my blog, or if you’ve perused my Working Screenwriter 2 blog, you’ll know I’m fairly dubious of the whole screenwriting competition route. I just feel budding scribes spend waaaaay too much time and effort trying to win those things.

What’s even more puzzling is why a writer would enter a no-name competition that offers little more than a few hundred bucks and a magazine subscription as a grand prize. It’s as if these writers are still in grade school and all they really want is to get that little gold star.

Personally, the only contest I want to win is getting Mr. Joe Producer to purchase my script, or perhaps having him hire me to write something on assignment. My trophy will be a produced movie with my name on it...or at least a nice paycheck. As far as I’m concerned, those are the only true prizes in the ol’ screenwriting game. Pats on the back and my name on some roster are fine, but they don’t pay the rent. But hey, that’s just my opinion. I mean, if little gold stars and magazine subscriptions are your thing, go for it.

Do I think there are competitions that are actually worthwhile? Sure, but only a very few. Nicholl would be one. But even winning top honors in Nicholl don’t guarantee anything.

OK, I know you’re saying, “C’mon, Jim, are you telling us not to enter script comps?” No, that’s not what I’m saying at all. I’m merely asking you not to focus so heavily on winning a screenwriting competition. Yes, submit to one or two of the big gun comps, but don’t forget your other avenues to success: sending query letters, making the all-important “face time” with industry insiders by attending industry events such as film festivals, or if possible, getting a low-tier job at a production company.

Remember: this is a business that’s pretty much run by connections...so go make ‘em!

I recently did a brief Q&A with Lorelei Armstrong, a novelist and screenwriter hailing from the beautiful state of Hawaii. Ms. Armstrong has participated in numerous screenwriting competitions over the last several years and her experiences are rather eye-opening. If you’re thinking about entering one of the many screenwriting comps (and there are many), then you’ll want to give a thorough read to Lorelei’s interview.

Q&A WITH LORELEI ARMSTRONG

Q: So, Lorelei, when did you start writing screenplays?

A: 1998. I wrote three that first year.

Q: Since 1998, approximately how many screenplays have you written?

A: Twenty-two.

Q: How many screenwriting competitions have you entered?

A: Around thirty.

Q: Of those (competitions entered), how many have you won outright?

A: Six.

Q: Name the specific competitions you’ve won.

A: The Screenwriting Expo Screenwriting Contest, The Contest of Contest Winners, The Filmmakers.com/The Radmin Company Contest, The Scr(i)pt Magazine/Open Door Contest, The Acclaim Film and Television Contest, The A Penny Short Contest.

Q: What is the largest prize you’ve ever won from one of these competitions?

A: $10,000 from the Screenwriting Expo.

Q: What other types of prizes (non-monetary) have you won from these competitions?

A: It still is a monetary issue, but reduced-price admission to the Austin Film Festival is my favorite non-monetary award. I’ve been a finalist or semi-finalist there three times, and had a great time. Beyond that, I’d advise caution to writers considering contests with non-monetary prizes. Story notes are often a paragraph long and written by a harried reader, and any contest that claims they will provide “exposure” is blowing smoke.

Q: Other than any material rewards, what have been the most satisfying aspects of winning a screenwriting competition?

A: It’s always nice to win. It’s tremendously encouraging. It is also nice to be able to pay the rent for a while from a contest win.

Q: Overall, do you feel it’s worth the time, effort and money to enter a screenwriting competition?

A: So long as you are clear on your goals. If you want to start your career, I would advise winning the Nicholl. Accept other contests for what they have to offer. Understand that Hollywood watches the Nicholl and only the Nicholl.

Q: Based on your experiences, what is the most POSITIVE aspect of entering a screenwriting competition?

A: Paying my rent for a year by winning contests. Note that I do not advise this as a sound business decision. But then, neither is trying to become a screenwriter!

Q: Based on your experiences, what is the most NEGATIVE aspect of entering a screenwriting competition?

A: My least favorite part of the world of screenwriting competitions is how many there are. There are hundreds. Many are a total waste of time and money. The sponsors take in thousands of dollars and the winner gets a nice certificate and maybe some story notes. Don’t give these folks your money.

Q: OK, let’s say you’ve just won one of the big screenwriting competitions. What can a writer expect to happen?

A: A nice phone call from your mother, if you’re lucky. Seriously, if you win the Nicholl, you will receive many, many script requests. If you win any contest other than the Nicholl, you will be lucky to get a half-dozen requests. Make your own calls and write your own letters, but don’t expect anyone to have heard of any other contest.

Q: Of all the competitions you’ve entered which do you feel was the most worthwhile?

A: Either the [Screenwriting] Expo or Austin, because the prizes were good. I’d like to say that one started my career, but I have had no success there.

Q: True or false (and please explain why): Entering a no-name competition is a waste of time.

A: True. You may feel good, you may value your prize, but it won’t move you forward in the business. Worse, you may be convinced that the script and the writing that won a small contest is good enough to make it in Hollywood, when in reality you have a great deal of learning to do.

Q: Explain what happened to you after winning the Screenwriting Expo.

A: Well, I was very, very happy for a while! I did get four requests for the script, two of which were part of “send all the finalists” group requests. One of those led to the worst rejection letter I think I’ve ever received. Thank you, Gersh! Within about forty-eight hours of winning, everyone I’d ever met knew I’d won. All my contacts, everybody. Everyone I’d gone to film school with at UCLA. The disinterest was extreme. Part of the problem is that the script is a large historical drama. Not exactly in high demand. I was only able to generate a handful of requests on my own. I went on to win four more contests that year, and someone at Scr(i)pt Magazine recommended me to a new agent. I signed with him. After a couple of years of his best efforts, he quit to go back to film school, and I have now quit to write novels. The only lasting effect of the Expo was that the check was large enough to attract the special attention of the business taxation people in my home state of Hawaii. I now have to pay 4% General Excise Tax (gross) on any future screenplay contest winnings. They have decided that winning contests is a business.

Q: If you had to enter just one or two screenwriting competitions, which would you enter?

A: I’ll name three: the Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting, the Austin Screenwriting Contest, and the Screenwriting Expo Contest.

Q: While you were actively submitting screenplays to competitions, were you also querying agents, managers and/or production companies?
A: Yes, I was actively querying, for what that's worth. And I was getting some requests based on the contests. I would say I had at least one script out there at all times for seven or eight years. And then I signed with my then-agent in early 2005, and he always had something out. I had the usual meet-and-greets, everywhere from funky office buildings in the Valley to on-the-lot prodcos. Plenty of the phony action to which Hollywood is addicted.

Q: If so, what type of responses were you getting, if any?

A: The most common reaction was that, whatever the person had read, they "loved it," but it wasn't quite right. My most winning script, Michelangelo, was too big for everyone. One agent I spoke to last year advised me never to mention the script to anyone, ever. Some folks wanted an adult to star in my kid comedy. Some wanted one comedy set in Los Angeles, so I rewrote it, and then nobody wanted a movie set in Los Angeles. A couple of places read my male-lead action/adventures and wanted to know if I'd written a romantic comedy (no). I've heard "too smart" and "too dumb." Someone read my thriller Ghostcatcher and asked "does she have to catch ghosts?" The usual noise.

Q: Do you feel adding "I won the Screenwriting Expo/Script magazine competition" to your query letters and/or telephone pitches engendered any additional interest from the agents, managers and/or production companies you queried?
A: The only folks who might have responded to "I won the Expo" were prodcos who were somehow involved in the Expo. Nobody else had heard of it. I won the third year of the contest; it might have gotten better since then.

Q: What is your current status as a screenwriter?

A: I quit screenwriting last fall, a month before the strike. I went out and picketed every day, but didn’t have to worry about what would happen to me afterward. I have a novel coming out in the fall, and after my book tour I will be leaving Los Angeles and moving home to Hawaii.

Q: Any parting comments/thoughts?

A: I’d like people to take a look at my screenwriting website (link is below). There is more information about contests there, as well as a lot of information about screenwriting and the business. My general advice is to go into screenwriting, and into screenplay contests, with your eyes open. This is a hard, hard business and the odds are overwhelmingly against all of us. Don’t let your hopes and dreams hurt you. Know the facts.

* * *

Well, there you have it—an interesting point of view from someone who’s actually been there. I’d like to thank Lorelei for participating in this interview, and I wish her the best of luck with her upcoming book! If you’d like to visit Lorelei’s website, just click here.

***

APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.con and Kindle e-book! You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!

Come visit me on Facebook at Jim Vines Presents!

Now you can follow me on Twitter!

THE COMEDY SCREENPLAY: BUT IS IT FUNNY?

I’ve been wrestling with whether or not I even wanted to write this blog entry. I mean, comedy is such a subjective thing. Just because I think something is funny doesn’t mean you’re going to think it’s funny...and vice versa. But I felt that I should go ahead and write this entry anyway. I figured if I could help one or two budding screenwriters stop and think about their comedy script before sending it out into the world, well, I’ve done my job. So, without further ado...

BUT IS YOUR COMEDY SCRIPT ACTUALLY FUNNY?
For a relative handful of writers, comedy is a piece of cake. For other writers, other genres are a far more obtainable/realistic goal. But if comedy is your thing, if brilliant one-liners roll off your tongue, if you’re able to regale people with humorous anecdotes, if people have been telling you since childhood, “You should be a stand-up comedian!”...you need to know that having the ability to translate all your funny material to the pages of a screenplay takes a certain extra-special type of talent. Fact is, the comedy screenplay is very difficult to get right, and believe me when I tell you sooooo many wannabe comedy scribes have proven that statement absolutely correct. I’ve critiqued many “comedy” scripts in recent years and I found most of them to be about as funny as a traffic ticket. These writers—usually teenagers to early-20s—think “funny” is all about peppering a script with non-stop four-letter words and jokes about female body parts. Sorry, gang, but that sort of humor generally isn’t very amusing.

“OK, Jim, so what is funny?”

I realize comedy is a subjective thing. To be honest, I’m not really sure I can even fully articulate what goes into a well-written comedy screenplay. After all, they write entire books about this stuff—and I’m certainly not about to tackle it all here—but I think I’m a pretty good judge of what’s marketably funny and what’s not; what works and what doesn’t. I know there’s a particular structure and cadence to successful comedy writing. And I know this:

In comedy, timing is everything.

If you want examples of brilliant comedy structure, cadence and timing, then I suggest you turn to some of the comedy masters. There are many. Go read some scripts by Billy Wilder, Preston Sturgess, Woody Allen, or the brothers Zuker. You can surely learn quite a bit from those guys. There’s more recent brilliance from such writers as Wes Anderson and Judd Apatow. (Apatow certainly knows his way around the aforementioned “locker room” humor, but he does it with finesse and with heart.) Right now, let’s look at an excerpt from the script of the classic 1972 comedy What’s Up, Doc?, which was written by the inimitable Buck Henry. In the following scene, naïve, timid musicologist Howard Bannister (Ryan O’Neal) has inadvertently destroyed his upscale hotel room (smashing things, burning things), and now the stuffy hotel manager, Mr. Kaltenborn (John Hillerman), has dropped by to survey the damage.

INT. HOTEL ROOM – DAY

MR. KALTENBORN, the manager of the hotel, enters. He stands in the doorway, looks at the room in horror.

HOWARD (trying to be cheerful): Good morning.


KALTENBORN: No – I don’t think so. I’m Mr. Kaltenborn, the manager of what’s left of the hotel.

Kaltenborn is looking around the room. He looks like he might faint.

HOWARD: I’m awfully sorry about this whole mess here. Usually, this doesn’t happen.


KALTENBORN: Mr. Bannister, I have a message for you from the staff of the hotel.

HOWARD: Really? What is it?

KALTENBORN: Goodbye.

HOWARD: Is that the entire message?

KALTENBORN: We would appreciate it if you would check out.

HOWARD: When?

KALTENBORN: Yesterday.

HOWARD: That soon? Listen – uh – I don’t suppose there’s another room you could let me have for a few –

He stops as he sees the expression of utter disbelief on Kaltenborn’s face.

HOWARD: Ahh – well –

He finds his other shoe and puts it on. He pulls out the (Van Hoskins) case and stands up, holding it.

HOWARD (indicating case): These are my igneous tambula drums.

KALTENBORN (carefully, as to a madman): Yes, of course they are.

Howard goes out into the hall. Kaltenborn, with a last look around the room, pulls the door closed and the other half of the door handle comes off in his hand.

INT. CORRIDOR (17th FLOOR)

Howard and Mr. Kaltenborn walk toward the elevators, Howard carrying the case and Mr. Kaltenborn carrying the door handle.

KALTENBORN (hopefully): Where were you thinking of going now?


HOWARD: Well – my fiancée, Miss Sleep, is still burning. Uh – Miss Burns is still sleeping. And I thought – uh – maybe I could just sit in the lobby and wait until –

Kaltenborn shakes his head. The elevator arrives and Howard steps in.

HOWARD: Well – I really am sorry about the room.

KALTENBORN: Oh, that’s all right. We have plenty of others.

The elevator door closes. Kaltenborn looks sadly at the door handle in his hand, turns and goes back down the corridor.


Here’s another excerpt from the same screenplay:

INT. COURTROOM – DAY
[This scene takes place in a courtroom full of suspects in front of a very old and very frazzled judge.]

JUDGE: Officer – what are these people being charged with?

COP: That’s kind of hard to say, judge.

JUDGE: Give it a shot.

COP: Well, sir, we picked some of them out of San Francisco Bay.

JUDGE: Entering the country illegally?

COP: No, sir, they drove in.

JUDGE: Into the country?

COP: Into the Bay.

JUDGE (making notes): Okay – unauthorized use of public waters.

COP: Mostly in stolen cars.

JUDGE: Ahh – that’s better. Grand larceny.

COP: Then there was the shooting.

JUDGE: That’s assault with a deadly weapon.

LARRABEE: They broke into my home.

JUDGE: That’s breaking and entering.

LARRABEE (pointing to Eunice): They brought her with them forcibly.

JUDGE: That’s kidnapping.

EUNICE: They tried to molest me.

JUDGE (looking at her): That’s unbelievable.

JONES: Your Honor, I can clear all this up in ten seconds.

JUDGE: You do and you’ll get a prize.

JONES: May I approach the bench?

JUDGE: Yes. (to Bailiff) Watch him like a hawk.


As you can clearly read from these excerpts, the writing is clear, concise and punchy. Yes, this is typically what you want in any screenplay, but in comedy, it’s absolutely essential.

In comedy, the actual premise of your scene must also be funny. The idea of some poor sap, alone in his burned out hotel room and being visited by the quietly agitated hotel manager, is funny.

How many newbie scripts have I read where the so-called funny premise is nothing more than a bunch of goofballs sitting around smoking dope and jabbering endlessly about what a cool movie Star Wars is? Believe me, plenty.

How many newbie scripts have I read where the entire punch line of a scene was...well, actually, believe it or not, I’ve read quite a few “funny” scenes that had no punch line whatsoever. There was no real purpose of the scene other than to have people running around in hysterics. The writers of these scripts have failed at one thing you must have in a screenplay: focus.

WHO is the center of attention?
WHAT is their goal?
WHAT is the obstacle keeping them from that goal?

If I don’t know these basics, then why should I care? If I don’t care, chances are pretty good I won’t laugh.

Another thing you’ll see in an unsuccessful comedy screenplay: too many words getting in the way of the intended comedy. Again, this is something you want in any screenplay, but you really want your comedy screenplay to zip along. That means you need to spit out your funny lines—and descriptive passages as well—in the most efficient and linear way possible.

There’s that great scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark, when Indy looks down at the ground filled with slithering snakes and says to himself, “Snakes. Why did it have to be snakes?” He doesn’t say, “Oh, man, those snakes are yucky! I hate snakes!” No, as spoken, the line was perfect. It was to the point. No fuss, no muss. That’s the kind of writing that can and will make or break your comedy screenplay.

In the classically whacky comedy Airplane, when Ted Striker (Robert Hays) asks Dr. Rumack (Leslie Neilson), “Surely you can’t be serious.” Then Rumack responds in that perfect deadpan manner, “I am serious...and don’t call me Shirley.” He doesn’t say, “Of course I’m serious. I’m very serious. And please do me a favor. Don’t call me Shirley.” A cumbersome line like that would’ve killed the joke.

But funny dialogue is just one component of a successfully written comedy screenplay. You mustn’t forget how your descriptive passages are actually delivered. An unsuccessful comedy script contains unwieldy descriptions that detract from the overall hilarity you’re trying to convey. (Say that ten times fast!) A big mistake most first-timers make is adding what I refer to as LBOB. That’s my shorthand for “little bits of business.” These are things that, in the mind of many novice writers, seem amusing, but aren’t. For example:

Joe crosses his arms, tilts his head to the left, nods, and laughs.

Sure, maybe it’s important to know that Joe laughs, but we probably don’t care that he crosses his arms, tilts his head to the left and nods. All that stuff just gets in the way. Let the actors figure out the “business” they’re going to do. That's why they get the big bucks. “Joe laughs.” Nuff said.

You can also under-describe a scene, not gaining the maximum impact of its humor. For instance, let’s say you have a scene where some dopey bozo comes out of a bar, walks down the sidewalk, and slips on a banana peel. Here are two ways you could do it:

EXAMPLE #1: “Joe walks out of the bar. He walks down the street and slips on a banana peel. He falls down on the sidewalk.”

EXAMPLE #2: “Joe steps from the tavern. A smile on his face, he gazes into the perfect sky on this bright, sunny day. He inhales a deep breath of fresh air...starts down the sidewalk, whistling happily as he goes. Problem is...he doesn’t see the BANANA PEEL right in front of him. His foot goes down on it – ZWOOOOP! He becomes airborne...”
I think the second example is more effective. If you thought so too, congratulations, you get a cookie.

Again, they write entire books about what makes a funny screenplay, so I sure ain't making any huge revelations in this blog entry...but I hope I've given all you first-timers something to think about before you tackle that comedy idea you’ve had percolating in your brain for the last six years. Good luck!

* * *


APRIL 2015 ANNOUNCEMENT: My debut novel, Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen, is now available in paperback from Amazon.con and Kindle e-book! You're gonna love it cuz it's all about Hollywood and screenwriting!

Come visit me on Facebook at Jim Vines Presents!
Also follow me on Twitter!