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!)