Good meeting...

I had a good meeting yesterday with two producers and a director (who also happens to be an actor, one that I’m sure many of you know). Everyone agrees that I’ve got a solid, unique script. Now, this is not to say that the script doesn’t need a bit of work (get used to it, boys and girls— scripts always need a modicum of work before they’re ready to go before a camera), but the general consensus is that I’ve already got something special in those 100 pages. OK, so this director, a very passionate, creative fella, spitballed some of his ideas. The two producers and I liked much of what he suggested and feel that, yes, some of those ideas could very well bump the marketability level up a couple of notches. All I gotta do now is see if I’m able to integrate these ideas into my existing script. If I can, we all feel we’ll have a good chance of getting this project off the ground. (Remember: Having a director who’s totally passionate about a script goes a loooong way toward getting a project produced.) Of course, I won’t do any significant physical reworking of the script until somebody comes up with a bit of development money. After all, "No bucks, no Buck Rogers." But in the meantime, I'll rethink certain aspects of the script, see what I can come up with, make some notes, etc.

As always, we’ll see where this little adventure goes. Hopefully it goes far.


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Justin Samuels...Part Two!

Dear Everyone:

I didn’t intend to do a second part to last month’s interview with NYC screenwriter Justin Samuels, but the reaction to it was overwhelming...and I wanted to give Justin a chance to respond to some of the comments and criticisms leveled at him by you readers...and there were a few additional questions I wanted to ask. So, without further ado…

VINES: Well, Justin, it seems our previous interview created a bit of a stir! You certainly took quite a drubbing. How are you holding up?
SAMUELS: Things are perfectly fine with me. I got my share of criticism, but I also got my share of support.
VINES: As you know, there were a lot of comments posted to my blog. I’m going to provide snippets from some of these comments and I’d like you to respond to them.
SAMUELS: Sure…
VINES: Great. Here we go…
READER COMMENT: “I actually think being a minority can OPEN doors for you in Hollywood. There are a bunch of diversity-focused screenwriting fellowships out there. I live in New York, work as a copywriter, and had zero connection in Hollywood. I entered a diversity-focused fellowship and was selected. It's helped me meet a bunch of successful directors, managers, producers and screenwriters, all who want to read my script and are rooting for me to succeed. I'm now setting up a deal with one of those directors to make my very first screenplay. I sometimes think my status as a minority has given me an unfair ADVANTAGE. But it just opened the door. After that, I had to have the talent to back it up."
SAMUELS: The diversity fellowships? I'm not aware of anyone who has written any major blockbuster movie or who has a serious career as a screenwriter breaking in through a so-called diversity fellowship. Could they exist? Sure. But none of the bloggers who are working screenwriters—who have written about me and criticized me—suggested I take this route. I tend to think that means no one really cares about these fellowships....Also, there's the WGA Minority Report for 2011, which shows representation of non-whites slipping.
READER COMMENT: “I’ve read two of his scripts....They are just not good enough....I speak from experience of having been a reader for a mid-sized prodco....Try rewriting one of those scripts for God's sake. There were numerous typos as well as sluglines that were totally out of place! You think that's worth money? If you can't spell or be bothered to learn the form, WHAT THE HELL MAKES YOU THINK YOU'RE ENTITLED TO ANYTHING? Why should people waste their time reading something that's sloppy and thrown together? Anyone can have ideas; it's the execution that's worth money. And that is exactly why you haven't been paid/read.” [Note: Justin assumes this poster read these scripts on Amazon Studios.]
SAMUELS: For what it’s worth, Amazon Studios is a place where you put up screenplays, get user feedback, and then rewrite. Scripts posted on there are not meant to be final drafts. On the first few scripts I posted on Amazon, I got feedback from other writers, listened to them. If I thought it appropriate, I revised or rewrote the script. As for me being entitled, aren't we all entitled to the same opportunities? Or should a few people have far better opportunities than the rest? I think anyone should have the opportunity to be read by the Hollywood talent agencies. In publishing, most agents take unsolicited queries and sample chapters. No reason it can't happen in film as well.
READER COMMENT: “I don't think we've ever met, but just by reading your comments here I can definitively state that your knowledge of the business and how it works is astoundingly obtuse.”
SAMUELS: No offense intended, dude, but there seems to be an infectious disease on the internet called expert-itis. Everyone has wisdom from God on how to make it in the film industry and knows all there is to know about the film industry, even though they're just on the first page of their first draft! I never claimed to be an expert on the business, nor do I want to be an expert in the business. I want to be a working screenwriter, and I, along with any other screenwriter, deserve access to the top firms in the business.
READER COMMENT: “The sad thing is that [Justin] just ruined his name. No one will work with him now; and no talent—considering most of the A-list talent comes from these two top tier agencies— will ever speak his words. He'll have to change his name to work professionally, along with his attitude.”
SAMUELS: This is plain ridiculous. People criticize everything all the time. People can criticize the federal government, and yet some of the same people who criticize the government run for office or work for it in other capacities. What am I getting at? Some people seem to think that the top agencies are somehow beyond reproach. I'd almost get the impression that some people hold an almost religious significance for these agencies. They seem to think that in the United States, where freedom of speech is a part of our constitution, we should not be able to criticize the business practices of these agencies. That's ridiculous. That's the beauty of living in the United States of America.
READER COMMENT: “Justin, there's no magic answer to succeeding except working hard to promote yourself....Stop suing people because they aren't doing what you expect them to do. It is YOUR job to write a script that knocks them on the floor. Good luck getting anything read now. The sad thing is, as a fellow Cornellian, I believe you probably are a good writer. You just received bad advice that will most likely cost you your screenwriting career.”
SAMUELS: I didn't receive bad advice. It was my idea to pursue legal action. Believe it or not, I really am concerned about the disproportionate impact that the industry referrals have on blacks and other non-whites. It’s a cause I believe in. Some of us are concerned about people other than themselves.
READER COMMENT: “As a copywriter, I'm amused to note that Samuels seems pretty sure he can break into New York's advertising/theater/literary orbit pretty much at will.”
SAMUELS: Let’s just say I can get by in my hometown.
READER COMMENT: “Justin, as an African-American writer who works steadily, is repped by one of the agencies named in your suit, went to an Ivy League school and doesn't have a trust fund or rich parents, I can tell you from years of experience that you are right about one thing and one thing only: there is discrimination in Hollywood. Women and minorities face obstacles that white men don't face in this business. However, that discrimination has NOTHING to do with your inability to get read. Studio executives would buy a script from a pelican if they thought the resulting movie would make money. Race has nothing to do with getting read. Yes, it is extremely difficult to gain access as a minority.”
SAMUELS: You and one other poster seem to be flip-flopping. There's discrimination, but there isn't; race isn't a factor in getting read, but it’s extremely difficult to gain access as a minority.
READER COMMENT: “You should be ashamed of yourself, Samuels. This frivolous and moronic lawsuit is going to make it much more difficult for people who actually do face discrimination in Hollywood to fight it. You're perpetuating the myth that prejudice is an illusion. Prejudice is real sometimes, but your suit is a joke.”
SAMUELS: There is discrimination, but because I made accusations of discrimination, I somehow [make it] harder for those in Hollywood who are facing discrimination to defend themselves. The courts would judge those cases independently of mine. Sorry, what you're saying makes no sense.
READER COMMENT: “We writers already get very little respect in the industry. Lawsuits like this only make us look like a bunch of whining sloths who don’t understand the business and can’t handle the challenges of climbing the seemingly endless mountain to success.”
SAMUELS: So I suppose the old writers in the [2002] age discrimination case were whining idiots? The ones who won the settlement from the agencies, networks, and production companies precisely because there had been a pattern of age discrimination against old writers? Obviously there must have been a problem and the law must have been violated for a $70 million settlement to be paid out.
READER COMMENT: “As for the need to be rich, my answer is Twitter. Doesn’t cost me a damn thing to tweet and connect with industry people all over the world.”
SAMUELS: Connect perhaps, but they don't seem to be interested in producing you. Honestly, any major industry person can get massive numbers of people following you on Twitter. This doesn't mean that they are going to take the time out to help you in your career. I remember on Facebook when I would get invitations to non-industry parties and…other non-industry events. I got so many invitations I stopped reading them. I seriously doubt any produced screenwriter suggests Twitter is a substitute for actually having personal contacts that you know and work with (providing you can get a job that allows you to support yourself in the industry). John August talks about the importance of living in Los Angeles—he has a career—yet [the poster of the previous comment], with no career, claims Twitter is all. Ummm, okay. I said rich white males in the industry tend to like to hang out with each other, and that makes it much harder for anyone outside of that group to break in. And since the top agencies do most of the sales, their insistence on an industry referral tends to lock non-whites out.
READER COMMENT: “What Samuels has done, in my opinion, is demean any real cases of discrimination that are indeed happening. To fill the court’s time with false claims from a scorned writer should be criminal.”
SAMUELS: Discrimination happens, but if someone points out that a business practice is discriminatory and attempts to change it they are demeaning real cases of discrimination? How? The courts handle each case and claim individually. One has nothing to do with the other.
READER COMMENT: “You tried for 9 years??? Are you SERIOUS? Not really any contest entries, just a couple handfuls of queries. Wow, you've really worked hard. A previous post suggests changing your name. I agree.”
SAMUELS: Most contests do not launch careers; for the most part, they are irrelevant. Of the few contests that are worthwhile, even they don't guarantee a career in the film industry. And I've not heard one working screenwriter say that contests are the best way to launch a worthwhile film career. I've not come across one book on screenwriting that says this is the best way to launch a career. As for changing my name, I tend to like my name; I'm happy with what I've done, thank you very much.
READER COMMENT: “Do you want to be in the room because you deserve to be there, regardless of what color you are or what you've got in your pants? Or do you want to be in the room because it's required they have diversity? Most every person in that room is there because they earned it. Black, female, white male, whatever....Half the freaking execs I sit across from are women or black. My agent is a woman. A recent producer on one of my projects is a woman. All of them are there not because they're women or black, but because they refused to fail. Fact: If you aren't in a room, it's because your work is not good enough to get in the room [and not] because you are black [or] because you are a woman.”
SAMUELS: I'm not sure what this has to do with my lawsuit or with my saying the current policy of no unsolicited submissions has a disproportionate impact on non-whites. These are anecdotal examples. There are people, for example, who would claim that there's no racism in Mississippi based on their experiences of everyone supposedly loving each other there. And there are others who would strongly disagree with that, [even pointing] out case examples and other evidence.
VINES: Justin, in our previous interview, this is what you said regarding screenwriters who have found success: “How did those people get read? Did they have relatives in the business? Did they live in Los Angeles all their lives? Who supported them and paid their bills when they moved to Los Angeles? You might have a lot more time for networking if you're a trust fund baby.” Then you went on to say something about needing “to be in the right social circles” in order meet the people who can get a script produced. Based on the above comments, I’d like to take a quick peek at four successful screenwriters. I’d like to point out that two of these writers are white, while the other two are African-American. One also happens to be a female.
1.) David Ayer (The Fast and the Furious, Training Day, SWAT), was born in Champaign, Illinois, but grew up in Bloomington, Minnesota and Bethesda, Maryland. When he was a teenager, he was kicked out of the house by his parents. He then move to Los Angeles and lived with a cousin, spending much of his young life on the troubled streets of South Central L.A.
2.) David Koepp (Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way, Mission: Impossible, Men in Black) was born in Pewaukee, Wisconsin. His mother was a family therapist and his father owned a billboard company.
3.) Antwone Fisher, born in Cleveland, Ohio, grew up in foster homes and was physically, verbally and sexually abused as a child. He wrote his first screenplay, Antwone Fisher, while working as a security guard at Sony Pictures.
4.) Shonda Rhimes (writer and creator of TVs Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, and screenwriter of Princess Diaries 2 and HBO’s acclaimed movie Introducing Dorothy Dandridge), was born in Chicago, Illinois. Her parents were a university administrator and a college professor. After graduating from USC, Rhimes found herself swimming in the teeming pool of unemployed scriptwriters in Hollywood. To make ends meet, she worked at a variety of day jobs, including as an office administrator, and then as a counselor at a job center that taught mentally ill and homeless people job skills. During this period, Rhimes also worked as research director on the 1995 Peabody Award-winning documentary, Hank Aaron: Chasing the Dream (1995). Rhimes made her directorial debut in 1998 with the short film Blossoms and Veils starring Jada Pinkett-Smith and Jeffrey Wright. [All biographical information culled from IMDb and Wikipedia.]
VINES (cont'd): It doesn’t appear to me that these writers came from terribly auspicious beginnings or, as you mentioned in our previous interview, “the right social circles. No, it sounds like to me like these writers a) had the initial writing talent, b) knew what they want and went after it, and c) worked their rear ends off to find success. These writers had jobs, had school, had their own obstacles to overcome. They hustled, did what they had to do, and MADE IT HAPPEN.
SAMUELS: I really hope you aren't using these four writers to say that working screenwriters are 50% black and 50% white!
VINES: No, of course not. What I'm trying to get across to you is that screenwriters do not have to come from money or a certain upper-class of society to become successful. A writer can find success, whether they're white, black, male or female, if they have the talent and are willing to work to make things happen.
[Justin declined to discuss this issue further.]
VINES: By the way, I was wondering…have you ever considered joining Organization of Black Screenwriters (OBS)? They list their primary function as assisting “screenwriters in the creation of works for television and film and to help them present their work to the industry.”
SAMUELS: I never thought about it. Not that I think it’s a bad thing, I don't know much about them and I don't know if joining would have been beneficial to me or not.
VINES: I’ve done a bit of research regarding your case against CAA and William Morris. Is it true your lawsuit was dismissed by Judge Deborah J. Batts on July 20th, 2011?
SAMUELS: The case was dismissed and I’m filing the appeal. These cases take years because as soon as one side is defeated, the other side appeals.
VINES: If necessary, are you willing to press forward with this discrimination case for "years"?
SAMUELS: Yes, I am.


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Did you know there are other great interviews on this blog? Feel free to check out my three interviews with U.K.screenwriter Darren Howell. He discusses his highs and lows as he gets his first script off the ground with a big prodco here in L.A. It’s quite a roller-coaster ride, believe me!


Thinking of entering a screenwriting competition? If so, you’ll want to read…
There’s also a very insightful interview with a Hollywood lit agent.

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!)


A Conversation with…Justin Samuels

Mr. Samuels has pending litigation against the William Morris Endeavor Agency and Creative Artist Agency, claiming racial prejudice. Mr. Samuels, an African-American, has been trying to sell his screenplays for 9 years, but claims his race has kept him from making any progress within the film industry. To read more about the lawsuit…


JV: You say you've been trying to break in for nine years. How many scripts have you written in those nine years—and what were the genres?

JS: Eight screenplays. I've written horror, fantasy, comedy, and mystery.

JV: You live in New York, correct?

JS: Manhattan.

JV: Are you married? Any kids?

JS: Not married. No children.

JV: As I’ve mentioned many times—on my blog, in interviews, etc.—a big part of a screenwriter's success is contingent upon spending “face time” with the powers that be in the filmmaking community. You need to meet these people face to face. You need to network. Do you think you’d have better luck if you lived in Los Angeles?

JS: No. I lived in Los Angeles on and off during 2003-2005. While I did have a couple of marginal entertainment industry jobs, the problem with working to support yourself and pay your bills is it takes a lot of time. I had little or no time to meet people. And I left Los Angeles because ultimately the jobs I got in that time period didn't pay enough to support me on a long term basis. And honestly, I'm established in New York, which is good, as there are other types of writing here. I could go into advertising as a copywriter, go into publishing as a novelist, or go out for other types of writing while I continue to write my screenplays.

JV: Have you ever spoken one-on-one with a producer and/or an agent, and said, “Will you please read my screenplay?” If so, what have been the results?

JS: Actually, at some sort of conference, I did meet an agent. He was there to give a speech, so I didn't have the chance to ask him to read any of my screenplays. Beyond that, no, I haven't spoken to an agent or producer one-on-one

JV: Has anyone—whether it be a secretary, a production assistant, etc.—ever loved one of your scripts enough to say that they’d pass it on to someone who might be able to get the script produced?

JS: Yes.

JV: And what was the result of that?
JS: He said he loved it. A couple of times it got passed to someone else. I never heard back from them though.

JV: So, this person who loved your script, what position in the industry did he have?

JS: An assistant director.

JV: What exactly did he say about your script—and who was he going to send it to?

JS: Supposedly he was to take the script to an actual director, as well as a producer and agent. As for what really happened, I don't know if his contacts were actually willing to read my work or not. People can overestimate their influence in Hollywood.

JV: Do you think these people—the director, the producer, the agent—simply weren’t willing to read your script, or do you think it’s possible that they read it and just didn’t think it a work of any real quality?

JS: I have no idea what really happened and that's a problem with getting read this way. If I had gotten a direct request from someone of note and they never got back to me, or they did and it was a pass, I'd have a direct answer. But going through a third party like this, anything is possible. While they could have read my work and not liked it, I have no proof that this person had the pull to get them to read it. In this particular case, I don't know what happened.

JV: According to the Social Hollywood article, you seem to feel it’s imperative that you get your scripts only to the “major” producers. I tend to think you’d have better results if you submitted to some of the lower-tier producers. In fact, I know quite a few screenwriters—by the way, one is a black man, two others are women—who make a pretty decent living getting their work optioned, sold, and produced by these lower-tier producers.

JS: Well, I did go that route with some lower-tier producers. They read my work and loved it. But then they went broke and went out of the business. Indie producers, at least in my experience, can have a lot of financial problems and are less likely to be able to raise the money to actually see the production of a film through. That's really why I want to go the major producers. If they are interested in your work, at least they have the financial resources to pay the screenwriter and produce the film.

JV: Approximately how many of these “lower-tier” producers have you queried in the last nine years?

JS: I don't recall the number. Some of the lower tier producers went out of the business; others had difficulty raising the money to do films that require decent budgets.

JV: Have you ever entered any of the top-tier screenwriting competitions, such as Nicholl, Final Draft, or Slamdance? If so, how did you fare?

JS: For the most part, I didn't enter contests, with the exception of Amazon Studios, which is still pending. Though one year I did enter the Nicholl. I didn't place.

JV: From what I can gather, it seems like you’re not really willing to get out there and hustle in any substantial way. You have to do far more than just sending out—as you mention in the Social Hollywood magazine article—“hundreds, if not thousands” of query letters. You have to do far more than meet one agent at “some sort of conference.”

JS: You glossed over the point where I had to work in Los Angeles. Work—you know, I do need money to survive—and commuting take up a massive amount of time. Los Angeles landlords are like landlords in any city, rent must be paid at the first of the month. Nobody cares that you want to be in the film industry.

JV: Yes, that’s very true, but I still think that if you can write a marketable script, you’re far better off being here in L.A. than in just about anywhere else.

JS: I've already lived in Los Angeles and living there doesn't give you access in and of itself. While I will always write screenplays, there are other types of writing that are centered in New York, not Los Angeles, and these types of writing are a lot more open. Publishing, theatre, advertising, are all centered in New York, not Los Angeles. So while I have my difficulties in accessing film, it's just better to be here in New York.

JV: You also mention in the Social Hollywood article that you’re a graduate of Cornell University and have a B.A. in history. You also minored in English and “writing classes,” and have “done screenwriting workshops on the side.” In my opinion, this is all fairly irrelevant to your eventual success as a screenwriter. There are plenty of successful screenwriters who have had relatively little education. Sure, maybe they’ve attended a couple screenwriting workshops or seminars, maybe read a few how-to books, but they simply had the innate ability to craft a motion picture screenplay, to tell a story that people would want to pay to see.

JS: How did those people get read? Did they have relatives in the business? Did they live in Los Angeles all their lives? Who supported them and paid their bills when they moved to Los Angeles? You might have a lot more time for networking if you're a trust fund baby. I mentioned my education in the context of if even I have this much difficulty getting read, I know it would be outright impossible for almost all non-whites in this country to break in. Since there would be others who would use the excuse that lack of education and/or talent explains the shortage of non-whites as screenwriters or in other behind the scenes positions.

JV: With regard to the agents and/or producers you’ve queried, how do they even know you’re an African-American screenwriter? I mean, your point of view seems to be: “They know I’m black—they won’t read my script!” Do you mention in your queries that you’re an African-American?

JS: I didn't say that they know I'm African-American. I said since the majors do not even accept queries, this has a disproportionate impact on African-Americans in terms of locking us out of the industry, as we have no access to the people we would need to be read by.

JV: Justin, I’m not saying a certain amount of discrimination doesn’t exist, but I tend to think that a vast majority of producers and lit agents don’t necessarily care if you’re young or old, black or brown, gay or straight, male or female. These producers and agents simply want great material. I really can’t imagine one of these agents or producers—one who has read your script and thinks it would make a great movie—sitting down to meet with you for the first time and saying, “Uh-oh. He’s black. I can’t represent/buy his script.”

JS: But how would I access these producers or lit agents? I'd have to get read in order for them to like my work or not like it. Truthfully, I've had people say that my work is great. Unfortunately for me, they were so far on the fringe it didn't matter. If I had gotten a bunch of reads from major people in the industry, and they didn't like my work…I'd have to deal with that. Basically, I'm saying I have no access, in part because of my race and because I'm not in on the right social circles that would allow me to talk to a producer or agent one-on-one.

JV: C’mon, Justin, you don’t have to be “in the right social circles” in order to talk with producers and/or agents. Again, if you just got out and schmoozed a little, especially here in Los Angeles, you’d be running into film people all the time. See, that’s really one of the keys to all this—meeting people in the film industry…not just producers and agents…and getting them to read your material. If you’re good, if you have a script that could potentially be turned into a movie, you’ll get noticed. Sure, perhaps by a “lowly” Production Assistant at first, but then that P.A. might say, “I really like your script. Can I give this to my boss?” That’s how many careers have started in this business.

JS: Look at what you just said. Yes, you do indeed need to be in the right social circles to do what you said. You'd need wealthy parents—disproportionately white—or some sort of backing where you basically didn't have to work in order to schmooze with film people all the time. You seem to have glossed over the part where I lived and worked in Los Angeles. At times, I worked long hours, commuted long hours. It’s why I said the idea where one must meet people basically favors wealthy white people who can live a certain lifestyle.

JV: I happen to know plenty of Caucasian screenwriters who can’t sell anything either. They can’t option anything; they can’t get meetings with either producers or agents. I’ve read quite a few of their scripts. Truth is, they were awful. Again, white, black, yellow, or brown—if you can’t write a marketable screenplay, you’re not gonna generate any heat. It’s that simple.

JS: No, not that simple. According to the WGA, 5% of screenwriters in film were non-white. Are you claiming that non-white screenwriters are genetically incapable of writing screenplays? Disproportionately, screenwriters are white and male, in large part because of the schmoozing policy you defend. And your earlier advice to me, move to Los Angeles, meet film people all the time, has nothing to do with writing a marketable screenplay.

JV: Where have I claimed that “non-white screenwriters are genetically incapable of writing screenplays”? I’m only saying that plenty of white screenwriters can’t write marketable scripts and, therefore, can’t get anything optioned or sold. So it’s not just African-Americans and women who are having trouble getting stuff sold. Fact is, selling a screenplay isn’t easy for anyone!

JS: However, statistically, selling a screenplay for some reason is apparently a lot harder if you aren't white or if you're a woman. Those are the stats quoted by the guild.

JV: I think that might simply be because there are far fewer non-white and female screenwriters trying to break into the business. Anyway...here’s a little story I’d like to relate. I grew up in Los Angeles and decided on “the screenwriting life” in the early 90s. By then I had been married, divorced, and had a daughter, so I was working full time. But I managed to learn the craft and crank out scripts. My first optioned script came a few years later. This wasn’t a big producer and it certainly wasn’t big money, but it was an option. It was basically somebody telling me, “You’re a good writer. I want to produce a movie out of your script!” I stayed focused and kept writing and kept getting my scripts “out there.” Do you know how I eventually sold my first screenplay? In 1995 I answered an ad in Variety. Some upstart producer was looking for scripts. So I contacted him and sent him a script. By the way, not once did he ask me if I was young or old, black or white, gay or straight. He got back to me a short time later and told me that the script wasn’t quite what he was looking for, but he really liked my writing. Not long after that he got back in touch and asked if I wanted to do a rewrite on a script. He said he might have a potential buyer if the script was solid enough. I did the rewrite, which I wasn’t paid for, and he was able to set the script up at a prodco here in town. The movie eventually got produced. This wasn’t a huge prodco, but it was a respected one, and it was a credit, and that movie has been playing virtually non-stop on cable all around the world for over ten years, and this has opened some doors for me. I wasn’t supported by a wealthy family; I didn’t hang out in moneyed social circles. No, I learned my craft, wrote and wrote and wrote, and sent my scripts to anyone who would read them. This is what it comes down to: writing marketable scripts, getting them out to people, building a fan base, and hope your scripts eventually land on the desk of someone who can do you some good.

JS: I really don’t see how this is relevant to anything. I said that the mainstream agencies have policies that disproportionately lock non-white—or those who don’t come from wealthy families—out of the industry. Your option didn’t come through a script shopped by a top agency, so that was a path that was closed to you at that time. If you had been from a prominent enough family, you might have had that opportunity.

JV: You’re suing WMA and CAA for eight million dollars. I realize that it’s customary to pick a monetary amount when you initiate a lawsuit—and I’m sure you’re factoring in punitive amounts—but are you saying that you feel you’re owed roughly $850,000 for each year you’ve been attempting to sell your scripts? If so, please explain your rationale.

JS: No comment due to pending litigation.

JV: I have to say, Justin, agents, producers et al. tend not to want to be in business with someone who’s—and please excuse the term—“lawsuit happy.” Do you realize that by filing this suit, you might very well be destroying any career you might potentially have in Hollywood?

JS: If my efforts bring about any change at all, it’s more than worth it. And I'm not lawsuit happy. Businesses sue each other all the time in Hollywood. I think there's a double standard here. If a wealthy person or a business sued another wealthy person or business it would be no big deal. If a poor person who believes he's standing up for himself or for the rights of others sues, he's the devil.

JV: All right, Justin, go ahead, pitch me your best script. Sell me on it.

JS: “Lunatics”: A mental patient suspects the institute's head psychiatrist is actually a demon reaping the souls of the weak-minded, and must use his untapped ability to help his fellow patients regain control of their thoughts.

JV: What’s the current status of the lawsuit?

JS: I'll just say it’s pending; these things can take a while to fully resolve.

JV: If three or four years from now you still haven’t sold anything, will you still continue to write screenplays?

JS: Yes.

Read part two of my interview with Justin!

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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!)


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You Could Die Holding Your Breath in This Town!

A few months ago, my manager calls and says, “I sent [name of script] to this director I know. He read it and thought it was great, and he asked if he could send it to this producer friend of his. I told him to go ahead and send it. A couple weeks later, the producer calls me and says he loves the script and wants to meet us. So, Jim, we have a meeting at Universal next Thursday at noon.”

OK, sound good. So...

That Thursday, I get myself over to Universal at noon and I walk into this producer’s bungalow. My manager is not there yet, but the director (the fella who first read the script) is. So the three of us sit in this very pleasant, very spacious office, and have a chat. We talked about all sorts of things (much of it having absolutely nothing to do with my script or filmmaking). We got to know each other a bit and had some laughs. Based on the energy I’m getting from these two gentlemen, I think they’re cool, likable.

My manager eventually arrives and the meeting officially starts. The producer tells me how much he really loves the script. After the movie he just completed (due out late this year), my script is exactly what he’s looking to do next.

Great!

So the four of us discuss possible budgets, potential shooting locations, actors who might fit the various roles, etc. The producer tells me he’d like to get the movie into pre-production as soon as possible (even mentioning that he’s prepared to shell out some option cash), but first he’d like to read the script a couple more times and give me some notes for a polish.

The meeting ended somewhere after 1:00PM. I thought it went well. Really well. My manager thought so too. The director, who we spoke with out in the parking area afterward, was very upbeat.
This was in mid-March. Though my manager has maintained some contact with this producer, I’m still waiting on that second meeting.

I’m not exactly holding my breath. But we’ll see. Things tend to move really, really, really slowly in Hollywood.

Psst! Have you read my "other" blog?

Every so often, novice screenwriters contact me, asking such questions as,

"Is it absolutely necessary that I write out an outline for my screenplay?"
"What's a treatment?"
"Which is best: WGA registration or Library of Congress copyright?"
"How can I get an agent?"
"Should enter a screenwriting competition?"
"Should I take my story to a pitchfest?"
"Should I option my script...for a dollar?"
"I'm an older guy. Should I even try to break into the screenwriting game?"

Well, the questions are, it seems, endless. I usually direct these folks to my "other" blog, The Working Screenwriter 2, which is where they'll find answers to many of the big "need to know" questions. They'll also find plenty of solid advice, how-to tips, as well as my very popular "Fatal Flaws" section, which points out many of the blunders most novice writers make.

So whether you're writing your first screenplay or your fifth screenplay, you'll want to pay a visit to The Working Screenwriter 2!

One View on Writer's Block...

A fellow writer posted the following on one of the screenwriting boards. I liked what I read (mainly cuz I wholeheartedly agree with every word of it), so I asked for permission to post here on my blog. Here it is...


"There's no such thing as writer's block. That was invented by people in California who couldn't write." - Terry Pratchett

I don't believe in writer's block. Most of the “serious” writers I've known don't, either. I agree with the one who says, “It's an indulgence of amateurs. When you've got a contract with a deadline, you either turn in a manuscript or return your advance. You may find writing difficult and your results unsatisfying, but you do it anyway, because that’s what professional writers do: they write.” However…

I do believe in the realization that if your current work is of poor quality it should be abandoned. (Don’t delete it—the idea may be worthwhile even if the execution isn’t.)

I believe in inadequate preparation.

I believe in inadequate organization, too.

I believe in writing yourself into a corner so tight that you either need to start over or abandon it.

I believe in lost enthusiasm for a particular work.

I believe in lack of focus, in not knowing what your story’s really about and why these characters should tell it.

I believe in increasing boredom with an entire genre that’s become too familiar.

I believe in well-crafted characters you don’t want to spend time with. (And if you don’t, nobody else will, either.)

I believe in stories that require a daunting amount of preliminary research before you can write. (“Sure, that’s it—a police procedural following a serial killer who’s targeting milliners in 1910 Belgium!”)

I believe in shyness and lack of confidence that makes seeking expert advice or background hideously difficult or impossible.

I believe in not knowing how to start, or where to start, or even if you should start.

I believe in finding the need to learn basic writing mechanics and screenplay format so boring or off-putting that you’d rather procrastinate than spend the time it takes (which isn’t much for format).

I believe in concluding that your whole concept is stupid, immature, derivative, impractical, embarrassing, too personal, legally actionable, or any of a host of other fatal flaws.

I believe in realizing that you're not as good as other people—the ones who ought to know, like teachers and fellow writers—think you are.

I believe in realizing that you're not as good as you think you are—or ought to be.

I believe in that “what’s-the-use” attitude after you learn that your first several screenplays are probably going to be pretty bad regardless of the blood, sweat, and tears you give them.

I believe in the inability of young writers to write characters well beyond their own age and, regardless of research, situations well beyond their experiences—and I believe in the incredible frustration of being young and bursting with ideas that you shouldn’t tackle yet.

Now, any of those can stop you dead in your tracks and keep you stopped. The question then becomes: How can you get started again?

Give yourself permission to write utter crap. Lousy ideas, poor grammar and spelling, stilted dialogue…Write it anyway. Nobody has to see it. Written things can be revised or rewritten to improve them. The blank pages of the “blocked” remain blank.

Change your writing environment. Try something radically different. If you write on your computer in a quiet room, try a spiral notebook in a park or coffee house, or ruled paper on your grandmother’s dining room table. (Not recommended: your blood on walls.)

Perform writing exercises. Writing something different may free you.

Move physically. Play a sport, go for a walk or run, swing on a playground, whatever you like, but get your blood pumping. When it's racing through your body, the brain gets plenty of oxygen—and ideas.

Give yourself blocks of unstructured time when you’re not likely to be sleepy. Find a quiet place, think about your current writing project, and let your mind wander. Rein it back to the subject as needed. This can be combined with physical movement—a long walk may be an idea wellspring!

Play What If…? with what you see. What if the kid cutting your sandwich suddenly plunged that knife into the woman at the cash register? What if he merely put caustic chemicals in the mayonnaise? What if the sandwich and kid are fine, but you choked, right here at your table? What if you gave half your sandwich to that lady over there who looks poor? What if she thanked you for it by giving you something valuable (that she didn't think was worth more than the sandwich)? What if you sold it and couldn’t find her to give her any of the money? What if she found you and demanded all of it? What if...

Write daily, every day, no exceptions, for a set amount of time. If you can't write, you must remain in your writing environment for the set amount of time anyway. Your choices are a) write, and b) don’t write. No games, no internet, no texting, no TV.

Stimulate your mind with new experiences. If you're a movie fan, see a play or watch a street performance. Hear live music rather than CDs, or listen to something in a genre you know nothing about. Eavesdrop on or observe people unlike most of the ones you know. People-watch (and invent lives for passers-by). Attend a sporting event (any kind, at any level) where you don't know anyone and watch the crowd rather than the players.

Upon waking, jot down the surrealistic snippets of whatever dreams you remember. They don't mean anything, in my opinion, but the odds are good that they're packed with drama.

Just do it. You don't want to be a self-indulgent amateur, right?

© 2011 by Maryn Blackburn




* * *

Luigi's Chinese Delicatessen

"A great summer read!"
"A sexy Hollywood tale!"
"It's WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN for the 21st century!"

Available in paperback from Amazon.com 
and Kindle e-Book!


A Bit of Promotion: My Book!

Dear Screenwriter…

Many of you long-time readers are fully aware of my book, Q&A: The Working Screenwriter. For those of you who are a bit newer to this blog, I’d like to offer an introduction to what many have called “highly recommended to any budding screenwriter,” “a very instructive yet entertaining read,” “filled with great insight and honesty,” “valuable and practical,” “a must-read,” “inspirational,” “a phenomenal book.” Here’s what David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible, had to say in the book’s foreword:

"Screenwriting is not for the faint of heart. It is both arduous and challenging. That is one reason that crafting a movie script from start to finish is one of life's most sublime experiences. As you know, the writing process itself is its own reward. But to sell the script—now that's Nirvana. How do you do that? How do you write a movie that sells or finds you work?

Each writer approaches the process in his or her unique way. Each walks his or her own writing path. And yet, when you examine the experience of dozens of successful writers, you see patterns, and you see new ways of doing things that you know will improve your own unique style and chances for success.

This book, in its way, invites you to sit down in a comfortable room with over a dozen working writers. Just you and them. They give you answers to questions that perhaps have puzzled you for months or years. Straight answers. Honest answers. And you get their view of writing and selling issues that are important to you. You partake of their wisdom. In some cases, you might even disagree with them.

That's one reason I enjoyed reading Q&A: The Working Screenwriter. The content became a discussion in my mind. Years ago when I began my own writing career, it was a book of interviews that inspired me the most. I felt as though established writers were talking to me and giving me their personal advice. I learned from them and improved my craft.

The same was true when I read these interviews. Yes, I benefited from the answers to questions, but I also gained from what was said in the process of answering those questions. For that reason, I recommend you read this book from cover to cover with an openness that invites what you need to settle into your mind and resonate there. Sometimes it's the subtext or an off-handed comment that presents that golden insight that will help you the most." — Dave Trottier, Author, The Screenwriter’s Bible

If you’d like to pick up a copy of Q&A: The Working Screenwriter, you can do so by visiting any of the fine booksellers below.

Q&A: The Working Screenwriter at Amazon.com

Q&A: The Working Screenwriter at Barnes & Noble

Q&A: The Working Screenwriter at The Writer's Store

If you want to stir your creative juices, bolster your confidence, and gain a better understanding of what it takes to become a working screenwriter in today’s film industry, you’ll find Q&A: The Working Screenwriter essential reading!

JANUARY 2012 UPDATE...

Interview with Darren Howell, Part 3!*

*If you haven’t read my two previous interviews with Darren Howell, please do so before reading this latest interview. Just go to:
Interview with Darren Howell, Part 1
Interview with Darren Howell, Part 2

JV: OK, let’s go back a bit. You initially optioned Arena, which you co-wrote with Toby Wagstaff, when?

DH: That feels like an eternity ago. If I remember right, we got the news on Good Friday [March 21], 2008.

JV: What were some of your experiences—both good and bad—with producers, development executives, prospective directors, etc. subsequent to optioning the script?

DH: It was nice to sit in on meetings—albeit via phone from London—while “Team Arena” met to discuss development, and it was awesome when the director sent me some conceptual sketches that had been done. What I didn't like was the long periods of silence, when nothing was happening.

JV: The director who sent you conceptual drawings—can you mention who he was? And how enthusiastic was he about Arena?


DH: The director Summit chose was a guy named Jeff Wadlow [Cry Wolf, Never Back Down]. He was a cool guy and really passionate about the script. I actually met with him [in June 2008] when I was out in L.A.

JV: What was the specific reason Summit put your script into turnaround?

DH: They stated it was too similar to Predators, which, to anyone that's read the script, is complete bullshit! It's also laughable that they had the script months before Predators was announced. See, this was the annoying thing: Arena was the script that Summit had to make, and ASAP. They also mentioned something about it being only a two quadrant picture...

JV: “Two quadrant” is a term I’m not familiar with…

DH: Apparently, movies are categorized in quadrants depending on the audience demographic: men under 25; men over 25; women under 25; and women over 25. For instance, a movie appealing to men under 25 would only be a one quadrant picture. Apparently Summit decided that Arena was only a two quadrant picture, and only appealed to men!

JV: From the time you optioned Arena, until it went into turnaround, how much rewriting were you asked to perform, and how much did you actually do?

DH: If I remember right, we did one full rewrite and a couple of minor polishes.

JV: Percentage-wise, how much did your script change from your original draft to the “full rewrite” you did?

DH: Our full rewrite wasn't overly heavy, if I remember correctly. I think the structure and beats of the script pretty much stayed unchanged. One thing that made me laugh was we had a big set piece where the modern day U.S. Rangers make their escape in a World War II army truck, while being pursued by dozens of Sioux Indians on horseback. It was all very exciting: flaming arrows, Indians scrambling over the truck, our protagonist hanging out of the cab fighting, limbs being hacked off, etc. There was a big hoo-haa about how it wasn't politically correct to show the extermination of Native Americans and we had to substitute them for Zulus, as it's obviously OK to gun down Africans in movies!

JV: Do you feel development of the script ultimately pushed the story closer to what Predators was? And if so, considering Summit ultimately decided it was all too “similar to Predators,” wouldn’t you say it’s rather ironic?

DH: That's kinda hard for me to answer. Personally, I think Arena is as close to Predators as Mary Poppins!

JV: You mentioned to me that you had gone through “a wide range of emotions” after Arena was dropped by Summit Entertainment. Tell me about that.

DH: Oh, I remember being numb, shaking, trying to put a brave face on, crying like a baby. You name it, I did it. I even wanted to fly out to L.A. and execute every motherfucker that worked for Summit. Obviously, I didn't. You just have to pick yourself up. What else can you do?

JV: So has this experience at all diminished your passion for pursuing a life as a professional screenwriter?

DH: Initially, yes; but as they say: “It's better to try and fail than not try at all.” If I don't keep at it I'll never know, will I? I believe that one day something good will come; I just have to keep plodding onwards. And I absolutely love writing, so it's not like it's a chore. Primarily, I'm doing it because I get immense fun out of it.

JV: What’s the current status of the Arena?

DH: There was a long period of just complete nothingness. Then, out of the blue, our agent said he'd sent it to Magnet Media Group [which recently produced 13, starring Jason Statham and Mickey Rourke; The Experiment, starring Adrien Brody and Forrest Whitaker; and Dark Tide, starring Halle Berry] and they were interested and a meeting had been set up. Apparently, the meeting went very well and Magnet was going to pick it up from Summit—they were really fired up by the script! The last I heard, all the transitional paperwork and finances were being finalized.

JV: So what are you working on now?

DH: I’ve just completed a romantic comedy about international football. I'm also currently trying to get a UK agent, in addition to my US rep, as a lot of my work gravitates towards the UK.

JV: Would you agree that screenwriting is definitely a numbers game and only the strong survive—and the only way to make it—to survive—is to keep writing and keep putting your material into the hands of people who can do you some good?

DH: I agree, but…write because you want to, not because you want riches, fame and glory. If you set out with the intention of turning yourself into an automated script production line, it's not gonna work and your writing will suffer.

JV: Once again, Darren, a big thank you for sharing your experiences here on The Working Screenwriter. Do keep us posted on further developments!


DH: Many thanks, Jim.