A favorite quote...

If you’re going to try, go all the way.  
Otherwise, don’t even start.  
If you’re going to try, go all the way.  
This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives, jobs and maybe your mind.  
Go all the way.  
It could mean not eating for three or four days.  
It could mean freezing on a park bench.  
It could mean jail, it could mean derision, mockery, isolation.  Isolation is the gift, all the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it.  
And you’ll do it despite the rejection and the worst odds and it will be better than anything else you can imagine.  
If you’re going to try, go all the way.  
There is no other feeling like that.  
You will be alone with the gods and the nights will flame fire.  
Do it, do it, do it.  
Do it.  
All the way, all the way.  
You will ride life straight to perfect laughter, 
it’s the only good fight there is.

-- Charles Bukowski

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Come visit me on Facebook at Jim Vines Presents!


Q: How important is it for writers to learn how to network and develop relationships within the film industry?

Allison Burnett (Resurrecting the Champ, Autumn in New York, Red Meat, Perfect Romance): I don’t know if you can learn it, but being gregarious and having a winning personality really helps.

Mylo Carbia (Statute of Limitations, Totally Lipstick) :  The sad truth is that networking and developing relationships within the film industry is an absolute must. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve watched a producer with a stack of scripts on his desk read the one that was just hand delivered to him because someone he knows asked him to read it. I mean, L.A. waiters with connections get read more often than screenwriting scholars who mail their stuff in from somewhere else.

Rolfe Kanefsky (There’s Nothing Out There, Tomorrow By Midnight, Shattered Lies, Pretty Cool, Corpses,  Rod Steele 0014, Jacqueline Hyde, The Hazing): Probably the most important thing. This business is all about networking and who you know and building relationships. The film I’m about to start shooting this year, a remake of a slasher film from the ‘80s, came from a Production Assistant who worked on There’s Nothing Out There fifteen years ago. I stayed in touch with him and he introduced me to some independent producers who were trying to get a horror project off the ground. That didn’t happen, but I’ve stayed in contact with them for the last three years and they introduced me to another producer friend who knows the producer of this horror remake. He got me in the door and it looks like it will happen. So, you never know where you might get your next job, but it usually comes from long-term relationships with people in the business. It helps to have a network group of friends that you can trust, and hopefully they will help you and you can help them. That's one of the reasons I really like the horror genre. People who work in this arena tend to be very supportive. Fans and filmmakers alike want to see you succeed. There seems to be more honesty in this genre because horror has always been looked down upon. One small step above pornography is the way many in Hollywood treat horror. They keep making them because they gross too much money to ignore. Paramount was also ashamed of the Friday the 13th films but kept producing them because the profits were too high.  So, people who work in the horror genre really like the genre and tend to help one another. At least, that’s what I’ve found over the years.  Horror allows you to experiment and plot points don’t always have to resolve themselves. There can be questions left unanswered.

Steve Latshaw (Invisible Dad, Crash Point Zero, U.S. Seals: Dead or Alive):  Critical.  Most deals I’ve made have been in restaurants, in bars, over lunch...in social settings.

Brent Maddock (Batteries Not Included, Tremors, The Wild Wild West):  Networking is very helpful.  This is why any job (office assistant, production assistant, driver) can be a way to establish relationships with the people who get things done.  Of course, if they’re going to like your script, you have to have some talent.  But, if you’ve shown them you’re a good, smart, likeable person, they’ll be far more likely to take a look at what you’ve got.  Meeting them socially (at screenings, film festivals, lectures) can also be helpful, but those situations tend to be group gropes and it’s hard for them to tell whether you’re a serious and talented person or just one of the numerous delusional whack-jobs who are convinced they’ve written the next Chinatown, only better.

John Rogers (Rush Hour 3, Catwoman, The Core, American Outlaws): Very.  The fact that I'm not the wallflower writer, that I'm confident in the room and can be amusing at lunch, has certainly helped me.  But again, the script wins.

Neal Marshall Stevens (Thirteen Ghosts, Hellraiser: Deader): This is actually a small business—and it's one that's based upon relationships. I know everybody hears that, but it's actually true. People like to hire people that they know, that they've worked with before, that they know can deliver, whose work they like, and who they can trust.  So you need to establish those kinds of relationships.

Stephen Susco (The Grudge, The Grudge 2): It’s one of the most important things a writer can do.  It is a very small neighborhood out here, and people like to work with people they like.  Face time is critical in an industry where creative collaboration is key.  

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Q: Are there any Development Hell stories you’d like to share?

Rolfe Kanefsky (There’s Nothing Out ThereShattered LiesRod Steele 0014, Jacqueline Hyde, The Hazing): Where to begin?  Well, I’ll tell The Hazing story since that has a happy ending and the film was finally produced after eight years of struggle. I met a producer, Joe Wolf, who optioned a script I wrote when I was in college, “The Host,” for a dollar. He then hired a line producer to break down the script, got a top storyboard artist to draw some pictures of the creature and got letters of intent from large special effects companies to work on it. Unfortunately, they never raised the ten million dollar budget and the script is still unproduced—but I have all the material they created, so one day, we’ll see. Anyway, while I was dealing with Joe Wolf, I looked at some of the other films that he was a producer on—Halloween, A Nightmare On Elm Street and Hell Night to name a few. Well, Halloween and Elm Street had plenty of sequels already but nobody had ever made a Hell Night 2. I wrote a three-page treatment and pitched Mr. Wolf “Hell Night 2: The Hazing.” Nothing happened. A little while later, I met Alain Siritzky, producer of the original Emmanuelle and all of its sequels, at the American Film Market. He liked There’s Nothing Out There and a sexy comedy script I had written called Hormones...The Movie! He hired me to write and direct a series of erotic comedies for his company. 

In 1996, I wrote five features for him and directed four of them. A few more erotic sci-fi projects followed and that’s when I pitched him an idea. He was producing a series of erotic films under The Sex Files banner. I suggested, since Scream, horror was back in popular demand. He was about to make seven erotic films. I said, “Let’s do one straight horror film as well.” I suggested the old Roger Corman approach. Build a good set and shoot two different films on it, back to back. I offered to write the two scripts that could be filmed on the same set. One would be an erotic film and the other, a teen horror flick. Alain loved the idea and commissioned me to write both scripts. So, I was paid to write the first drafts. I looked back at my treatment for “Hell Night 2” and thought that would be a good project as a stand alone horror film called The Hazing. The script turned out well, although some people at Alain’s office at the time were afraid of the scene with the giant tongue. Some felt it was too tasteless and over the top. I argued that it’s the scene that people will talk about and that’s why it needs to stay. (More on that later.) The sets were built. We started casting and holding auditions. I even shot some Halloween parade footage on 35mm on Hollywood Blvd. The erotic film went into production first and, at the last minute, Alain pulled the plug on The Hazing. He had not been able to make pre-sales on the project from his foreign buyers. Scream had not yet come out in Europe and horror wasn’t that popular yet. A few people also advised him that the horror genre would soon collapse again. They were wrong. Almost ten years later and the horror genre is thriving more now than ever. So, after a year the rights to The Hazing script reverted back to me and I tried to set up the project somewhere else. 

Through a producer’s rep company, I met a man who really liked the script and wanted to produce it. I liked his energy so I gave him a free option to try to set it up. I was also talking to an employee who had just left Troma Entertainment. He was their main sales agent. He was also interested in becoming a producer and liked the script. So, I had both would-be producers working on making The Hazing. I thought if we all combined our efforts, something could happen. Someone did a budget breakdown. Someone else was contacting various foreign companies to try to shoot the film in Russia or perhaps Denmark. I flew to Cannes and met with some of these guys during the film festival. William Morris got involved and was trying to package the project at one point. Five years went by and The Hazing never got produced. It was then that I was called by Alain Siritzky to meet at his house with a man named Tom Seidman. Alain had met Tom at the American Film Market. Tom had been an Assistant Director for years in big-budget films and television. He now wanted to become a producer. He had a horror sci-fi script that he was interested in producing and was looking for some money to make it. Alain gave me the script to read before the meeting. I read it and felt that it was pretty ambitious for the budget and needed a lot of work. At Alain’s house, I met Tom for the first time and was surprised when I heard Alain say that he was about to produce The Hazing with Roger Corman at Corman’s Ireland studios in a few months. That was news to me! He asked if Tom would like to get involved in our project. Tom took a copy of the script, read it, and loved it. He was willing to put up half the money. However, Alain was busy, about to produce another series of erotic films, and couldn’t come up with his share of the funding at the moment. So, he, amazingly enough, walked away from the project without asking for anything and gave Tom the ability to pursue other funding. Tom took an option of the script from me, hired a producer’s rep, Lantern Lane, and we began to move ahead. Tom almost found a partner to put up the rest of the money but at the last minute, they got cold feet and walked away. Tom then went to some rich friends and, with their money and his father’s money, was able to raise the entire budget. Now, before this happened, I have to tell you about what is probably the worst experience I ever had with script notes and Development Hell.  Now, Tom had read The Hazing numerous times once he optioned it and we had a lot of meeting about the script. There were notes but they were minor. I liked many of his suggestions and we seemed to see eye-to-eye on the script in general. When Lantern Lane introduced us to these other potential producers, they read the script, liked it, but wanted to get together and go over everything before they would officially commit. That’s standard and was fine with me. Actually, I was excited that they were involved. They had recently produced a really good horror movie. So, one Saturday morning at 10:00 A.M., Tom, myself, and David and Brian (the producer and development guys from this other company) all met in their offices to discuss the script. Just before this meeting I was sent some of their notes. I was faxed over twenty pages of notes for The Hazing. As soon as I read them, I panicked. They were questioning everything in the script. “Why does it have to be set on Halloween? What if we change it to New Year’s Eve? Let’s change all the characters. Why are the kids in costumes? What if the house is the villain instead of the professor? Maybe the story could be more like H.P. Lovecraft?” These suggestions meant a page one rewrite. I could write the script they were suggesting but it didn’t have to have any connection to The Hazing. Now, Tom read the notes and I was shocked when he said he felt 95% of their suggestions were really good! 

So here comes the Saturday morning meeting. It begins by Brian (development guy) giving everyone, including myself, ten questions that he had put together to find out what everyone felt about the script. I sat there tired and amazed at this pop quiz on my script that asked questions like “Who is the villain of the piece? Who is the hero? What type of film is this? What is the motivation of the villain?” After seven years of working on this project, I was tempted to write “Just read the damn script!” But I answered the questions like everyone else. When we were done, we all read the answers out loud. I knew I was in trouble by the first answers to the question; “What type of film is this?” My answer was “The Hazing is a comedy/horror film just leaning over to the horror genre.” Other answers were “A teen survival thriller,” “a suspense film” and a straight “horror movie.”  Throughout the eight hour day (with one hour break for lunch) we started discussing the script at page one and managed to get to page thirteen! Two more glorious sessions like this followed and I had to fight tooth and nail on almost every element of my script. My “favorite” note was during the tongue scene. Brian and David didn’t like the tongue scene. They felt that tongues aren’t scary and had another suggestion. Instead of the guy’s tongue growing four feet long while he’s going down on his girlfriend, how about a full-sized clown doll comes to life and tries to rape the guy from behind?!  Luckily, Tom did like the tongue scene and I rewrote the scene, trimming it slightly but managed to hold on to the original concept. After all these “fun-filled” development sessions, I sat down and did a rewrite, incorporating some of the notes but holding on to the original script as much as possible. Much of the humor was toned down. The thing is, the comedy is what Tom and everyone else really liked about the script, but once they got closer to production, people got cold feet. Still, even after Scream, producers are scared when you combine different genres together. They’re afraid the horror and humor will fight each other and the film won’t be scary. Myself, still a big fan of Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, An American Werewolf In London, Fright Night, Tremors and the television series of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I have always embraced this challenge and know that I can pull it off. In the end, some humor stayed. Some was cut. 

Anyway, when the script was finally approved and ready to go, Brian and David walked away from the project after a party in Vegas with Tom and his money people. I’ll never know what happened in Vegas on Superbowl Sunday but we lost half the money because of it. After all that work and frustration and these producers decide not to get involved. I think it had to do with control issues. But luckily when they left the party, Tom went to his friends and managed to secure the rest of the budget. So, in the long run, things worked out. I did a few more passes on the script from Tom’s notes and finally three months later, shooting commenced. The filming was not the easiest experience I had, but I am proud of the final result and it has received some of the best reviews of my career so far. And guess what—the scene that gets the most attention and acclaim is the giant tongue scene! The sales people felt the tongue scene was the best one in the film and when the MPAA gave the film an “R” rating with no cuts, our domestic distributor applauded with delight. The tongue scene survived intact but took eight years of fighting to save it. A happy ending. Rare in this business. [Also] there was a script I wrote called “Guess Again.” It was a fun, small thriller. The producer/star optioned and then bought the script. The action was too big so I had to simplify it. Then they timed out the script and felt it was long and there was too much dialogue, so they asked me to trim it. I warned them that the script is not too long and if you cut too much out, you may have a running time problem. They disagreed and I made the cuts they demanded. Two weeks after they wrapped production, they called me with a problem. The movie was running short. They needed more scenes to lengthen the running time. They also needed more action to sell it as an action movie. I had to laugh. They eventually wound up using stock footage of a car chase and a house exploding. I then had to incorporate this new footage into my script with some additional scenes. Basically, everything they cut out was put back in through this backwards approach. But, hey, what did I know? I was only the writer.

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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 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 for a very brief period of time.

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. Another story: I was once 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.

* * *

My book Q & A: THE WORKING SCREENWRITER has been available as an e-book for a while now...but now it's available as an even lower-priced e-book edition!

What some folks have said about Q & A: The Working Screenwriter:

“…highly recommended to any budding screenwriter…"
“…a very instructive yet entertaining read…”
“…filled with great insight and honesty…”
“…valuable and practical…”
“…a must-read…”
"…a phenomenal book…”

From David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible:

“…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…”

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!
Also available in low-priced paperback!


How do you approach rewrites?

Katherine Fugate (The Prince and Me, Carolina, Army Wives):  Rewrites are necessary, but can be difficult.  Only the first draft is really yours.  It’s pure.  But once you hand it in, it becomes a group effort, and you have to let it go.  It becomes a collaboration where you must learn what you can live with and what you can't.  If you're working with good producers, the script can get better than you might have written it on your own.  Unfortunately, if you're working with so-so producers, the script can also become worse.  The moral of the story then is to be careful who you get into bed with.  Choose wisely.  My goal is to stay on the project as long as I can and hopefully see it through to the end.  Unfortunately, that isn't common in this business.  Loyalty to the first or original writer isn’t something many practice, so you have to be prepared that the first pure draft will undergo many changes, including writers after you.  So I tend to remember we all have the same goal—to get the movie made.  That helps me keep focused. 

Rolfe Kanefsky (There’s Nothing Out There, Tomorrow By Midnight, Shattered Lies, Pretty Cool, Corpses,  Rod Steele 0014, Jacqueline Hyde, The Hazing) : I like to walk away from a script for a little while before I start a rewrite. If you’re too close to the project, it’s impossible to judge it properly. I like to distance myself from it for a few weeks and then look at it fresh. Now, if you’re forced to do a rewrite based on someone else’s notes, that’s a whole different story. If you agree with the notes and they make the script better, you are very lucky. Most of the time, I’ve found the notes to be of little value and can make the script much worse if you’re not careful. Destroying a good script from bad notes is a horrible situation, and I’ve been through it. Very frustrating. If it gets too bad, I try to walk away. I had one script that I was hired to write based on a comic book that the producers owned the rights to, but hated. I pitched an idea and they hired me. They wanted to read the script as I wrote it (ten to fifteen pages at a time). I hate to work this way but was forced to comply. Anyway, they’re reading the pages and are very positive. When I finally turned in the last pages, they tell me that they want the script to be less E.T. and more The Crow! I was shocked at this meeting and excused myself to put money in the car meter to stop myself from blowing up at them. They liked the characters and situations but wanted the tone and mood to be darker. Basically, my rewrite was adding a lot of adjectives to the script to emphasize dark and gloomy. It was a joke. The script was never produced.

Steve Latshaw (Invisible Dad, Crash Point Zero, U.S. Seals: Dead or Alive):  By and large, I enjoy the rewriting process...the editing and honing.  The only time it becomes a pain is when you’re being asked to make massive structural changes.  On assignment gigs, the first draft is yours and the rest are theirs.  Budget issues trigger rewrites...casting issues.  I did a movie in 1999 called Rangers.  At the 11th hour, literally one day before shooting started, the producers wanted a new character created for what’s known as a “geezer” part.  This is basically a walk-and-talk part for an established name actor to give the movie a little more sheen and sales value.  Donald Sutherland on the park bench in JFK is a good example.  In our case, we put Corbin Bernsen (who’s no geezer) into our park.  I wrote ten pages that night and they shot him out in, I think, half a day.

Brent Maddock (Batteries Not Included, Tremors, The Wild Wild West): If I’m rewriting myself, I show myself no mercy.  If I’ve been hired to rewrite someone else, I approach the job gingerly.  The goal should never be to change anything that works.  It’s not about putting your fingerprints all over somebody else’s work.  So, you need to approach the task of rewriting by first understanding what it is about the script that works.  Then be sure you don’t destroy that in the process of making things “better.”  Too many screenplays have been rewritten to death in Hollywood.  The irony is often that when a studio is spending money on one writer after another it gets difficult for the studio executive (i.e., the worried person giving all the script notes) to admit, or even realize, that the script may have gotten better from versions one through four, but then proceeded to get worse from versions five through whatever.  Hard for the desperately upwardly-mobile executive to admit, “Oops!  I just spent a million bucks on rewrites that have made things worse!”  So, instead of going back to the version that works best, they commit the studio to pouring its 100 million bucks into making yet another stupid movie that could have been good.  Steve and I wrote The Wild, Wild West.  The difference between our script and the sad, muddled, rewritten thing they actually shot tells you all you need to know about why the studio system is so dysfunctional.

John Rogers (Rush Hour 3, Catwoman, The Core, American Outlaws): Very methodically.  I have a physics degree I don't use much, but it taught me to parse out components of problems.  What is the problem that needs to be rewritten?  How can you accomplish that in the most effective way (often while trying not to damage the rest of the script you like)?  To tell you the truth, when I do a first draft, I usually reread and rewrite the entire script as written up to that day.  So, as my manager jokes, "Your first draft is most people's eighth draft."  As a result, I rarely go through a formal rewrite process except when dealing with notes.

David J. Schow (The Crow, Leatherface: Texas Chainsaw Massacre 3):  Many of my screenwriting jobs—probably half—have been punching up or rethinking prior drafts by others.  I've been on both sides of the Writers Guild arbitration process for credits, which is an ugly and medieval thing.  You must "marry" the project emotionally in order to do any good at a rewrite, and that's the same level of commitment you bring to an original.  So the emotion is the same.

Neal Marshall Stevens (Thirteen Ghosts, Hellraiser: Deader): Well, in respect to my own work, I do very few rewrites because, as a general rule, if something isn't working, I can't move forward on a draft. I need to see the whole thing laid out, working, from beginning to end. This business of “just get to the end, then go back and fix it”—I've never been able to do that.  I don't even understand how you can.  I mean, if the problem is that something needs to be set up and it's not there, how can you simply write out something on page sixty as if the earlier set up is in place without going back and putting it in? Or, if a character needs to be adjusted, what do you do?  Just change the character half-way through and proceed on to the end without going back and making the change from the beginning? How can you do that? At any rate, I can't.  So, if something needs to be changed or adjusted, I have to go back and make those changes from the start—even, on occasion, I've thrown away whole incomplete drafts because things weren't working. I did that twice on “Slow Man.”  I threw away, I think, forty pages.  Then I threw away sixty pages.  It wasn't working. Something was missing. It wasn't right.  Finally, when I figured out what was missing, I was able to write the final version in ten days—and, I think, I did one small polish on that —and that was the draft that sold.

Stephen Susco (The Grudge): I approach them with as “Zen” an approach as possible.  When I’m rewriting my own work—on my own—I don’t really consider it rewriting.  It’s when the rewrite is “formal” (e.g., incorporating producers’ notes) that things get delicate.  The best way to deal with it is to leave your ego at the door, and be as collaborative as possible—but to never betray yourself or your vision for the project.  If you and the producers don’t see eye-to-eye on critical issues, it’s probably better if you moved on...saves both of you the time and aggravation. 

* * *

What some folks have said about Q & A: The Working Screenwriter:

“…highly recommended to any budding screenwriter…"
“…a very instructive yet entertaining read…”
“…filled with great insight and honesty…”
“…valuable and practical…”
“…a must-read…”
"…a phenomenal book…”

From David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible:

“…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…”

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!


From my book, Q & A: The Working Screenwriter:

Should new screenwriters ever seriously consider giving producers free options (a.k.a "the dollar option")?

Allison Burnett (Autumn in New York, Underworld: Awakening): If you really like the producer, and he shares your vision, and you think he will work as hard selling your script as you did writing it, then it’s fine, when you are starting out.  Once you are established, however, it’s not a good idea, except as a last resort.  You will often find that people do not respect or value what they get for free.

Katherine Fugate (The Prince and Me, Carolina, Valentine's Day, Army Wives): It depends on the producer, his/her success record and how much you believe in them.  A general rule of thumb, though, is if no money has been spent, there is less motivation to get things done.

Rolfe Kanefsky (There’s Nothing Out There, Shattered Lies, Rod Steele 0014, Jacqueline Hyde, The Hazing): It’s hard to avoid the “dollar option” when starting a career. I’ve done it a number of times. If some producer is willing to take your script around town, the trade-off is worth it. Just make sure to get the rights back after the six months to a year is up. I would avoid giving a free option to a script for more than a year. If they need more time than that, they probably can’t do much for you. This is also a good reason why you have to have more than one script available when starting in this business. You don’t want your only script optioned and unavailable for a year with nothing else to show people. From my own experience, none of my dollar option scripts ever wound up being made into movies, but I feel many were still worth doing. They opened up some doors and I made some connections because of it.

Neal Marshall Stevens (Thirteen Ghosts, Hellraiser: Deader): I've never done it, because my position has always been that the option money is money that a producer will get back, in the event that he gets a project set up—so that, in essence, the option money represents how much a producer is prepared to bet that he'll be able to sell your project. If he's prepared to bet nothing—that should tell you something. The only circumstance where I think it's justified—and it came up a few times when I was working at Laurel—is when a project came along where, for whatever reason, there were really only one or two places where we felt we could legitimately take it.  So, for us to lay out a lot of money to option it—and then have only a couple places to take it—really didn't make sense financially. But in a case like that, the deal should really be for a short free option. The deal for two or three months—long enough to send the project to those couple of places and get an answer back.  If the answer is no, that's the end of it and the writer gets his project back, and all he's really being asked to give up is a few months, so that the project can be taken to a few places. Other than that exception, I wouldn't go along with it.

Stephen Susco (The Grudge): It depends on the circumstances.  If there’s something to be gained—if the producer is well known, or very passionate and aggressive, and has a real game plan—then it’s worth considering.  And always, always, always put everything on paper.  Always.

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What some folks have said about Q & A: The Working Screenwriter:

“…highly recommended to any budding screenwriter…"
“…a very instructive yet entertaining read…”
“…filled with great insight and honesty…”
“…valuable and practical…”
“…a must-read…”
"…a phenomenal book…”

From David Trottier, author of The Screenwriter’s Bible:

“…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…”

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!


Q: I'm working on my first screenplay, but I just saw a coming attraction for a movie that's similar to my story. Should I dump this project and work on something else?

A: Yes, this does happen from time to time. You should probably find out more about the movie that's coming out. If it's virtually the same story, then I'd say tweak your story so it's more unique, more yours. But don't worry too terribly much about that "similar" movie. Truth is, chances are frighteningly against any novice writer selling his or her first screenplay (it could be at least a few years and several scripts before you're seasoned enough to start marketing anything), so consider your first scripts as practice runs. Just write the script you want to write...get it critiqued...do more rewrites...then more critiques. It's all about trial and error and learning from your mistakes. This is how you will learn to write that killer, saleable screenplay down the line.

And here's something else to think about: You need to complete projects you begin. I've known way too many budding screenwriters with piles of abandoned scripts in their storage bins. They start a project, get bored with it by page 30, and then simply move on to something that seems to be more enticing. DO NOT DO THIS. Just choose the story you want to tell...and tell it. Get at least a first draft completed. Believe me, it's a real psychological boost in the early stages of your career having completed scripts on the shelf. That "boost"that psychological edgecan make all the difference in the world in the ol' screenwriting game. FINISH WHAT YOU START!

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Addendum to "WHY I LOVE MOVIES"...

A couple of days ago I posted an entry entitled "Just one reason WHY I LOVE MOVIES." I also posted a link to a clip from the classic Steve McQueen film The Thomas Crown Affair. In the scene, McQueen's character, the mastermind behind a bank robbery, plays a sexy game of chess with Faye Dunaway's character, an insurance investigator hot on McQueen's trail. The scene has virtually no dialogue; it's just two great actors, great cinematography, great editing, and a wonderful score. My reasons for posting the clip were twofold: 1) I love this movie (this scene in particular), and I'm a huge Steve McQueen fan; and 2) I wanted to show how you don't always need a whole lot of dialogue to get your point across. (McQueen was famous for cutting his dialogue to the bare essentials.) A few of you wanted to know what the scene looked liked on paper. Well, here it is (excuse the formatting)...

The play begins, chess with sex. She excels at both. Good as Crown is, the combination is formidable. Crown has the white men, she has the black. Crown soon has trouble concentrating. Presently, he is in trouble on the board. She is glowing, and he’s much too conscious of her. She doesn’t touch him, but she has him conscious of every mover her body makes. He watches her hands, her arms, her shoulders, and, of course, her chess men as well. It gets harder and harder to concentrate. Respect for the performance begins to grow, he struggles to concentrate. Then he realizes it is hopeless. Methodically he reviews the board, looking for an escape. The black queen dominates the board, blocking his every move... Moodily, Crown stares at the board.

CROWN: Let’s play another game.

He seizes her, first gently, then holding her hard. He pulls her roughly toward him. Chess men scatter all over the floor...

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By posting the above screenplay excerpt, I’m showing how you don’t need to include every twist, turn, and infinitesimal move that takes place within the scene (aka overwriting). Just give us the basics; just get your point across in an entertaining, succinct manner, and let the reader—and the filmmakers—use their imagination and talent to fill in the rest.

The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) Written by Alan Trustman

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Just one reason WHY I LOVE MOVIES

For over 100 years, movies have given us many great, wonderful, memorable images. Here's just one of them (and notice how you don't have to have much, if any, dialogue to get your point across) ...

McQueen vs Dunaway

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A short film I made...

A few years ago my friend Robert and I made a short silent movie. (Well, not entirely silent: there's a fun musical track.) The movie's title is That Darn Bill and it's about 11 minutes in length. Here's a quick synopsis:

The 1920s silent short has been reborn in That Darn Bill, the frenzied tale of Marvin, a down-on-his-luck hobo who happens upon salvation in the form of a crisp $100 bill. But Marvin quickly discovers that finding salvation is one thing...and hanging onto it is another.

I think you'll get some chuckles out of it. At least I hope so. Click the link below to check it out...

PS: I play the role of "Marvin."

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Come follow me on Twitter!

Come follow me on Facebook!

Pen and Paper...

One of my readers recently wrote to me, asking: What’s your preferred manner of writing? Do you prefer writing entirely on a computer, or do you tend to favor pen and paper?

Virtually everything I write starts its life on a yellow legal pad. As I work my way through the handwritten manuscript, I’ll transpose to the computer. Every few scenes (or if I’m writing prose, every chapter or so) I’ll print a hard copy and go to work on revisions with a red pen. Then I’ll transpose those changes onto the computer. But I love working with paper and pen. It just feels more organic to me. I also feel it’s a good thing on a psychological level. Sometimes you need tangible proof that you’re getting the work done, which seems a bit more difficult when working entirely off a computer screen. But hey, do what's best for YOU. All that really matters is that you’re getting your scripts, novels or short stories completed. But for me, there's nothing quite as magical putting pen to paper.

A novel about making it in Hollywood

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


Q: Have you ever adapted a novel into a screenplay? If you have, how’d you break down the book into what you felt would translate well into the script? Also, I was thinking about adapting one of my favorite books. Do you think this is a good idea?

A: I’ve adapted four novels into screenplays. (One of these I did early on just as a practice run; the other three were paid assignments.) Here’s how I handled the last adaptation I was assigned:

After reading the novel, I went through it all again page by page and highlighted everything that I felt could be successfully translated to the screenplay. If a character did something or said something, then it got highlighted. If a character thought something, or if the author was providing background info that wasn't absolutely relevant to the scene or the progression of the story, then it probably didn’t get highlighted. (The reason I say it “probably” didn’t get highlighted is because you can oftentimes find useful material in an author’s exposition, so keep an eye open for it.)  I did this throughout the entire text of the book. Then I wrote up a beat sheet of everything that was higlighted, breaking it all down into separate scenes and providing a thumbnail sketch of what took place in each scene. Your "beat sheet" looked something like this:

1). Joe arrives at work (a widget factory) and finds the office has a new receptionist. Her name is Jane. She’s mid-20s and hot.

2). During the course of the next few hours, Joe can’t get any work done—he’s too busy thinking/dreaming about Jane.

3). Later, Joe has lunch with Mike at the corner burger place. Joe can’t stop talking about Jane. Mike says, “Forget it, bud. She’s a lesbian.” Joe asks, “What makes you think that?” Mike says, “Because I asked her out for lunch and she turned me down flat.”

4). Later, as work is letting out for the day, Joe confronts Jane in the parking lot. He shyly asks her out on a date. She accepts!

Feel free to expand on your beat sheet, including any character descriptions, dialogue, descriptive passages, notes, etc. The last novel-to-screenplay beat sheet I worked from was about 45 pages.  

Remember, novels tend to go off in several directions, veering away from the central characters or plot. You can’t necessarily do this in a movie. In a movie you have to stay on course, including only what is pertinent to the “spine” of the story you’re trying to tell.  Once you have your beat sheet/outline, chip away at it a bit further, trimming it down to a lean documenta document that will serve as a trusty road map for the story you want to tell and the screenplay you want to write. 

As for your last question: Sure, you can adapt any book you want. But if you weren't actually paid to do it, DO NOT SHOW THE COMPLETED SCREENPLAY TO ANYONE. Seriously. If you don’t own the rights to the book, or if you weren't commissioned to adapt the book, you can be sued if the script gets sent out and read by anyone.

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Rod Serling, Writer

I recently finished reading As I Knew Him: My Dad, Rod Serling," Anne Serling's wonderful memoir of her father, who sadly passed away in 1975 at the young age of fifty. I'm sure many of you know Mr. Serling from TV's The Twilight Zone (he introduced all 156 episodes, wrote 92 of them) , but he was far more accomplished than that. He was a screenwriter, novelist, playwright, and teacher. He was also a fine man and a wonderful father to his two girls. There's a wealth of interesting and insightful Serling-related material on YouTube, including interviews and documentaries. I urge those of you not familiar with Mr. Serling to explore these videos and discover the myriad contributions this talented man made to the film and television industries.

Just a few videos to check out:

Rod Serling on Writing, Part 1
Rod Serling on Writing, Part 2
Rod Serling on Writing, Part 3
American Masters documentary
My favorite episode of The Twilight Zone


Many thanks to those of you who have sent in questions for this blog. Here are a few... 

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Q: For a script with voice-overs are there any guidelines for too many, or too few?

A: There are no hard-and-fast rules about the use of voice-over.  The main things to be aware of when including voice-over in your script are:

a). Avoid wall-to-wall voice-over. That sort of thing can be really annoying.  A little here, a little there is fine. 

b). Don't have the voice-over tell us what we're already seeing. In other words, if your character walks into a room and sits down at a desk, don't have the voice-over say, "I walked into the room and sat down at the desk." The voice-over should give us entirely new information to the scene and/or what the character is thinking/feeling. Having voice-over that actually contradicts what we are seeing can also be interesting.

c) If you're going to have a voice-over at the end of your story, make sure you have it at the beginning of your story. It's very jarring to suddenly have a voice-over in the final moments of the film when it wasn't established earlier on.

Many films have used voice-over effectively. Here are some that come to mind:


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Q: At the end of many movies, there are graphics describing what has happened to some of the characters in the film. What is the best format for this, rolling titles, or separate screens?

A: I say just keep it simple and keep it uncomplicated. If the director wants to use graphics/photos or rolling titles or whatever, let him make that decision. Your job is to tell us the movie is over and there are some final words about the story and/or characters. There are several ways of accomplishing this. Here are a couple:

BLACK SCREEN. Over this, SUPER legend: “Johnny Denton was killed in a car wreck on April 2, 1975…” 

Over BLACK SCREEN, SUPERIMPOSE: “Johnny Denton was killed in a car wreck on April 2, 1975…”  [Make sure you put quote marks around the word that are to appear on screen.]

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BlogTalk interview...

I did an interview a few years ago on BlogTalk Radio's Movie Geeks United show. For those of you who may have missed it back then, well, here's your chance to miss is again! No, seriously, it's not a bad little interview -- and the interview that follows mine, with screenwriter/author Allison Burnett (one of the participants in my book Q & A: The Working Screenwriter - An In-the-Trenches Perspective of Writing Movies in Today's Film Industry), is certainly worthwhile.

An Interview with Randy Steinberg, a self-proclaimed "failed" screenwriter...

In 2011, after about ten years of trying to launch a screenwriting career, Randy Steinberg threw in the towel. Yes, that’s right: he gave up.  It wasn’t for lack of talent that he didn’t reach the heights he had hoped for. After all, he taught screenwriting at Boston University’s film school for many years. But I’m sure you’re asking: “Why interview a ‘failed’ screenwriter?” Well, it’s simple: during his earnest decade-long effort, Randy managed to gain solid footing within the industry, garnering numerous meetings with agents, producers and development executives—as well as optioning a couple of scripts and being commissioned to pen a couple of others. So, in spite of where his career currently stands, he’s definitely accumulated some keen insight into the machinations of the screenplay-selling game. I find that most worthwhile.  Just what were the reasons Randy’s career never quite took off?  Yes, answers could certainly be found in Randy’s profound “Confessions of a Failed Screenwriter” article on the ScriptShadow website…but no, that wasn’t quite enough.  I wanted to dig a little deeper. So I contacted Randy and asked if he’d agree to an interview. Happily, he did—and this is what he had to say...

Q & A with Randy Steinberg

Q: So, Randy, what was your writing background prior to embarking on your screenwriting career?

A: I didn’t have much of a writing background. I wrote a little sports journalism in college for the school (Bowdoin College) newspaper. Just after graduating, I was fortunate to have a small, exposé type of article published in Boston Magazine. Around that time, I had written a short story, and a friend asked if I had ever contemplated going more in the fiction direction. I hadn’t thought about that before but then began to consider it more seriously. Later that year, I applied to Boston University’s Film School to focus on screenwriting in graduate school. I was accepted and that truly began my writing career.

Q: Do you feel going to film school is an advantageous step for a budding screenwriter?

A: An age-old question and a difficult one to answer because there are many factors which can influence this. Certainly a two- or four-year film school situation will cost a lot of money. Film school may be better for a budding director because you need to learn the technical skills and how all the equipment works and how a movie comes together. Writers can take writing classes at an adult ed center and join a writing group, which are much more low cost. I think the true benefit of film school for writers is the intensity of the learning. If you are doing a grad degree you get everything in less than two years: writing, acting, directing, editing, producing, and so on. It would be hard to get that much experience that quickly while holding down a full time job. In addition, if your film school is good, you will instantly have access to an alumni network, which can be instrumental in making contacts and even getting you jobs when you leave school. Then there is the camaraderie and support network you can develop with classmates. It’s more abstract, but I think it’s a benefit to the creative artist to have these relationships. Still, all a screenwriter really needs is the software and imagination. Once the craft is learned and refined, and if you’ve got the material that producers and reps want, then they won’t give a damn if you went to film school or not.

Q: Why didn't you ever make the move to Los Angeles?

A: Part naiveté and part personal. I don’t think my film school did a very good job preparing me for what the “real-world” of screenwriting would be like. But I could have taken the bull by the horns and moved to L.A. to figure it all out. I did not and mistakenly thought I could break in from afar… that I could simply visit L.A. once or twice a year.  Later, family and work made moving impossible. I should note that writers do break in, even though they’re not living in L.A.  It can happen, but in a long odds business you have to take every chance you can get and improve the odds–even if slightly—any way you can. And one of the best ways to do this is to reside in L.A., to be part of the mix and the culture and to be accessible to reps, producers, and executives.

Q: What are the pros and cons of having an agent and/or manager?

A: The pros are immense and nearly indisputable. For a newcomer, you have to have one (most likely a manager first and then an agent). A veteran may be able to get by with one or the other (though I’m not sure if there is currently an actual example of this) or with just an agent, but a new writer simply has to have representation. They’re the ones who put you and your scripts out there. They put you up for jobs. They help you navigate the system. The only real cons are that some are good and some are bad (here, I exclude reps who are purely disreputable, which you want nothing to do with, though some new writers don’t realize they are being scammed) and some are a fit for you and some are not. Both new writers and veterans must stay on top of their reps. Also, some people think getting an agent or manager is the end game. It is not. It is an important first step, but you have to make sure your rep is getting you and your material out there. Also keep in mind that you can be signed with a rep that does nothing for you. So the only real con is having a bad rep or the wrong rep for you and spending too much time as their client when he or she may not be forwarding your career.

Q: For screenwriters just starting out, would you suggest they first seek out the services of an agent—or would a manager be a better route to take?

A: New writers should probably look for a manager first. It used to be that an agent might be more involved in helping a writer to develop material, but these days that role has fallen to managers. Agents close deals, while managers work more with the writer on developing ideas, pitches, and scripts. Managers will also help you find an agent. Occasionally, it can work the other way around and you can go to an agent first, but especially for new writers, you want to try to find a manager first.

Q: What did you look for in prospective agents and/or managers?

A: Much like a spouse or a partner, a rep should be supportive, patient, and reliable. But reps are business people. They rep you because they earn commissions if they sell your material. If they sell your material they also advance their visibility and stature. Writers have to realize this because, though one might want a rep who will hold their hand at times, the rep has to make a living. So he or she might not always be as supportive as you like. The key is to realize when the rep has gone from being a little distant (they all get busy with one thing or another) to completely unhelpful. You want a rep that gets you and your sensibilities, who won’t push you to write something out of your comfort zone or waste your time having you work on things he or she will never shop. As I’ve already mentioned, writers have to manage their reps. If they’re pushing you in a way that feels uncomfortable, or you aren’t getting any traction in the industry because they’re holding you and your work back, then you have to be prepared to move on. 

Q: Many of the producers and agents you dealt with were in Los Angeles. You, of course, were back east. What was their attitude toward you? Do you feel there is a prejudice against writers who live in locales other than L.A.?

A: I'd say a prejudice against out-of-towners became more noticeable more recently. When I first started screenwriting I didn't notice much of anything. Maybe it was something no one said, but I never felt that being from outside of L.A. mattered that much to anyone. I think it's always easier to be in L.A., but if you have a great script that someone wants to rep or buy they probably will not care where your residence is. All that said, the business is different now. Money is not as free for development of scripts (hence asking writers to work on spec more and more), and the amount of people competing for fewer writing jobs and/or spec sale opportunities is higher. This does make it harder at the beginning stages for a writer to be from out of town. I heard this directly from managers and producers in the last few years. It was hard enough for them to find work for the writers they had in L.A. They didn't have time to devote to out-of-town writers they couldn't quickly introduce to people in L.A. Perhaps this is anecdotal, and, as I say, if you have an amazing script, where you live will not be an issue, but if there are two writers a rep wants to work with and all other things are equal, except for place of residency, I'm guessing most reps will choose the L.A. writer. 

Q: Have you ever gotten out and hustled your scripts (i.e., knocking on doors, making cold calls, etc.)? If so, what were the results?

A: Every writer has to do this. Even when you have a rep you should still have the mindset that you have to hustle on your own behalf. As I mentioned, some writers think a rep is the end game; that he or she will do it all once you are signed up. But you always have to promote yourself no matter where you are on the spectrum. Especially when you’re at the beginning phases of a career, you have to pound on doors. I never quite did this. Most of the relationships that I formed with reps, producers, and execs began over email and then were followed up with in-person meetings, if I could arrange it.

Q: I’ve always told budding screenwriters that one of the best ways to sell (or at least option) a screenplay is to make “face time” with the powers that be in Hollywood (or whatever film-making hub you happen to be pursuing). I think it’s important for these people to see you, meet you, and get a feel for who you are as a writer.  Would you agree with this advice—and why?

A: Yes, I agree. There’s just something about putting a face to the name and script that will show people you are for real and serious about succeeding.

Q: Speaking of “face time”…I’ve met many budding scribes who are loner types, people who don’t like to get out and schmooze. They think all they have to do is write a great script and producers will come knocking. In my opinion, these writers are their own worst enemy in the screenplay marketing game. Do you find that the better you are in a room, the more socially adept and/or extroverted you are, the more success you’re likely to have?

A: There's no doubt there is more to writing these days than getting something on the page. Yes, there is the exception to the rule where the brilliant, wallflower type writes great scripts and can sell them solely on what's on the page and little else. But many writers are writers because they prefer to be alone, to be solitary, to be lost in their stories, so it's not always easy to tell a writer "get out there and schmooze." There are really two parts to this answer: at the beginning stages you have to be willing to meet people, knock on doors, etc. If you are too shy or proud to get in front of people you are doing yourself a disservice. In a very crowded field, you need every advantage, and you owe it to yourself to give yourself the best chance by not only writing great scripts, but also meeting and connecting with decision makers. If you can't talk to people, practice it. Take a Toastmasters class. Do something to improve because you will have to. Then, once you begin to break through you will need to be very good in a room to pitch and win jobs. Sustaining a screenwriting career is about more than good material; it's about pitching ideas to executives and producers in a way that makes them want to hire you. Good writers practice their pitches; they practice what they will do when they get in the room. They give themselves the edge over someone who just walks in and wings it or expects the producer to hire him or her based on a script and a script alone.

Q: Have you ever entered any screenplay competitions? If so, do you feel it was at all beneficial to your career as a screenwriter?

A: Yes, I have. I placed in a few competitions at the lower levels but never came close to winning any of the larger ones (e.g., Nicholl, Austin, Page, Tracking B, Disney), which are the ones that matter. Only these and maybe a few others can really launch a career. Winning a smaller contest might be a nice way to validate your skill, and contests are a natural entry point for the new writer, but a win or place in a second or third tier contest won’t necessarily put you on the map toward a career in the craft. Whatever the kind of contest, they of course cost money to enter, and since so many people are competing in them, the odds are long. But the odds are long for any aspiring screenwriter, so contests are just one way to perhaps catch a break. And if you do place or win in one of the bigger contests, you certainly gain recognition and attention from the industry.

Q: Do you feel there are any advantages for a writer who writes “big” movies over those who write smaller, more independent films?

A: Yes, there probably is an advantage to writing big movies, though it depends on what you mean by big. Diablo Cody wrote a small, indie style movie (Juno), and that certainly launched her. Chris Sparling wrote the spec Buried, which was certainly not big (it took place in a coffin), but it was certainly more market-oriented and commercial. You don’t have to write a $100 million, sci-fi type of movie to write “big.” You have to think commercially, it should be something the market wants, and that can mean a contained thriller or a teen comedy. So the question should be “indie” versus “commercial.” If you write all indie, all the time, you will probably have more trouble breaking in in the Hollywood sense. But maybe you want to make your own films, in which case indie is the path for you. But you probably won’t make a lot of money in screenwriting if you are not writing commercially oriented material—scripts with lead roles for mainly young men, with interesting plot hooks. It’s a bit unfortunate to be so reductive but that’s what sells.

Q: In your Script Shadow interview you mention that it’s important for writers to stay “relevant.” Can you explain that?

A: Staying relevant means writing 2-3 new specs a year and querying every rep on your list when you feel each new script is ready to show. You may query an agent on your first script and get a pass. But the pass comes with a “please keep in touch and send me your next script.” If you don’t follow up and keep pounding the pavement, so to speak, you will not be relevant. No one will care that you wrote five good scripts that just missed selling. No one will get you work based on that. They will always want to know what you are currently working on and what ideas you plan to script in the future. If your answer is “nothing” or “I haven’t really thought about it too much,” you are not relevant and then of less interest. Even if a rep signs you based on the strength of one particular script, that script may fizzle on the market, and to keep that rep’s interest in you, you have to show you have new material ready to go.

Q: Do you feel it’s important to be proficient in multiple genres, or can you get away with being proficient in one specific genre?

A: You should never try to write something you can’t or aren’t comfortable with. This will show and people will see through what you are doing. If you love writing thrillers, do it and do it well and you will gain traction. Some writers do get pigeon-holed as “comedy” or “action” writers. This can be good or bad: if it’s a hot genre and you’re good at it, you’ll get read, but you’ll be less desirable if that genre peters out. So it’s probably helpful to be good at multiple genres if you can stretch yourself and enjoy doing it—though the genres should be somewhat closely related. I rarely see a known sci-fi writer also practicing his or her hand at period drama. But a romcom writer who can also do romantic drama or even straight up comedy will have the flexibility to explore different avenues.

Q: How did knowing Hollywood “insiders” help your career—or did it?

A: It helped. Most of my contacts with quality reps came from people working in the business. A producer or an exec would read a script of mine and introduce me to an agent or manager friend. But Hollywood is a small town. So if you find just one or two people in the business who like your writing, they should be able to refer you around quickly. But just knowing an “insider” is guarantee of nothing if you don’t have the material and the drive to springboard off that contact.

Q: Did you ever write a script for someone (e.g., producer, director, actor, etc.) on spec? If so, what was the outcome? Would you recommend this route for the up-and-coming screenwriter?

A: Yes, I have—for producers and reps—and the outcomes varied. I never felt any of them were being exploitative (though in truth the whole practice is), but when someone has no skin in the game, it really is nothing for them to drop the project or move on when something better comes along. And so you would have worked for three, six, nine months or longer on something—receiving no compensation—and then the producer can’t or won’t do anything with it. I’m still in touch with all the people I did this for, and they are decent contacts, so in that sense it can work out that nothing may have happened with the spec but these contacts can help you in the future. Though it’s quite hard to resist when someone with access asks you to work on spec, I really wouldn’t recommend it to new writers. I feel it’s better for a writer to stay with his or her own material and constantly be getting that out there.

Q: What’s your opinion of accepting a “dollar option” for a screenplay?

A: The dollar option is pretty much like writing on spec, though at least you have full control over the material. But it’s the same as writing on spec because the ostensible purchaser has no skin in the game. I did this very early on, and the producer who gave me the one-dollar option made a few half-hearted attempts and then gave up. They also control the script for an amount of time, so if you give a one dollar option for six months and they stop trying after two weeks of querying you are in a hard spot for perhaps several more months. If a producer truly is interested, they should show serious financial interest. It lessens the sting if a sale is not made because, even if it doesn’t go anywhere, at least you were compensated fairly for the time you put into the script.

Q: In your opinion, what are some of the biggest frustrations you faced while trying to launch your career?

A: The biggest frustration is feeling like you’re not going anywhere. You may have written 10 or 15 scripts and you make a new round of queries, but nothing really happens. You feel, even though you’ve been at it a while, you aren’t getting to the next level. The rejection can be tough too, but I always found the wishy-washiness the most aggravating. Being ignored is worse than a rejection. I understand why reps, producers, etc. don’t respond to all queries, but if they do request a script they should definitely get back to you. Often times they don’t. I really don’t believe people are too busy. That’s just an excuse. If they love your script, suddenly they are not too busy. It can also be frustrating to see a horribly written movie that plays on 3,000 screens, knowing you could do as least as well (and maybe better), knowing that someone got paid highly for writing what did not turn out well (though it might not be the writer’s fault). You sit there saying, “I don’t need a high-six figure payment to do something like that. Give me WGA minimum! Give me a chance! Let me prove I can do a comparable job! Just give me a shot!” But that does not happen, which can be hard to deal with year in and year out.

Q: A lot of novice writers ask me about script/idea theft and if that's something they should be overly concerned with. What are your thoughts about it?

A: As a general rule, I don't think it's great to go around talking in detail about your ideas until the script is complete and ready for circulation.  But novice writers shouldn't dwell on script theft. Of course they should copyright or WGA register the script, but after that you've got to get the script out there. A beginning writer I once knew was holding his material back for fear of theft, but he was only holding himself back. How is anyone going to know you or your script if you won't tell them about it?  One area where new writers might want to be careful is when working on spec. In my previous answer, I advised against this practice. But I know writers will still try it, and if you write up a compelling idea with a producer or a manager and the script is well executed, you should be careful about what your arrangement is with the producer or manager. They might claim the idea is theirs, and if it does sell there could be a dispute. So it’s always best to have a written agreement before heading into one of these situations.

Q: Have you ever tried to market your work via Internet sites such as InkTip or ScriptBlaster? If so, what are your thoughts about such sites?

A: I tried InkTip some years back, but it seems like The Black List is the hot service today, and writers are getting repped because of it. My personal experience with InkTip was that it was decent but I had the feeling that only second and third tier producers and reps were using it to find material.  I don't think I established a meaningful connection through it, but I never got the sense the site was trying to be exploitative. Though it's been a while, I think it probably is best for people looking to make more indie-style connections or posting short scripts they might want to see student filmmakers use. But with any of these services they can be the thing that helps you get that one break which gets you in the door. The only downside is they cost money, and most of what they provide you can do for free. So if you have a few extra bucks you might try a script or two on The Black List or InkTip, but none of them are magic bullets to success.

Q: What’s your best remedy for disappointment and setbacks?

A: I have no remedy. There is rejection and ups and downs at every level, even for successful writers. But if you love writing it will transcend career success. It fulfills you and sustains you, so you do it whether you are making money or earning fame. If scriptwriting is not working out, there are novels and plays and short stories. Start a blog or self-publish. There are many, many options for writers today to get their work out there, but if it's truly an avocation, it matters only that you did it for you, and in the grand scheme of things that's as valid as winning an Academy Award for best screenplay.

Q: So what writing projects are you working on these days?

A: I’ve moved away from screenwriting. I have been publishing an on-line serial novel the past few months. It actually started as a screenplay, which I then novelized. I had been writing film reviews for Blast Magazine, and I pitched them on publishing the novel as a serial. So I’ve been putting up about one chapter per week at Blast Fiction. The title of the novel/serial is Senior Year, and it is a crime, suspense, coming-of-age story.  I’ve been writing film, TV, and DVD reviews for Blast for a few years, and I’ve been working on a non-fiction book about writing reviews. I’ve published a few essays for The Good Men Project, and I’m also at work on a new novel, which is a cross between 50 Shades of Grey and The World According to Garp, if that can be imagined.

Check out Randy’s serialized novel Senior Year at Blast Magazine!

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