Q & A with...Mark Sanderson

Q: So, Mark…what influenced you to become a screenwriter?

A: My interest to become a screenwriter and filmmaker started when I was just eleven years old. My childhood best friend, Matt Reeves (director of Cloverfield, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and War for the Planet of the Apes), received an 8 mm film camera from his grandpa, and it’s the event that sparked our passion to become filmmakers. We started making short films, writing screenplays, and became part of a collective group of pre-teen filmmakers on the Westside of Los Angeles that included J.J. Abrams (Star Wars Episode VII) and Larry Fong (Watchmen, Kong: Skull Island). It culminated with a big screening at the historical Nuart Theater here in Los Angeles. The sold-out screenings even garnered a feature article in the L.A. Times and showed Hollywood that we were serious about our craft—even as teenagers. I continued to write and direct my own films throughout my high school years and then when I attended UCLA Film School. Screenwriting has been a huge part of my life, and I was blessed from an early age to be able to pursue my dream of being a filmmaker.

Q: How-to books: a help or hindrance?

A: Well, considering that I just published one on Amazon—they’re a help! My new book, A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success: Tips, Tricks and Tactics to Survive as a Working Screenwriter in Hollywood is the culmination of my past twenty years working professionally in Hollywood. My desire is to help aspirants by offering my advice so they can avoid some of the nasty pitfalls that can hinder many screenwriters from realizing their dreams. I think that all aspirants should read the well-known books like Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat, John Truby’s The Anatomy of Story, and Robert McKee’s Story, but also read screenwriting blogs and as much as you can from other successful screenwriters about the craft and the journey. Be warned—you shouldn’t think it’s as easy as following one screenwriting formula and you’ll end up with a fantastic screenplay. As they say, you have to know the rules before you can break them. There’s so much more involved in the craft than a simple storytelling formula. Study the various storytelling techniques and use what you agree with, and discard the rest. Over time and with experience, you’ll form a style that’s uniquely your own and influenced by those you admire. That’s my recommendation.

Q: What is a “marketable” screenplay?

A: It’s a viable screenplay ready to go out into the marketplace that could be purchased by a producer or company based upon its high concept and near perfect execution of that idea. It’s also written in a genre that sells or is in demand today in Hollywood. The screenplay must reach the largest audience possible to have a return on its budget. Every film has investors and a lot of money rides on the success of the final product. Remember, Hollywood is running a business and not a charity. You want all of your screenplays to be marketable to compete in a very competitive industry.

Q: What are five big blunders most neophyte screenwriters make with their early scripts?

A: 1.) They don’t respect the craft enough and believe that one screenplay will jump-start their career. If you don’t even know proper format, how is anyone going to take you seriously as a screenwriter.

2.) Before they commit to an idea, they don’t consider “why” they are writing their particular story or who their audience is. “I thought it would be a good idea for a movie” isn’t enough these days.

3.)  They don’t create a solid story treatment before starting to write pages. When they reach ACT 2, they get lost and their story collapses.

4.)  They believe that every screenplay they write is going to sell for a million dollars. The truth is that most of what you write is not going to sell. If it opens a door or lands you a job—that’s success.

5.)  They eagerly rush through their script and present it to Hollywood before it’s ready. This will harm the project and your reputation as a professional.

Q: Before querying agents, managers, and/or producers, how many marketable screenplays should a screenwriter have available—and why?

A: I would have three solid screenplays ready before you ever go out with just one. I’ve seen writers who finish their first screenplay, think it’s amazing, and start approaching agents. It’s too early. Agents and managers want to see that you have a solid body of work that shows your talent but also shows your serious attitude about a career. After you go out with a script and it gets you meetings, you will need a follow up project and new pitch ideas. It’s going to take maybe three or four scripts (with many drafts of each) just to get a handle on the craft. The worst decision you can make it to approach the industry before you are ready. The competition is too intense and you’ll get eaten alive. In addition, you’ll waste the precious time of those who agree to read your script and it’s probably not ready to compete professionally. Aspirants need to learn and practice patience. This is not a sprint, but a long haul marathon to reach any level of success.

Q: Are screenwriting competitions—e.g., Nicholl, Austin, and BlueCat—the magic bullet for a budding screenwriter’s career? 

A: No, just because you win or place in a contest does not mean you will instantly sell scripts and have a career. What the competitions offer is a fantastic way of getting noticed and then it’s much easier to get agents, managers, and producers to read your work. Consider the competitions as another tool in your arsenal to open doors in Hollywood. Back in the day before I was a working screenwriter, I entered my script in the prestigious Academy’s Nicholl Fellowship with the hopes of winning one of the yearlong fellowships. My script ended up being a semi-finalist, placing in the top 1% of all entries as a top twenty screenplay out of thousands entered worldwide, but they picked the top nine writers for the fellowship that year. I could have looked upon this as a complete failure, but I used my script’s advanced placement as a successful step forward and was able to get agents and producers to read it because of my achievement. A year later, I sold my script as my first spec sale. The film was produced and later opened the Palm Springs International Film Festival, premiered on cable TV in the US, and was distributed worldwide. So, yes—if you can win or place in the competitions, it can certainly help your screenwriting career.

Q: Just because you have an agent and/or a manger, that doesn’t mean the writing gigs will come flooding in. How much truth is there in that statement? 

A: There is a lot of truth to that statement. It’s vital to eventually sign with an agent or manger to establish a career, but even then you have no guarantees. You will be competing with other professional writers, sometimes going after the same jobs, and the clock will be ticking for your rep to secure you employment. If you go out with two or three scripts that do not sell or land you assignment work, the agency might grow cool and drop you as a client. Agents or managers survive on their commissions from clients and rarely look to “break in” an unknown writer—it’s just too much work. They also look for a client who is a talented workhorse and ultimate professional. They don’t want any surprises once you secure a job and then your attitude or inability to execute notes gets you fired. I’ve had agents in the past who I thought were working daily for my best interests, but I later found out they were not. The key is to come with a solid body of work or job offers that you’ve found before you solicit an agent or manager.

Q: Actually getting out and meeting people in the film community face to face and getting them to read your scripts—as opposed to posting loglines and/or scripts on sites such as InkTip—is one of the best ways to launch a screenwriting career. What are your thoughts on this? 

A: I think a combination of both is a good plan. I’ve always secured jobs from the contacts that I’ve personally made and not from an agent or manager’s efforts. These personal relationships that you form and the networking that comes from face to face meetings is vital to your success. It’s all about timing, having a viable project that someone wants to produce, and being ready when an opportunity crosses your path. That’s why it’s important to live in or near Hollywood, close to the action, where you can meet people in the film community every day. You also need to surround yourself with like-minded people, establish good contacts, but also be a good contact yourself. If you want your film industry relationships to last, they can’t be one-sided. Help others who deserve your time and remember those who helped you. While you’re networking in person, you can also post your projects on the sites like InkTip.  They are a good way to have your scripts or pitches out there in the marketplace, but it’s a still numbers game to be seen by the right producer who wants to make your film.

* * * 

Mark Sanderson (aka @Scriptcat) is a Los Angeles based screenwriter, author, script consultant, and sometimes actor blessed to be living his childhood dream of making movies with thirty-three screenplays written in genres ranging from comedy to drama. His work includes writing sketch comedy and performing as founding member of The Amazing Onionheads, writing for MTV, his spec sale, and seventeen screenplay assignments with television premieres and worldwide distribution of his nine emotionally compelling films—the WWII indie feature I’ll Remember April, Lifetime Network's holiday films An Accidental Christmas and Deck the Halls, the stylish indie noir feature Stingers, action-packed thrillers USS Poseidon: Phantom Below (aka HereTV's Tides of War) and SyFy Network's Sea Snakes (aka Fox's Silent Venom), LMN's Mother of All Lies, last year’s highly-rated Lifetime thriller Mommy's Little Girl, and his new movie Fatal Mistakes.

Mark's films have premiered on Lifetime Network, LMN, SyFy, Fox, HereTV, HBO Canada, Christmas 24, and NBC/Universal and have been distributed globally. His films have also been recognized at festivals including a premiere and opening the Palm Springs Int. Film Festival, premieres at the Hawaii Int. Film Festival, St. Louis Int. Film Festival, The Rainbow Festival in Hawaii, Newport Beach Int. Film Festival, Fort Lauderdale Int. Festival, and nominated for the Starboy award at the Oulu Int. Children's Film Festival in Finland.

Mark’s long association with award winning Hollywood filmmakers dates back to his first produced screenplay and has since worked with Academy Award® winning producers, veteran directors, and has written films starring Academy Award®, Golden Globe®, and Emmy® nominated actors.

Mark has five projects in development including among others the sci-fi TV series 

Paranormal X with director Dan Harris and producer Mark Harris (Crash), and the web-series Tribulations with director Joe Palese. Mark's new book, A Screenwriter’s Journey to Success, is now available on Amazon. He was also named one of Screencraft’s “25 People Screenwriters Should Follow on Twitter.” Check out his popular screenwriting blog MY BLANK PAGE, picked by Script Magazine as "Website of the Week," and he offers screenplay consulting/editing services, workshops, and webinars here.

Mark Sanderson interviews ME! 
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