Screenwriting 101

SO YOU WANT TO BE A SCREENWRITER:

Do you have what it takes?

1. A great story that can be told in 120 pages or less?

2. The ability to withstand constant rejection?

3. The willingness to allow others to rewrite your script without your permission?

4. A desire to make a lot of money?

If you answered yes to at least the first two questions (let’s face it, question #3 is tough, but it’s a reality) you are well on the path to success as a screenwriter. If you answered yes to the final question, you’re in for a rude awakening. The Writers Guild of America revealed in a recent report that a writer has a better chance of making a million dollars playing the California lottery than making a million selling scripts. The average yearly salary for writers is under $20,000. Now do you still want to write screenplays? Read on.

AS GOOD AS IT GETS:

Just when you thought WRITING the screenplay was tough, now try selling it. Some of you naively mail it to the big three agencies (ICM, CAA and WMA) and to the studios only to have it returned with a big red stamp on the unopened envelope that reads: “WE DO NOT ACCEPT UNSOLICITED MATERIALS.” Some of you have called all the agents listed on the Writers Guild of America Agency List only to have a surly assistant say; “Not taking on any new clients” before slamming down the phone.

The most difficult part of the process is getting someone, anyone in the industry to read your screenplay. If you thought it would be quick, easy and painless, LEAVE THIS WEB SITE NOW! Become a daytrader or play the lottery, getting a script made into a movie is Mission Impossible. Of the tens of thousands of screenplays registered each year with the Writers Guild of America, only a few hundred are ever produced.

One thing that most produced screenplays have in common is that they were good enough to get the attention of someone with the power to say, “yes.” In other words, you better make sure your script is the best it can be before you go for your 15 minutes of fame. You only get one shot in this business, there are no second chances, unless of course you’re John Travolta.

THE INDUSTRY STANDARD:

A feature length screenplay is 90 – 130 pages and printed on white paper with black type. The professional screenplay is bound with three round head brass fasteners and a simple cardstock cover. Anything else is considered UNPROFESSIONAL. Do not submit a screenplay in a loose-leaf binder or bound with screw posts, velobinding or spiral binding. Unless you are Ron Bass, Rain Main or Richard Lagravenese, Bridges of Madison County, don’t even think of submitting a handwritten screenplay in a composition notebook or a yellow legal pad. Agents and producers take their jobs seriously and expect writers to do the same. The only acceptable font is 12pt COURIER which is standard on all screenwriting software. If you want your script read, FOLLOW THE RULES.

WRITING IS REWRITING

First drafts are embarrassing. The dialogue is clunky and half the scenes don’t make sense. No matter how good a writer you think you are DO NOT SEND AGENTS AND PRODUCERS A FIRST DRAFT! Write the script over and over again until you get sick of it. Put it away for a month then rewrite it again. Don’t cheat on the rewrite by simply writing polishes of the first draft. Turn the script inside out and upside down. Examine all possibilities and be EXTREMELY HONEST with yourself. Show the script to friends and family and allow them to tell you the truth. Don’t get mad at people who say that they didn’t like or understand your screenplay. THOSE ARE THE PEOPLE YOU NEED TO LISTEN TO! Sure, your Mom just loves it, but she’s YOUR MOM! That agent or producer you want to send it to doesn’t know you from Adam and if he hates your script, he won’t lie to you like your Mom.

READ IT OUT LOUD

Get a group of your friends or visit a local community theater group in your area and see if you can set up a script reading. No need to spend any money here, this is just an opportunity for you to HEAR how the script plays. It can be done in the privacy of your home or you can stage it, but the purpose is to make sure that the script works at some level. This step is not absolutely mandatory, but it does help improve the rewrite.

RESEARCH IS KEY

Okay, so you are ready to submit the screenplay. It’s been rewritten to the point where you hear it and you don’t feel embarrassed or think to yourself, ‘Well, I can fix that later.’ The script is ready for the industry and you are confident that you’ve done the best job possible. Your script will not appeal to ALL agents and producers. Individual agents and producers have genre preferences and what is hot today may not be what they are looking for tomorrow.

In your initial contact with an agent or producer, by query letter or over the phone, you must be able to provide enough information so that they can make an informed decision about whether to read your script. Know your genre, your main characters and try to have some idea about the potential budget. No need to be an expert here, just know whether the script fits into the comedy, drama, action, thriller, and horror or sci-fi genres.

Have a general idea about whether the film will feature 20-something’s or veteran actors. Is it a small film or a big budget Hollywood blockbuster? The Writers Guild of America minimum is the most the writer of a small film can expect which will almost guarantee rejection from agents since 10% commission on WGA minimum only adds up to a four figure payday. There are a number of independent production companies looking for smaller films and will “pass” on a big budget project. As a general rule, if your script is a small, personal tale, query independent producers. If it is a big budget screenplay with wide audience appeal, look for an agent.

QUERY LETTERS vs. PHONE CALLS

Cold calling is tough and is often ineffective since agents and producers will say the same thing, “Write us a query letter.” The query letter is your first opportunity to make contact with an agent or producer. Make sure you write it short and to the point. Present your idea; say a little about yourself, just like you would on the cover letter of a resume. Waiting time can be quite long with agents and producers averaging about three to six weeks before they get back to you… if they get back to you. Let’s face it, most agents and producers will recycle your letter without opening it. Don’t bother calling and harrassing people, move on. There are hundreds of agents and producers out there and all you need is just one.

SENDING IN THE SCRIPT

Is it in proper script format? If not, expect to be rejected. Agents and producers do not read scripts, their assistants do. The job of the assistant is to take home stacks of screenplays at night and on the weekends, read them and write coverage which is what the agent or producer reads. Now, if you do not format the script properly, forget it.

What assistants find annoying are LONG DESCRIPTIVE PASSAGES, TYPOGRAPHICAL ERRORS and SCREENPLAYS OVER 120 PAGES. Make sure your description is spare, less is more. There is no excuse for typographical errors since every word processing and script formatting program on the market features spell checking. You’re not Paul Thomas Anderson, Magnolia, so if your script is longer than 120 pages, start chopping and be ruthless.

PROTECT YOURSELF

Producers will usually ask a writer to sign a release form before reading a screenplay. The release form protects them in case they produce a similar project. You want your script read so sign the form. Just make sure it is a standard release form and not a modified release. You don’t want to sign over your soul along with your first born, etc., etc. Use common sense and gut instinct. If the producer seems shady, he probably is.

DO NOT PAY ANYONE TO READ YOUR SCREENPLAY! There are so many scams out there, so if an agent or a producer asks you to pay a reading fee, DON’T. If you found the agent on the Writers Guild of America List of Agents, report them IMMEDIATELY. It is against the Writers Guild Minimum Basic Agreement [WGA MBA] which stipulates that member agencies and producers cannot charge reading fees. If the agent is not a WGA signatory, do not submit the script and move on. Make sure any agent you query is a signatory to the WGA MBA. Independent producers usually are not signatory to the WGA MBA, but as long as they do not charge fees, you can submit to them. Just be careful and make sure to read everything or consult a lawyer before signing.

THE WAITING GAME

While you wait start on something else. Agents and producers will always ask, “What else have ya’ got.” If you have nothing, they think you’re a “one script wonder.” Always have two or three other ideas ready to pitch and at least one script ready. That way you can still keep them interested in you since no one sells a first screenplay, well, unless of course you’re Callie Khouri, Thelma & Louise.

Got a question? Get an answer. Ask SS.