SO YOU WROTE A SCREENPLAY
By Scott Burn
Awesome! Now here’s the sad news. Nobody cares.
Let me take a step back – every agent, manager and producer I know is desperate for good material. They would love to have that near perfect script that will become the next mega-hit or Oscar winner. They are also convinced that your script isn’t it. And the truth is, they are right 99% of the time.
I’m by no means a big writer. I’ve sold and optioned several projects at different studios. I’ve been hired to rewrite other people’s projects, and I’m fortunate enough to make my living solely as a writer. But I’ve never had a film made – the movie gods just have not smiled yet. Or another way to think of it – something was missing from the model.
And what is the model? That is the big question. One studio exec told me he’d much rather have a script with a big idea and a great ending than a script with a mediocre idea where every page was flawlessly written. What makes for that big idea, it’s something that an exec can go into his bosses office and say, “It’s about a group of astronauts that land on a planet and discover their own dead bodies…” His boss immediately gets the idea – he can see the movie in his head and boom, off to the races. That was one I sold years ago with my old writing partner based on a Richard Matheson short story. Perhaps one day it will find its way to the screen.
While there are all kinds of paths to getting to that movie premiere, the system of Hollywood is designed to keep you as far from that path as possible. Let me start with the challenges then we’ll get into solutions. I had lunch with an agent friend not too long ago. He shared with me how countless writers and directors were on him to make something magical happen with their projects. But the reality of Hollywood is fewer films are getting made, many are remakes or based on pre-existing material (book, TV show, game, etc)… The last thing any manager or agent want to do is take on a another mouth to feed when he doesn’t have something he thinks he can sell.
That’s the key – as much as we all love movies, if you don’t have anything they can sell (and my focus here is strictly on Hollywood, not the indie world), then they will pass you by without a second glance. So what are the steps to getting in?
1. Come up with an idea that you’re excited by and people love when you describe it in 30 seconds. If it takes you 5 minutes to try and explain it, move on. Picture the movie poster. If you can’t see it with a cool tag line, don’t bother.
2. Write the first draft. Don’t stop, don’t slow down. Try to write at the same time each day so you get in a rhythm. Most importantly, don’t go back and edit. Just finish. “But Scott – I have a great idea to add to the first act.” Awesome, make a note of it and keep moving on.
3. It’s great that you finished your first draft – most people don’t. Take a moment, raise a glass and enjoy that feeling. Now here’s the hard thing to accept – it’s awful. Don’t worry. Everyone’s first draft is awful. Now go back in and rewrite again and again until it’s as great as you can make it. The next hard thing, it’s isn’t great yet. Don’t give it to friends and family – give it to nasty, bitter writers who will tear it apart. That’s good – you want that, painful as it is, because until that script has been seen by the brutal side, its still your first draft. Now pull up your big boy/big girl pants and do it all again. And again.
4. Once you’ve gotten it to a point where every page glimmers, now comes the hard part. Ultimately there’s a saying in Hollywood – a great script finds a home. But that only happens after banging down every door you possibly can. That means reaching out with query letters to every worthwhile agent and manager in Hollywood or NY. Most won’t respond. Of those that do, most will say no. But if the idea is great enough, you might slip through the cracks and some assistant will take a glance and give to his boss. And then… they’ll have notes.
Leave no stone unturned: you have a friend who knew someone in the mailroom at CAA? Reach out. Your plumber’s brother is an assistant at Industry Entertainment? Reach out. But, and I can’t stress this hard enough, don’t reach out until that script is as perfect as you can make it. That’s not days or weeks, it’s months and sometimes years. And when the rejections come, don’t be deterred. “Onward” is your new slogan. Nothing may happen with that script in the end. I would be surprised if it did. That’s OK, now take that approach and do it again with your next project. And then again. Most people I know who break through do so somewhere around their 6th or 7th script. In other words, years of toil. Writing screenplays is a craft and it’s one that needs to be studied to have any chance.
And remember this – many wanna-be writers disparage Hollywood movies, usually while complaining that their project is so much better. Don’t mock the hand that you want to feed you. If other projects are succeeding, look at why, try to understand what made them work such that tens or even hundreds of millions are spent on them. Then create your own…