Debunking Screenwriting Myths, Part X: Writing is Rewriting

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As one who is so tired of this overused screenwriting homily, often provided by lazy screenwriting consultants who feel the need to justify their expenses through the tireless repetition of overused screenwriting homilies, I felt that it was time to take on this platitude, in all of its blusterous splendor, and debunk it once and for all.

Writing is not rewriting.

Writing is writing.

Editing is revising.

Rewriting is a combination of both. You are writing, but on another level from your original story. Oh, sure, a minor technicality, but it’s true. Esoterically, all rewriting is writing, simply by the act of putting pen to paper, or four thumbs to a keyboard, as in my case.

But, to truly commit to a screenplay rewrite – ah, that takes skill — and a plan.

First you have to take an objective view of your story, and see if the whole package actually works; is it entertaining? If it’s a comedy, is it even funny? Is your theme addressed, and is this the message you want to impart?

Assuming all of the above is to your satisfaction, you must then come to the realization that:

YOU CANNOT BE OBJECTIVE!

You wrote the damn thing. Go get your “peers” and “rocketeers” to give you feedback and see if THEY think it hits these marks.

Rewriting may actually involve changing the protagonist or the antagonist. It may involve adding or deleting major scenes. During one of my rewrites, the first draft was written as a violent Mafia crime family drama, the second draft more of a dark comedy, and by the final draft, it had transitioned to a buddy-buddy, cross-country comedy involving the Mafia. THAT’S a rewrite!

Once that is done, review the story to see if your story beats are in place, assuming you even bother with beats.

Review for conflicts. A great screenplay will have conflict in every scene, on every page, in every exchange of dialogue. At some level, someone is trying to do something and someone else is trying to stop them.

Next, review your characters. Are they unique? Are they compelling? Do they speak with an individual voice? Do they have subtext, either in their actions or their dialogue? Do they serve a purpose to the story and help move the story forward? Do you have your characters interacting with each other? Are any or all of your characters written in a way that will attract the A-list actor to want to play them?

When stepping back and looking upon your story, is the theme stated and supported throughout? Does it ever stray off message?

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Check your action scenes. Do they even qualify as action? It doesn’t have to require a shoot-out or a fight scene to be action, but it does require movement, and that movement of some sort should be exciting, compelling and entertaining at some level. I once read an action scene that involved only the movement of the eyes of a paraplegic character, but that was all that was needed to define the action.

You’ll want to review the dialogue. Do you find anything overtly expositional? Are your responses “on-the-nose”? Are the lines delivered in a way that is consistent with your character? I like going line by line, word by word, and make sure this is the best WORD for this character to use in this situation at this time in the story.

Lastly, wordsmith your project. Having the Master Writer software or a solid online thesaurus is always a good idea at this stage. Try your hardest NOT to repeat any adjectives throughout your screenplay, if at all possible. Stay away from cliché. If it sounds somewhat familiar to you, scrap it; it will be familiar to everyone. Check for spelling, grammar and punctuation.

Then, do something that no one has ever told you to do before: count the words. Not individually, dummy-dog. I copy the entire screenplay and shove it into a word document, then press the word count button. Divide your total word count by the number of pages written (hopefully, between 90-110 pages tops). If you average between 150-180 words per page, my guess would be that it is a lean, mean fighting machine of a screenplay. It may not be the best writing, but readers and producers will sit down with this first, based on the overall “more white than black” appearance.

These are steps your “RE- writing” process should take. You want to maximize what you’ve already written, elevating it to another level of greatness. This is why I do NOT ascribe to the myth, “writing is rewriting”.

TSM Interview With Anthony Crossen; Nicholl Semifinalist (So Far)

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Recently, The Script Mentor spoke with Anthony Crossen, a screenwriter whose current war drama OP Winchester has been impressing the judges in the Nicholl Fellowship, so far reaching the semifinals; the top 150 0f approximately 7000 entries.

Anthony and TSM’s working relationship goes back several years now, and we were among the first to read his completed initial draft of this screenplay. Over the years we’ve engaged in discussion, debates and even an argument or two over our beliefs in screenwriting, filmmaking, politics, and even the roles of law enforcement and the military in today’s society. In the end, Tony is a very good friend, a talented writer and an even more talented filmmaker.

Background

519_665601206806625_518426291_n Anthony is a 23-year Army veteran; retired. He is a former tank commander, platoon sergeant, and urban operations live-fire trainer. He is also a 3X decorated combat veteran;  “My military journey initiated with my desire to attend film school, which I did in the early ’90s.  I retired from the Army five years ago and have been practicing my craft and beating my drum as loud as I can ever since.”

Anthony continued, “I tried to do ‘film things’ while I was in.  I taped a lot of field training exercises, and tried to continue my film education but, the war ‘fighting business’ always got in the way.  When YouTube kicked off the digital revolution, I found a way to practice and publish craft.”

His resume of deployments includes stints at the Los Angeles Riots, 1992; Kosovo, 1999; OIF I/II, 2003 – 2004; OIF V/VI, 2005 – 2006. His long list awards are highlighted by a  Bronze Star Medal, Meritorious Service Medal, 4x Army Commendation Medals, 8x Army Achievement Medals, and 5x Army Good Conduct Medals.

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TSM: What is the title of the script you’re currently working, and what’s it about?

AC: I have a script going around town called OP Winchester.  It’s doing extremely well at the Nicholl Fellowship this year, it’s up to the semifinals at this time.  The Nicholl Fellowship is a screenwriting competition put on by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences – “The Oscars”…  It’s also at Zero Gravity right now.  I’m getting offers.

“OP” is a military acronym for Observation Post.  Often times, points on a map often serve as verbs, there are missions or TASKS assigned to those points.  They are often given code names, “Winchester,” in this case.

Anyway, the script is an Afghan war drama about two soldiers who have an intense dislike for each other, who become trapped behind enemy lines.  One is a millennial, the other is old school, a sergeant who came up during the Cold War.  Here’s the actual logline:

“Left behind after an attack on a remote U.S. outpost, an entitled, young soldier is forced to man-up by his tough-as-nails sergeant when an enemy compound housing a wanted Taliban warlord becomes the key to their rescue.”

 

TSM: Can you share with us any advice on the process of actually getting the option deal/ offer or doing well in the Nicholl? 

AC:  Well, Winchester is doing both. It’s been optioned three times, and now it’s doing well in competition.  And I’m getting option offers again. Personally, I think the key is coming from a point of perspective.  Write what you know, right?  That’s the case with OP Winchester.  That knowledge or point of view really comes out in your pitch.  Yes, the logline, but be able to talk smartly and passionately about your subject– and what is your subject?  Sure your movie could be about a haunted house, but isn’t it really about a woman who’s suffering from something else and suddenly has to deal with this situation?  She is your subject.  Be able to talk about it.165561_183502168349867_3417563_n

Winchester’s first option came after a pitch.  I didn’t pitch to sell.  I hadn’t even written it yet.  I pitched it to start a conversation; to garner interest in me, my “brand” as the modern euphemism is, and the story, to talk to the gate keeper and prepare him for my arrival- which is exactly what happened.

Of course, the final step is delivering a killer script.  You have to back up your words with action.  Character is action; “I am what I do”.  So, I delivered a kick-ass script!

 

TSM: How long did it take you to write the script?

AC:  OP Winchester took about a month.  I was clearing, conducting final out-processing from the Army towards retirement.  I was able to knock the first draft out in about 30-days.  The producer read it and loved it.

 

TSM: Did you write an outline beforehand? How many drafts did you write?

AC:  Yes.  I went to film school and took a couple of writing classes, but for the most part I am self-taught.  I leaned heavily on Syd Field’s book series because that’s what was selling at Barnes & Noble at the time.  Yes, this was before the internet, when you had to buy books from bookstores!  There really wasn’t a lot of information out there, or ways to get information.  Now everything you ever wanted to know is online for free!

Anyway, I began with the Syd Field 4-page treatment.  I never hold to that though.  If I’m seeing the scene unfold, I don’t hesitate to write it all out.  I may end up with a 10-15 page treatment.  Much of it, I’ll simply copy and paste into Final Draft while writing the script.

 

TSM: Where did the original concept come from, and how did you develop it? What was your process?

AC: Op Winchester stems from my reaction to The Hurt Locker.  It’s a direct rebuttal, actually.  I was active duty at the time and fresh from my second tour in Iraq.  I was an armor Platoon Sergeant, in charge of an M1 Abrams tank platoon.  Anyway, Winchester is my anecdote on military leadership and why young men choose to serve despite the horrors of war- and they’re reenlisting in droves.  I had dudes in my platoon who wanted to stay in country – and we’d already been there a year!13932849_1239029359463804_5703973592357618348_n

I’ve led millennials.  There’s a marked difference in their psychology and needs vs guys I knew coming up during the Cold War.  That’s what I wanted to write about. So, 4-page treatment with free association; lots of wall staring, long baths, and plenty of Hans Zimmer’s Gladiator soundtrack.  It was an anecdote.  Many of the sequences I experienced personally while in the service are in this script.  You often hear how a story writes itself-  OP Winchester was a prime example of this.

 

TSM: Did you receive any assistance along the way from friends, relatives, or screenwriters that you’d like to credit or thank?

AC: Sure! You (TSM) and I worked early-on on the logline for OP Winchester.  I hung the script on Inktip.com and it wasn’t getting any play.  You can move your script to the top of the listings from time to time, and you can edit your logline whenever you want.  So I wanted your help with the logline, hoping to get more traction.

The Script Mentor’s logline methodology is what I use when developing my scripts.  If you can find one better, please share it with me!

 

TSM: Nice of you to say, and it looks like you added you own unique twists to the logline, so I’m glad it’s working for you. What’s the best tip or advice you’ve ever received when it comes to screenwriting or something to do with the screenwriting business?

AC: It’s very important to be perceived as a team player. Be willing to take notes and make logical changes.  Understand that individuals have their own reactions to stories and that they won’t be the same across the board.  Notes will come out of left field.  You’ll get notes from one person saying change this, while another will say they love the original, don’t change a thing.  It’s all subjective.  So don’t delete any files or drafts.  Keep them all and be prepared to implement a change which you just removed two months ago.

 

TSM: Are you a “formula” or “non-formula” person when screenwriting? Can you tell us why or why not?

AC: I guess I’m a formula guy, for now. For me, structure makes things easier. It keeps my stuff lean and focused on arriving at the next beat on time.

 

TSM: What kind of software did you use to write the script, if any? What other kinds of writing software do you use?

AC:  I only use Word for the planning stages and Final Draft for the script.  I use the Warner Bros. template.  There was someone who posted formatting questions on a LinkedIn group.  They were using Final Draft, but got notes that their screenplay format was out of whack.  They asked how to properly format a screenplay. I mentioned the templates in Final Draft.  They didn’t seem to know it had any.  Instructional videos are on YouTube.  Let Google be thy friend.

 

TSM: Do you write every day? How many hours per day?

AC:  I do write almost every day, but most of the writing I do is on social media.

 

TSM: Do you ever get writer’s block? If so, how do you deal with that?

AC:  I don’t know if it was writer’s block per se, but I have been stuck on a scene which really threw me for a loop.  This was still in the outline stage.  It got to the point where I didn’t want to think about it.  I actually avoided this project for 3-4 months.  My problem was, I was writing a crime drama, not my genre, and I hate being cliché.  I went round and round with it.  I think I shared the beat sheet with you, Geno, because I knew you were a police detective. Your help was valuable, but it finally took me sitting down and confronting the problem head on and it I finally worked it out.

 

TSM: Have you written any other screenplays or television scripts?

AC: Yes.  My first feature script was a horror yarn.  Pieces of Silver, about a latch-key kid in the ‘80s who learns his estranged father is a serial killer…of sorts.

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Most of my stuff since OP Winchester have been short scripts.  Abel’s Promise, a short thriller about a cop who discovers his wife is having an affair with someone close to the family.  Great twist on that one.  I’m developing that into a feature – which is where that writer’s block episode hit me.

Satellite – “In a post 2nd Civil War wasteland, a band of orphaned misfits accidentally steal part of an advanced secret weapons program, uncovering a larger threat to humanity from off-world.”  This is a logline for a feature script, but I wrote a short as a proof of concept.  It’s great, full of high energy sci-fi action.  My ode to Macross and other sci-fi anime.


TSM: Do you live in Los Angeles? If not, do you have any plans to move there?

AC:  I live outside LA.  I’m originally from Orange County, “The OC”, but my time in the service has weened me from the big city.  It’s okay to visit, but I need space and easy access to the outdoors to really live. It’s great seeing all the landmarks, the Hollywood sign, the “Nakatomi” building from Die Hard, and everything, but in the end, the city is a hassle.  I hate it.

 

TSM: Not sure if I ever told you this, but my my old Beverly Hills office used to look out to that “Nakatomi building. It’s part of 20th Century Fox, now, and I would go there often. So, what’s next? Are you working on a new script?

AC: I’m actually doing my first adaption.  It’s a spec to be sure, but I’m in a panic to have a great follow up to OP Winchester.

My first script was horror.  I really like the story, but I wrote it first, before writing the logline.  Now, I’m having trouble nailing down a concise logline, which is crucial to being able to pitch it.  Without a good logline, I can’t properly market the script.  It’s a perfect example of why the logline should always come first.

I was also approached to do a spec trailer for someone’s project.  I edit and direct as well as write.  Now, a trailer, if your followers don’t know, is a visual representation of the logline.  It’s true!  But trailers are more compelling.  Go watch some trailers, like The Judge (2014), Robert Downey Jr, Robert Duvall.  It has every logline element.  And they use music to set tone, from character, in the opening, to hope, towards the end.

Anyway, I asked for the logline to formulate a plan for the trailer.  What I was given was a brief synopsis with every element in the script, not the main arch of the story: protag, antag, mission, stakes, irony, etc.

So I asked, if they’d written the script first or the logline?  They said, script.  Ah-hah!  So another lesson, another point of evidence towards creating the logline first.  It keeps your story grounded and focused.  It doesn’t let it take off on a tangent which, maybe, should be its own script.

I wound up reading the entire script and sending them a logline.  Not sure if they dug it.  Haven’t heard back.  It’s tough when you’re married to your work, then someone objective comes in and completely destroys what you thought you were doing.  It sucks.  Which is why writing is so difficult.

But that’s why you have your stuff read before you put it out there.

They say writers should stick to the genre they know.  I know military, so this adaption I’m doing fits in a roundabout way.  Presenting a horror script as a backup doesn’t sound smart for me.

Now, I’m hesitant to give the title because the property is public.  It’s so old and forgotten (hopefully), that no one has the rights.  The story takes place in 13th century England.  There was an attempted coup which failed.  The king’s loyalists are scouring the countryside for conspirators, which is where our story opens.  Here’s the logline:

“When the teenage son of a fallen noble is sent away to knight school, he discovers he’s the key in a wider plot to restore his family name and exact revenge on his father’s nemesis through trial by combat.”

It’s a childhood favorite.  It could easily be Disney fare, but I plan on putting my gritty, no bullshit spin on it.


Q: Well, I’m pretty sure it’s NOT “Pete’s Dragon”! Do you have any favorite stories or life lessons related to the industry that you’d like to share?

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AC:  Three things –

Character is action – Syd Field is right, but not only in writing, in life!  It’s what you do that matters, not what you say.

You get what you pay for – so so true.  Referring to the above, filmmaking is hard work.  It’s like working construction.  When passionate volunteers learn that filmmaking sucks, and that it’s non-glamorous, they won’t return for Day 2.  They may not even return after lunch!  When you’re in a time crunch and you need to get the shot the first time, you need professionals who are going to get it.  Passion does not equate talent, and startups need to understand and be prepared for that going in.  Pay for pros to head key departments on your shows.

Don’t be married to your work – film is a collaboration.  If you’re lucky to have a say after you’ve sold your script, you’re in a very small club.  Everyone will have notes for you.  Everyone wants story changes.  How you fight for your story will determine your career path.

So, it comes down to how you define success:  You’ve never been produced, but you script-doctor and ghost write for name brands.  Now, you have $4M in the bank, and you and your family can do whatever you want?  Are you vying for that Oscar?  Are you looking to direct?  Don’t get disillusioned about the biz.  Learn how movies are made, and learn to make your way through that process.  Don’t get butt-hurt when they change your shit.  That’s how it’s done.  Be a team player and move on.

 

10 WAYS TO NETWORK WITH PRODUCERS

Recently, in our LinkedIn group “Script-To-Screen Network”, the discussion of sending out screenplays came up, as it often does. One member “warned” against sending scripts to any producer that the writer didn’t know personally, then shared the fact that he had not one, but TWO scripts “stolen”.

Then another member then asked a very succinct question:

How can you get to know producers without sending them your work?

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I jotted down ten (10) quick responses to this, but there are dozens more. Here are a few ideas on how you might want to “get to know” a producer- or for that matter, anyone- in the business. Most of these are “common sense”, but we know just how “common” that sense is sometimes:

1) RESEARCH. Find out about their prodco; check their website and IMDb; review their LinkedIn profile, Facebook page, Twitter, Instagram, etc. You know that you’re on these time-suck sites all day long, at least put some of that wasteful time to work for you!

2) “LIKE” OR “FOLLOW” THEM. I don’t mean stalking. Also “like” or “follow” their projects. Send a short note (“short” the operative word here):

“Saw your website today. Nice. Love the title of your current project. Take care!”

Trust me; they’ll remember your name next time you write them.

3) BE SINCERE. Anyone can spot a phony from miles away.

4) PAY IT FORWARD. If they are currently searching for a particular script- which does not fit the script you are marketing- reach out to your network. With the exception of having your OWN screenplay discovered, to me, nothing is more rewarding than introducing a fellow writer with a great script to that producer looking for that kind of great script. Most of my closest friendships with producers have been forged this very way, and you’ll often see them contribute to various discussions while also being very complimentary to me at the some time. I still help them whenever possible, and ask for nothing in return.

5) SHARE. If they post or tweet something on social media that you can support, share it!

6) ASK FOR ADVICE. Most people LOVE to give advice, especially if they can be helpful in any way. Keep it brief, and don’t be disappointed if you don’t get a response.

7) KNOW THEIR SPECIALTY. Do NOT send a horror producer your Rom/Com screenplay. Don’t send them a manuscript if they produce movies. Don’t send them a short if they produce features.

8) VOLUNTEER. If they are a small prodco, and they are filming in and around your area, offer to volunteer at the shoot. Do anything- drive people, run errands, make coffee, grip, security, make-up, etc. Do NOT ask to rewrite the script or to direct, however, unless they specifically need that and you have that experience to give them.

9) DON’T RUSH IT. Water finds its own level. If you come off as too needy, too helpful, too “stalker”, the relationship will never develop.

10) BE KIND. Thank them when you’re done. Be someone that someone else would want to work with.

There are many producer networking groups on LinkedIn, so don’t hesitate to join those as well. You will also meet producers at pitch fests, seminars, webinars, etc. Once that “friendship” develops, you’ll soon see that it can be mutually beneficial.

When Should You NOT Hire a Ghostwriter

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Last week, I wrote an article highlighting when the time is right to hire a ghostwriter (screenplay, mostly) and what to consider during that process.

Today, I’m going to address when you SHOULDN’T hire a ghostwriter- or even consider it (for the sake of this discussion, a “ghostwriter” and “screenwriter-for-hire” will be considered one in the same). Why would I do that, considering that I AM a screenwriter by trade? Because if you consider these points first, you’ll save yourself a lot of time, money, grief, ill will, and protect your personal. So, for the sake of all things holy, do NOT consider hiring a screenwriter until you’ve done and thought about these things first:

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1) Please do NOT shop screenwriters to write your “movie idea” that you haven’t thought through.

Calling us and saying “I want to hire you to write a movie about my life” is fine, but when we ask about your life and what makes it so special, we cannot spend the next six weeks interviewing you, your family, your childhood friends, your teachers, and an old lover you met on a six-month hitchhiking tour of Europe in 1978. I mean, we CAN, but it’s going to cost you. A lot.

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2) Please do not commit to an agreement with money you do not have.

It is not our place to “ask” if you have the funds, or where the funds are coming from; that’s none of our business. There is a certain amount of assuming that has to take place- we ASSUME you have the money or you wouldn’t be committing to the project. Most screenwriters (me included) ask for 50% of the total price as a down payment. This is standard in the industry. If you do not have the down payment, the conversation basically stops- “Call me back when you’re ready to pull the trigger on this project!” Once you verbally agree to do the project, a written contract goes out outlining all of the nuances of the agreement- cost, dates, end product, post-project involvement, etc. As the screenwriter, my involvement in that project begins immediately. I am thinking of the story, conducting any research that is necessary, outlining characters, potential plot points, titles, even a comparative analysis of the particular genre in the industry, as well as lining up potential clients to read the screenplay at its conclusion. Most of this is done within the first 48 hours of the verbal commitment. We are also adjusting our schedules, blocking out the 12-16 weeks to complete this project. That MAY mean cancelling family trips, vacations, re-arranging child care, putting off medical procedures, whatever the case may be. YOUR project takes 100% precedent in OUR lives at that point.

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3) Please do your DUE DILIGENCE FIRST.

This goes both ways, actually- for the writer AND the client. You have to find out with whom you are dealing, if you do not know this person personally, and most times, we do not. A Google search will give you some basic things, and you can drill down from there. If you’ve had a good relationship with the person up to the point where you are seriously considering on hiring them for this project, THEN find some questionable history about them- ask them. Either they have an explanation or they don’t. Either you accept that explanation or you won’t. I’ve had clients that were real bad hombres- ex-cons with murder rap sheets and such- but that was generally why we were talking in the first place. We were discussing this past life in terms of a movie screenplay, etc. so it wasn’t too much of a shock. If my client has a history of check kiting, I’m probably NOT going to be accepting checks from them for payment- or at least waiting until they clear before spending any time.

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4) Please BE REASONABLE in your expectations.

You are NOT going to get a W.G.A. writer for $1500, but neither should you pay $85,000 to a screenwriter who has but only two shorts to their credit list.

Also, do NOT expect a 100-page professionally-written, final draft screenplay, in five days. You’re probably not Steven Spielberg…and neither are we.

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5) Please realize that WE ARE THE PROFESSIONALS.

Chances are you’ll be hiring a writer with some background and history of success. This didn’t happen overnight, or by chance. For some of us, this IS our livelihood and how we put food on our table. We’ve studied and worked on the craft for years. WE know what we’re doing. You (the client) have probably only seen movies as a paying customer. We’ll listen to you, and do our best to satisfy each and every request, but sometimes YOUR ideas are not always the best ideas. IF you really want to give a screenplay a fighting chance of doing well in a competition or at a film festival, or be considered for an option or sale, its best you allow US the final decision on some of the more important aspects. Creatively, this is your project, and we’ll do our best to see your vision through, but know when to yield for the sake of the project. At the same time, you do not want the hired screenwriter to take your idea and change it in such a way it no longer resembles what you were originally paying for.

 

In the end- believe it or not- we want to see your project be successful as much- or more so- than our own work. There is a sense of pride when writing for someone else. It doesn’t matter if our name is on the title page. Just knowing I wrote your screenplay that went on to win these three contests, and was read by forty producers until one chose to pay you to option it, is why we write in the first place. The screenwriter and the client are partners throughout the process and, if done well and they work together well, the project has a much higher chance of being successful.

Debunking Screenwriting Myths, Part VI — READING SCREENPLAYS

trees-men-george-clooney-open-mouth-burn-after-reading_www-wallpaperhi-com_70   One of the more celebrated platitudes disguised as “screenwriting advice” is the suggestion to “read all of the scripts you can, and learn what TO do and what NOT to do!”

I am not aware of a single script ever written that tells you HOW or HOW NOT to write a spec screenplay. The fact that a particular screenplay was successful, in and of itself, means nothing in the final analysis. There are just too many elements that go into creating a successful screenplay – including luck – that, to limit it to one rule or even a series of rules is folly.

Undoubtedly, a fellow screenwriter who believes he or she knows more than the rest of us, or one of those dangerously self-proclaimed “gurus” will suggest something along the lines of the following:

“You want to learn how to write a screenplay? Read “Chinatown” until your eyes bleed! THAT’S how you write a screenplay!”

Perhaps…

“You write comedy? Read ‘The Hangover’. That’s the direction comedy is going these days.”

Or maybe…

“So you think you write horror? Better be like the “Saw” franchise. Better yet, make it a found footage horror. They’re hot right now!”

We’ve all heard- and read- these kinds of suggestions before, and they’re still passed on, like family secrets, by well-meaning screenwriters who don’t really take the time to actually listen and decipher to what they’re ACTUALLY saying.

You’ve all been told about “the screenplays”; Casablanca, The Godfather, Annie Hall, Network…the list goes on and on. Then, the untrained, uneducated, unlearned spec screenwriter takes all the little tricks and traits that make those screenplays among the best ever written, and writes their masterpiece.

How can they possibly go wrong?

How about by including the actor cue, “INTENSE BEAT”. Not just a “beat”, but it is so stringent, it is an “INTENSE beat”, and not only include it, but…here it comes, now…putting it in the SCENE DESCRIPTION!

And – because you saw it in a Woody Allen script – why not include…

CAMERA RAMP TO CLOSE UP OF MAN’S CROTCH“?

It worked for him, why not me? How about three full pages of script dedicated to the credit roll and subsequent background graphics, not to mention a song list and YouTube links of suggested dance numbers?

Sounds ridiculous? Silly?

Maybe, but I saw it all- just a few weeks ago.

The point is, friends, that the large majority of the scripts you’ll read from are, in fact, scripts of PRODUCED MOVIES, written by extremely talented, professional, WORKING screenwriters.

Chances are, if you’re reading this post, this probably doesn’t define YOU- at least, not where you are today. That’s just a fact, Jack; not an insult.

(if it DOES define you, email me and let me know what you think of the Debunking Series, and request a script read or two!)😉

Those scripts are most likely final SHOOTING scripts and do not at all resemble the format and appearance of what a spec screenplay should look like written by an as-of-yet undiscovered writer.

Learn the spec format rules as they apply to the spec screenplay. Read all the produced screenplays you want- of your favorite movies, or from your favorite screenwriter. I do. I just don’t use them as examples of how my script should look or how it should be written.

I’ve come up with an expression for those who take these sorts of risks. Feel free to commit it to memory:

“Don’t shoot yourself in the foot before you get to the dance floor”.

Read those scripts for enjoyment. Read them for inspiration, for ideas, for education.

Read them because you’re stuck on a plane on the tarmac while they’re spending two hours de-icing the wings.

Read them to pass the time in traffic court as you wait to plead “not guilty” to your speeding ticket.

Read them at Starbucks, pretending to be someone important.

Just don’t read them to learn how to write. Instead, take a class; get a mentor; read a book; attend a seminar; watch a webinar. Do all of these things- many times over.

Learn.

WRITER’S BIO:  Geno Scala is the owner of “The Script Mentor” (www.thescriptmentor.com); professional screenwriter; ghostwriter/book adaptations-for-hire; known as “Ghostwriter to the Stars”; Executive Producer at Shark-Eating Man Productions (www.sharkeatingman.com) ; former Executive Director of 72nd Academy Awards, Grammys, Soul Train, Saturn and Blockbuster Awards shows; currently developing “Bad Priest“, one-hour drama, episodic TV series; produced reality docudrama “Just Like Elvis” TV series; screenwriter of “Banking on Betty“, (action adventure/comedy; 2012); winner StoryPros; Script Pipeline; runner-up Scriptapalooza and more.

 

 

 

 

Screenwriting Groups- Pros and/or Cons?

Lately, I’ve been asked getting a lot of questions about seemingly basic screenwriting issues, and they seem to be coming from writers who are a bit more frazzled and confused or frustrated than usual. When I ask about the source of their frustration, it seems to lead back to their writers group.

Ah, yes- the screenwriters group!

Monkeys-typing

Some find these groups helpful, educational and supportive. Others have walked away, kicking themselves for wasting their time, and shaking their heads at the nonsense that is being spread within these groups.

So, who’s right? Are the groups full of “pros” or are they full of…cons?

Let’s define the groups we’re talking about. I am including online groups, such as Facebook, LinkedIn, Simply Script, Meet-Up and dozens of other writing and social media sites that provide group settings; as well as local community groups where people actually meet in church boardrooms, basements, bars, pizza restaurants, college classrooms (not affiliated with the school), or member’s homes.

Another quantifier is the individual member and how they respond to this kind of “learning” environment. The few groups that I have been a part of (live meetings) varied as far as someone leading the group, so it was often confusing and poorly run. This detracted from the overall experience. Personally, I normally excel in this kind of environment, so it was rather disappointing.

Of the screenwriting groups that I am personally aware of, I believe the large majority are guilty of “the blind leading the blind”. They have been organized by alphas who are very organized and structured people, with a strong leadership mentality, but they generally lack any real substantive working subject knowledge or record of success in the (screenwriting) industry. When you dig into their actual experience, they’ve attended a three-day seminar of one of the more well-known screenwriting “gurus”, read a handful of books, watched a number of videos, read blogs daily, have written or co-written two or three screenplays, but have achieved no real screenwriting success to speak of. They feel they can justify charging money to attend a seminar given by them, where they provide regurgitated information and, often, reprinted hand-outs from that guru workshop they attended three years earlier. They can’t tell you WHY you do this or that, or the significant differences in genres, or marketing strategies or even how to compose a proper logline, but they can cash your check, and that’s what’s really important.

Online groups are more about sharing information, self-marketing, and asking questions and getting answers, or so has been my experience. By being online, geography doesn’t come into play, and you’ll get input from all over the world. There usually is no “leader”, although there is generally someone responsible for the group (a founder or manager that maintains decorum and enforces group or site rules). In these groups, it’s best to ask questions that generate opinion responses, something besides “What’s your favorite Tom Cruise movie?” If it’s a question about Master Scene Headings, for example, you can ask what your problem is, and what you’ve been doing that now you’ve learned was incorrect. You should get quite a few responses to a broad question like that.

Here, in my opinion, are some keys to having an effective screenwriting group. Feel free to add some of your own ideas to the list as well:

1) STRONG LEADERSHIP: Strong doesn’t necessarily mean “tough”, “rude”, “or “harsh”. It just means someone who will stand by the rules, goals and principles of the group and continually move the group in a positive and forward direction.

 

1A) SKILLED LEADERSHIP: Not all strong leaders are skilled leaders, and not all skilled leaders are strong leaders. If you have a screenwriter in the group that has written several screenplays, or has been optioned, or sold, or has been paid for their screenwriting, or has been produced or has won screenwriting contests or has somehow in some way been recognized for their writing, you need to have them as one of your group leaders. If not an actual leader, than at least use their name. It will add credibility to the group and help membership, if you want to grow.

 

2) GOOD COMMUNICATION: Both in getting the meeting information out to the members in a timely manner, meeting minutes, and speakers at the time of the meeting. Know your speakers, and know they can do the job. Being nervous does not mean they’ll be bad. Some of the worse speakers I’ve heard were overly confident professionals who did it for a living.

 

3) RELEVANT TOPICS: If the group is a screenwriting group, the main discussion topic should be about screenwriting. Sounds easy, right? Then why do you waste forty-five minutes of the group’s time discussing the new “Star Wars” trailer?

 

4) DO SHORT, MULTIPLE TOPICS: Instead of a 30 or 60 minute discussion on “dialogue”, why not do fifteen minutes on dialogue, fifteen minutes on action sequences, and fifteen minutes on character names? This helps keep the meeting alive and the members awake.

 

5) FEEDBACK/CRITIQUE: Many groups feel an important aspect of screenwriting groups is the group “feedback and critique”. However, most of the complaints and arguments from members of screenwriting groups originate from something that happened during a feedback and critique session. IF the group is harmonious in every other way, I would STRONGLY SUGGEST TO FOREGO any feedback and critique sessions in your group. There’s too much of a chance of hurt feelings. Most, if not all, of the people within the group, are going to be at pretty much the same level, experience-wise, so all they can really render is a personal opinion based on taste, not a professional opinion based on quality. The difference between a professional critique and a non-professional is that a professional has to read something they really, really hate and give it an honest critique based on the writing- NOT the genre, subject matter, writing style or the personal feelings of the writer themselves- and that is as hard as hell to do!

When is a Screenwriting Contract NOT a Screenwriting Contract?

 

written-contract-600x276 Not long ago, I engaged in a long negotiation with an overseas production company- Templeheart Films based out of London, England, and their principle, Lyndon Baldock- regarding developing a new concept, story line and horror screenplay around a certain location in which they had previously secured for filming. This relationship was a long time in development for me at Shark-Eating Man Productions, as we had done several “freebies” along the way for them and their associates. I counted Templeheart producers and their stable of actors, directors and producers as valuable contacts and good friends, as we seemed to enjoy a symbiotic relationship of mutual support for a couple of years at least. Lyndon and I Skyped on several occasions; he seemed like a straight-shooting, trustful fellow, very pleasant and seemingly easy to work with. I immediately felt comfortable about the new business relationship and was excited about the future of the screenwriter/producer partnership.

Templeheart Films have about a dozen produced horrors, most straight-to-DVD, and have relationships with European companies as well as Red Box for distribution, so I was pretty sure this screenplay, if good enough, would be produced and, eventually, marketed and sold. A contract was submitted to me, and while the money was not what I’m used to, this wasn’t about the money at all. I was looking long-term and working with a reputable producer. One benefit was that I was able to bring along a couple of writer friends and give them credit as well, giving them their first produced writing credit, and this was exciting for me. I always find it a thrill to help others achieve their goals whenever possible.

Outside of the compensation, the contract stated some very hard dates regarding deadlines, and penalties should those deadlines be missed; penalties for the writers being late, and penalties for the production company being late in payments and/or notes. These are fairly common protection clauses, and the contract was reviewed by attorneys on both sides of the agreement. This contract was signed in May 2015.Horsehead

It was explained to us that the director had a screenplay written, and while he was a very talented director and self-promoter, he lacked any real writing skills, so they wanted to see what I could do. After a few weeks, and some brainstorming with the other writers, we came up with two very strong story lines, and submitted one- which Lyndon loved, much to our pleasant surprise. He emailed me explaining that he will review further and submit notes immediately.

I waited…and waited. No notes were forthcoming.

I sent a reminder email regarding the notes; still no response.

It should be noted that the first draft was written and forwarded for review PRIOR TO ever having received the down payment to start the project- which I NEVER do. In this case, I felt that we were more than working associates and more “friends” and felt I could trust them, perhaps more than I should have.

Also in reviewing the contract again, I noted that if the Mr. Baldock did not respond with notes within an eight-week time period, the draft submitted is considered final and acceptable, rendering the contract completed and making all payment immediately due.

After ten weeks of no contact, and no feedback notes on the first draft submitted- and, most importantly, NO down payment paid- I fired off an email to Mr. Baldock requesting immediate payment of the down payment and the payment in full for the contract, outlining where he and his production company breached his own rules:

“The engagement shall commence on the 12th of June 2015 (the “Starting Date”).
                 
1.1                    The Writer shall deliver the First Draft to the Company as soon as is reasonably practicable but in any event not later than six (6) weeks from the Starting Date and in this respect time shall be of the essence of this Agreement.

1.2                    The Company may within six (6) weeks from delivery of the First Draft give written notes to the Writer following which the Writer shall deliver to the Company the First Draft Revisions as soon as is reasonably practicable but in any event not later than three (3) weeks from the date of the said notes and in this respect time shall be of the essence of this Agreement.

1.1                    the sum of $xx,xxx payable as to $x,xxx on the delivery of the First Draft and $x,xxx on approval of the Shooting Draft or if no revisions are requested by Company six (6) weeks following delivery of the First Draft; and…”


In summary, Mr. Baldock failed to fulfill ANY of his legally promised obligations per the signed contract created by his own company’s attorneys. He failed to meet any of the deadlines HE set, and he failed to make any of the payments as promised. Eventually, the down payment was wired to my bank through a bank transfer, but this was months after the fact, and weeks after the deadline. Now, I was requesting payment in full, per the contract.

Screwed

What was Lyndon Baldock and Templeheart Films response to this request? They simply recreated a second contract, with NEW due dates and requested I sign that.

Well, naturally, you can imagine what I told them. I requested another Skype with Mr. Baldock, but suddenly, he was no longer interested in Skyping with me. I only wanted him to look me in the eye when explaining to me how he could lie and cheat me out of a legally binding contract. He must have known this too, which is why he refused. In his effort to get me to sign the revised contract, he stated “Let me know if you prefer something else and we’ll see if we can agree to something.” I told him what I preferred is that the other contract be satisfied, i.e. paid off as contractually obligated, before I’d even consider entering into another agreement. Needless to say, he refused. I took my script, and haven’t spoken to them since.

Now, many will say “sue the bastards!” This is quite difficult to do when you’re talking about another country, and they know this, which is why I handle out-of-country agreements quite differently these days. It’s a shame you have to find out the true character of someone through these kinds of awful experiences, but I trust this is not the first time they’ve done this kind of move. I now realize everyone’s your “friend”- providing you give them free work. When you start asking for them to pay for it, or pay for their mistakes, then you start to see what they’re really made of. Don’t think for a second that if I was late in my obligations- by eight, ten twelve weeks- or didn’t deliver at all as promised, they wouldn’t have had the same response. Of course they would. After all, this is still a business. Apparently, a business in which not everyone who passes themselves off as legitimate company can be trusted.

A signed contract isn’t necessarily a signed contract, unless, of course, you’re willing and prepared to chase it all the way in court at great expense. This is a slam-dunk winner, but far too costly and not worth it to me.

So I wrote about it instead.