10 Important Screenwriting “Rules” You Really Should Follow… (No Matter How Much of a Rebel You Want To Be)

As a screenwriting mentor at The Script Mentor (www.thescriptmentor.com) and producer with Shark-Eating Man Productions (www.sharkeatingman.com), I review over 300 original speculative screenplays annually, and dozens of first-ten pages a month. In fact, we offer a service that includes first-ten page reads, complete with constructive and thorough feedback notes on those all-important opening pages.

One thing I’ve found during this review process is the commonality of errors spanning the screenwriting experience spectrum: newbies and experienced writers alike make the same mistakes over and over again. In general, I call most of these formatting errors, since formatting is not exclusively about setting margin anymore. In screenwriting, we are talking about the proper way to write slug lines, as just one example of formatting. Other repetitive errors may include poor spelling, grammar, lack of punctuation, and overuse or misuse of a variety of acceptable screenwriting techniques.

Many of these are also considered “screenwriting rules”, but some don’t like to refer to them as such. You see, they’re the “rebels” of the screenwriting world. They are the ones with whom “rules” don’t apply- you know, like Hillary Clinton and the law, or Donald and basic manners. I call them “rebels without a clue”!

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However, if these rules are consistently violated throughout the first ten pages – and beyond-  no one of any authority will ever get past the first THREE pages, much less the first ten. They won’t even consider purchasing or producing your screenplay until they’ve read the entire thing, so you’re basically shooting yourself in the foot before you even get out to the dance floor.

If YOU want to be taken seriously as a spec screenwriter, here are ten RULES of basic SPEC screenwriting that you need to know and adhere to going forward:

 

  1. Scene Headings (a.k.a Master Scene Headings, slug lines, or slugs):
  • You MUST write a proper Master Scene Heading. These include camera location (INT, EXT, INT/EXT), scene location (BEDROOM, BUSY STREET, etc.) and time of day, or TOD (DAY, NIGHT).
  • Do NOT use any other TOD unless absolutely imperative in telling the story (if the killer only kills at midnight, and the killer is about to kill, then say “MIDNIGHT”).
  • Always keep these to one typed line.

 

       2. Descriptions:

  • Provide enough scene description to allow the reader to imagine scene, and exclude details that do not add to the story.
  • You must also describe your characters. The descriptions do not need to read like a police report; blue eyes may be described as “blue eyes”, “like the deep pools of a Caribbean inlet”, or simply “Newman-esque”.
  • Limit this to major characters; often those with more than one line of dialogue and more than one scene. It is not necessary to go into detail describing the grocery store and the check-out girl if they are basic “set pieces” in a scene that your character stops in and out of briefly, and one time.
  • Try to keep all descriptions to two lines or less.

 

 

      3. Camera Directions (CUT TO, DISSOLVE, etc.):

  • EXCLUDE all technical camera directions in your spec script unless IMPERATIVE to the IMPACT of the story. Limit yourself to “FADE IN:”, and “FADE OUT:”. If it’s imperative to use a “BLACK SCREEN” midway through the script, then show a slow FADE IN: into the next scene, because this will improve the storytelling dramatically, then that would be the exception. Unfortunately, many people think their exception IS an exception when it is not. It’s better to err on the side of caution and NOT include an unnecessary camera direction, then to include one.

 

4. Action Text:

  • When writing you action text, avoid repeats of words, such as “walks”, “laughs”, “looks”, etc.
  • Write in the active tense; “He knocks”, as opposed the passive “He is knocking” (-ing words).
  • Try to keep your action text to three typed lines or less, on average.

 

5. Dialogue:

  • Avoid expositional dialogue; having one character impart information to another character; information that they should already know; for the sole purpose of informing the audience (“You know Mom died when I was only eight, so…”).
  • Keep dialogue to four typed lines or less whenever possible.

 

 

 

  6. “More white than black”:

  • Target 150-180 words per page, and you’ll have a nice balance between blank space and ink.
  • Anything over 200 words seems heavy; long paragraph blocks are deadly.
  • Keep scenes short; anything longer than three pages seems too long.

 

      7. Actor Directions (“beat”):

  • Do NOT include (beat) in dialogue. The actor is trained to act. Think of beats as “dialogue speed bumps”, and it slows the read considerably. Do NOT confuse this “beat” with a “Save the Cat” beat, or a beat sheet. You’re marching to the beat of a different drummer there.

 

 

 

       8. Screenwriting Technique/ Style:

  • Do NOT get carried away with parentheticals, CAPITALIZATIONS, flashbacks, montages, hyphens, ellipses and exclamation marks. If you need to use them, use them in moderation (sparingly), and only if you know how to use these techniques properly. If you don’t, do not try them.

 

 

 

       9. Punctuation:

  • Rules of punctuation still apply in a screenplay. Learn them.
  • If you can afford an editor to check for grammar, punctuation and spelling errors, you should make the effort to hire one.
  • Do not rely on spellchecking programs to do your spelling work for you.

 

 

 

 

     10. First Ten Pages:

  • Make sure the first ten pages capture the reader’s attention
  • Make sure that the Inciting Incident is in these first ten pages, or close to it.
  • Make sure the tone and genre of the story is clear by these ten pages.
  • Make sure most, if not all, of the major characters, have been introduced to the audience in some fashion in these ten pages.

 

If you follow these ten rules to the letter, I guarantee you will have a well-written screenplay on your hands!

 

 

Debunking Screenwriting Myths, Pt.XII: We Don’t Need No Stinking Rules!

This is one of the more common exclamations bantered about on screenwriting boards every day, and those usually spouting this one are the writers who like to consider themselves “different”, and “above the norm”. I think they actually BELIEVE this platitude, and how could they not, after a lifetime of winning tenth place participation trophies in junior soccer or bell-curved C’s when scoring a 69 on a mid-term. I don’t blame them, but I do just want to open their eyes – and their minds – a little wider and be more accepting of the truth.

You’re NOT different.

You’re NOT above the rules.

You’re NOT the exception to these rules.

And yes, my little screenwriting snowflake, there are rules.58499170

What other profession are you aware of that attracts so many potential members across the globe, lives by a set of standards and practices, yet denies the existence of these standards and practices to such a degree that most of the “members” swear that no standards of practice exist? Why the secrecy? Why do writers, gurus, and many consultants go to great lengths to tell you that, to be successful, you need to stand out and break convention, but then refuse you entry into their “club”, largely based on the fact that you defied that very convention?

Because there ARE rules, and those in Hollywood – especially writers – would prefer to think of themselves as “rebels”, when they’re really just “Rebels without a Clue”. Unfortunately, you can’t go online and download a PDF of these “rules”, nor can you order the rule book on Amazon, like you can for the International Rules on Competitive Wife Carrying.

You can do the next best thing, however; The Screenwriter’s Bible by Dave Trottier. These are the expected guidelines for writing a spec screenplay and, by now, you should have these committed to memory.

Most of these screenwriting rules are picked up along the way, although The Script Mentor tries hard to share these rules with fellow screenwriters through blog articles and script reviews in hopes of enlightening a few along the way.

Many of these foolhardy souls believe that ancient platitude “great writing trumps all”. You might have the next “Chinatown” on your desk right now, but if you’re writing on spec, and you’re ignoring the accepted standards and practices of writing a spec screenplay, who on earth is going to read it? No one with any significant pull or power in the community is going to sit down and waste valuable time to read through a draft overstuffed with wordweight, boring characters, poorly formatted slug lines, and an unstructured story. It is just not happening. That pile of crap on your desk may contain the greatest lines in the history of cinema…

… but no one will ever know it.

So, do yourselves a favor before you start typing your new “Star Wars” concept: learn the rules, of which there are many.

Learn what a marketable concept entails;

Learn which genres sell faster and easier, and why;

Learn the art of a great opening, character development, structure, formatting, and dozens of more.

If you are writing on spec, to get read, to get noticed and to be appreciated and respected, you need to know the basic rules of the game.

Only then, will great writing trump all.

*In my next article, we’ll address the more important rules of spec screenwriting and provide tips on how to achieve them every time out!

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.