Monday, November 11, 2013

What to do with your script

Ed writes: I am in "now what" mode so it's hard to know where to start…I wrote a TV pilot script that placed third in the competition at TVWriter.net. This came after a year of learning how to write a script, writing it, getting it picked apart by a coverage service, then re-writing it. I plan to throw it into additional contests and I’m working on a couple of feature scripts. But what  should I be doing to market it? Blind queries seem like a waste of time and energy. I’m wary of pitch-fests based on what I’ve read about them. Is that wrong?

I’m a nobody in the Midwest with a career in sports P.R. and broadcasting. Should I be looking for established writer / future showrunner who would champion this script and concept? If so, how do I find that person?

I don’t know if this sounds strange, but I believe in the story, characters and show concept I created much more than my ability or future as a writer. Ultimately, I just want to give this script the best chance possible at being brought to life. While I'll work at writing some other things, it seems like I should be doing something to get the pilot script discovered.   

This is a super tough question that we all face.  How do we break in? How do we get our stuff read? Unfortunately, there's no easy answer.

I've always maintained that breaking in requires only two things: you must 1) write a great script and 2) get someone important to read it (and like it). Also, this person has to like it so much that s/he offers to buy it, represent you or send it to people who can do one of those two things.  If people say they like your script but take no further action, then they didn't really like it that much. As Jeff Willis says, #ItsAPass:
In my experience, writers often focus on #2 - finding the Important Person - when they're really not done with #1, writing a kickass script. I haven't read your script, so I'm not saying that it isn't good or ready - but I just want to bring up the possibility that the script isn't ready to be considered on a professional level. If you've only written one script, this concerns me; most writers' first script isn't ready for professionals. I'm encouraged that you placed in a competition, since that means that some readers out there enjoyed your work, but I'd be careful not to read too much into the results. I've never heard of TVWriter.net, and having read for some contests, I know that probably 80% of the entries were terrible. I'm glad you already realize that the contest itself isn't resulting in industry connections or attention. This is the problem with contests on little-known sites that aren't affiliated with studios or organizations like the Academy. Unless you pocket cash prize money, is it really worth entering? Anyway, the point is that maybe your script is ready -- but maybe it isn't. Keep in mind that sometimes the best thing we can do is move on and write something else.

Now, let's say that your script really is fantastic and the problem is just that you can't get it to anybody who can help.

If you're not really interested in pursuing a career as a television writer, I'm not sure it's worth trying to get this pilot out there. TV IS JUST SO HARD. In my opinion, the idea that you can just kind of swoop in and get this one idea made is not realistic. People generally only sell pilots if they've previously been staffed on someone else's show (Mindy Kaling wrote on THE OFFICE before she sold THE MINDY PROJECT, for example) or if they're a feature writer, novelist or playwright with some heat (Liz Meriwether got her feature NO STRINGS ATTACHED made before she sold NEW GIRL). It's not that newbies can't ever sell a pilot - I've written about this before - but it's just not how the majority of television shows are sold. I suppose what I'm getting at is that "How do I become a television writer" and "How do I sell my show" are two different questions - and the answer to that second question might not be worth discussing if you're not interested in the answer to the first. Maybe your comment stems less from a lack of passion or disinterest in writing on other people's shows and more from a lack of confidence about your writing ability. If that's the case, know that we all feel this way from time to time, and that the only way to get better is to keep doing it. But if you don't really want to be a TV writer, maybe you should keep working on the features and focus on those. Later, if you can establish yourself as a feature writer, you could be in a better position to sell the pilot.

If you DO want to become a TV writer, including writing on other people's shows, my usual recommendation is to work your way up as a PA/assistant/writer's assistant, etc. Everyone I know who is staffed got there this way, with a few exceptions for people who entered programs like the WB Writers' Workshop. Even if you're not working on a show, simply being in LA will help you start meeting producers, agents and their assistants, all people who can help you and send your work around town. Trying to make things happen from the Midwest is harder. It just is. If you have friends, relatives or old classmates who have connections in Hollywood, you might as well ask if they can help - but I'm guessing this isn't a super reasonable avenue for you.

If you're not in a position to work your way up the assistant ladder, then you can enter the programs I have listed at right - WB, ABC/Disney, Fox, NYTVF, Austin Film Festival Teleplay Competition, etc. But keep in mind that most of these programs aim to help you start your career as a television writer (which includes writing on other people's shows), not just to get a show of your own on the air. Many also focus on diversity, and accept only a tiny percentage of applicants -- so it'd be a mistake to put all your eggs in this basket, or to think that rejection from these programs automatically means you're un-talented/doomed. But they can be launch pads, and they can also be ways to connect you to agents and managers. Just be wary of entering contests on random web sites, at least in terms of what you can expect if you win. Hungry agents and agent trainees read Nicholl winners. ABC shows are interested in staffing ABC/Disney Fellows...but not all contests are created equal. My old agency boss was very unimpressed by contest winners.

You can also try to get noticed as another kind of writer -- journalist, novelist, playwright, etc., or popularize your show's concept with an online presence such as Twitter (I've written more about that here), a blog or your own web series/video shorts. Kelly Oxford gained notoriety through Twitter; shows like SHIT MY DAD SAYS also started that way. This one's a movie, but FORTY DAYS OF DATING was a blogCOUPLES TIME was a web series. Web stuff seems to work better for certain genres than others, but it's something to think about.

You can try to get an agent or manager, or send queries to producers. Like you said, blind querying can be a waste of time and energy (please read my posts about querying for more about why this is the case), and I doubt that you'll have much luck in this regard -- but since you're not in LA, perhaps it's worth a shot as part of a bigger overall plan. Also, if you were to get into a writing program, or win certain contests, you might find that you could attract interest from a rep. Most people don't even get in the room to pitch a show (or get their pilot script on the desk of someone who can buy it) without a rep. It can seem like a frustrating chicken/egg situation, I know... but that's how it is. Sometimes you get noticed, and then attract a rep; sometimes you attract a rep who can help you get noticed.

As for Pitchfests -- this is anecdotal evidence, but I've never met anyone who sold anything (or got a rep) that way. Readers, please comment if you have a different experience.

In the future, you'll also be able to upload your pilot to The Black List site. From there you might attract producers, studio execs or agents/managers, the same way you would with a contest like the Nicholl (and yes, I know the Nicholl is only for features - this is one reason the Black List's expansion is exciting).

I realize that all of this advice basically comes down to, "you can try this or this, and MAYBE you'll be successful." Unfortunately, that's as good as you're going to get. Every professional TV writer and screenwriter has a different story behind how they broke in. John August once likened it to losing your virginity; you can ask a bunch of people how they lost theirs, but it probably won't help you lose yours. Some writers win contests; some work as assistants; some give their scripts to their neighbor's hairdresser's dog walker. There's no one path to success, which is why I think it's important to look at all avenues and try multiple things.

THINGS TO REMEMBER:

1. Be sure your script is actually ready. If it's your first one, it probably isn't.

2. If you think you have a great idea for a TV show but don't really want to be a TV writer in general, I'm not sure you should bother going down this difficult and competitive path. Lots of new writers get paired with more experienced showrunners, but if your thought process is "I'll get someone else to write my super awesome story" or "I don't wanna write for other people's shows," I'm concerned.

3. Try multiple ways to get your script to someone who can help - and be realistic about whether they want to help, or if #ItsAPass.

4. As you try to find that Important Person Who Can Help, remember that it can be tacky and ineffective to ask strangers for favors. Networking shouldn't just be about asking for things; it's about people mutually helping each other. That's why when people move to LA, make friends and get jobs in the industry, they're able to get their scripts in the right hands. Friends help friends.

4B. Producers, directors and agents are looking for material, but they're not as desperate as you might think. THEY ALREADY GET SENT SO MANY SCRIPTS THAT THEY HIRE PEOPLE TO READ FOR THEM. When a new person with no experience asks them to read something, they assume it's going to be terrible. This is why you shouldn't bother running up to Paul Haggis after a panel; it's rude/tacky, he's already got a pile of scripts from his agent that are all written by professional writers, and he probably assumes your script is bad. Similarly, you shouldn't be surprised if your neighbor's hairdresser's dog walker never gets around to reading your script.

5. A writer rarely has a big break that suddenly clinches his/her status as a professional screenwriter. I myself have only had a string of small breaks, most of which haven't worked out. Be prepared for the long haul.

RELATED READING:

Where can I send my screenplay? (Emily Blake)

I wrote it, now what do I do with it? (The Bitter Script Reader)

2 comments:

Greg Machlin said...

Yup. Agreed. I've found it satisfying to make webseries (WRNG in Studio City and now On the Rocks)--I don't know if they'll amount to anything, career-wise, so I'm learning to just enjoy the process of making them.

Lucius Cambell said...

That’s true, Amanda. We should be aware about the affiliations of a contest before joining. There’s no harm in finding out the details about the host’s background so we can keep away from some schemes.

Lucius @Skild.com