Monday, November 18, 2013

My Hollywood Bound & Down podcast

Joshua Caldwell of Hollywood Bound & Down hosts a podcast about the early years of breaking into the industry (college screenwriting programs, internships, first assistant jobs, etc.). Mine's up now - take a listen! 

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The Black List expands to include TV scripts

My post on what to do with your TV script was fortuitously timed - because today The Black List has announced that you may now upload pilot scripts and bibles to its online database.

From the company's press release:
LOS ANGELES (November 13, 2013) – This morning, the Black List’s online script database (http://www.blcklst.com) launched its long awaited expansion into television and episodic scripted content.

Beginning today, writers from around the world will be able to upload their original pilot scripts (and, optionally, their series bibles) to the script database, request evaluations by professional script readers, and make their scripts available to the Black List's growing membership of industry professionals, currently over 2,000 members. Writers will be able to categorize their scripts in a near infinite number of ways, including but not limited to multi-cam/single-cam, procedural/serialized, length of season, prospective number of seasons, and more than 60 genres and over 800 tags.

“Writers and industry professionals have been asking us about a television version of the site since we launched our feature script service last year. We’re excited to roll it out now in a way that can accommodate conventional television, miniseries and web series scripts,” said Black List founder Franklin Leonard. “The goal of this new venture parallels the mandate of the feature film script hosting service: make it easy for those making episodic content to find great scripts and writers, and help those with great scripts get them to people who can do something with them. I’m very optimistic that we can repeat the success we’ve had since our film launch: more than 13,000 downloads of uploaded scripts, more than four major agency and management company signings, one two-script blind deal at a major studio, one produced film, and more than twenty sales for writers living as far away from Hollywood as Ireland and Sweden.”

As with feature film scripts, writers will pay $25 per month to host and index each of their pilots (and if they so choose, the series bible at no additional charge) on the Black List’s website, accessible only by a closed community of industry professionals (and by their fellow writers if they choose to make them available.) They can further pay for evaluations by professional script readers hired by the Black List. Evaluations for pilots meant to be longer than 30 minutes will cost $50, just like feature scripts, and those meant to be 30 minutes or less will cost $30.

WGA East and West members will be able to list their material free of charge (without hosting it), just as they can with their film scripts.

Also, just like with film scripts hosted on the site, reminded Leonard, “writers retain all rights to sell and produce their work and are free to negotiate the best deal they can get. All we ask is an email letting us know of their success.”
Comment if you have any questions or concerns and I'll get them to Franklin.  

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)

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

5 Questions with a Production Company Reader

John Flynn-York is a writer who's been living LA for two years. He read scripts for Principato-Young Entertainment before starting his current job writing coverage for a production company with an open submission policy. We sat down with him and asked him Five Questions about his job:

How did you get your current job as a reader?

I moved to Los Angeles a little over two years ago to attend UCLA's Professional Program in Screenwriting. While I was taking classes, I started interning at a management company in Beverly Hills. When my internship was over, the manager I had been working for put me in touch with a production company that he knew was looking for script readers. They had me write sample coverage, and based on that, hired me.

What's the workload like? Is it full time gig, or is there a fluctuation in how many scripts you get assigned?

The workload varies. Sometimes, it's close to a full time job, but more often it's part time, maybe 20 to 30 hours a week. It depends on the amount of scripts coming in.

If you had to pick one or two of most common mistakes you see from these writers, what would they be?

The most common problem I see is characters not being given specific objectives to achieve. This may sound like a small issue, but it really goes to the core of a lot of different areas: character development, plot, dialogue. It's not entertaining to watch characters who aren't doing, or trying to do, anything; conversely, we care about and root for a character who is pursuing a goal. What they're trying to achieve tells us a lot about who they are as a character, and how they're trying to achieve it tells us even more. Whether or not they're successful is beside the point -- in storytelling, it's the trying that matters.

Another problem I see frequently is a lack of clarity in communicating the premise. Some writers seem to know what their premise is, but have a hard time translating that into a story; other writers don't even have a basic idea of their premise. This is the fundamental idea of the movie or show we're talking about here, and it needs to be crystal clear. If it's not, then everything suffers. I don't know what the characters are trying to achieve, I don't know who they are, I don't know what this story is about.

What are some suggestions you'd make about evaluating your script before sending it out?

It's easier than ever before to send your work out, both in terms of how many avenues there are to get it read and the ease of the actual process. I don't know if that makes writers less likely to read over their material before sending out, but I do see a lot of work that's fairly sloppy. Spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, typos – for the most part, they're easy mistakes to correct. Contrary to what some people will tell you, though, a few mistakes here and there won't kill a script's chances. But a scripts that's full of them says something about the writer and how much effort they put into their work.

That's the easy stuff, though. Spell check can catch a lot of errors, and a read dedicated to grammar and spelling can help clean up everything else. It’s much harder to look at your own work and evaluate things like character, story, and dialogue. The most helpful thing, I think, is to have someone who's interested in screenwriting read the work and give you notes. They’ll catch things you won't, and another perspective can be very helpful in evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of your material. It can also be really useful to read your work out loud. Many things that work on the page don't work as well when spoken, and that can be a kind of guide to rewriting dialogue. Again, a friend can be really helpful with this, but it works well on your own, too.

As someone who is exposed to such a high variety of scripts (from pros, from yet-unproduced writers, from hopefuls), what would you say is the biggest takeaway is and how has it affected your own approach to writing/getting noticed?

It may sound disingenuous, but I think it's more important to be great at one thing than it is to be good at everything. There's a lot out there, getting your work noticed is hard, and it's not enough to just write a decent script, although even doing that isn't easy. To stand out, a script really needs to be memorable, and that means doing something really well. If you're funny, be as funny as you can be on the page; if you write characters well, write a character who's going to stick with anyone who reads your script; if you can tell a great story, then really go for it and tell the most interesting story you can. In other words, play to your strengths as a writer. That way, when someone reads your script, there will be something about it that they can recommend to other people -- how funny it is, or how great one of the characters is, or the incredible twist in the third act.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Screenwriting links: Monday, November 4

5 Things to Keep in Mind When Making an Independent Pilot, From the Founder of the New York Television Festival [Indiewire]

They Liked to Watch: Interview w/MASTERS OF SEX creator Michelle Ashford [WGA.org]

Podcast: Screenwriter John Ridley Discusses 12 YEARS A SLAVE
[The Q&A with Jeff Goldsmith]

'Ink and Bone' Tops 2013 Blood List [Deadline]

Inside the Minds of Late Night Comedy Writers [CableFax]

The International Fate of '12 Years' [NY Times]

8 Questions about Agents Every Screenwriter Wants Answered Right Now [Indiewire]

How To Write An Awesome Movie, According To Some Of Hollywood’s Best Writers [Buzzfeed]

Has independent television become too calculated? [A.V. Club]

Amazon's First Original Shows Will Premiere This Month [Vulture]

Why We Call That Failure Art: Writing Advice from Tony Kushner
[The New Yorker]

The Original Writers of Conan's 'Late Night' on Writing [Splitsider]

Watch: Ava DuVernay's Filmmaker Keynote Address At 2013 Film Independent Forum [Indiewire]

Kelly Masterson on Writing 'Killing Kennedy' and 'Snowpiercer' and Why We Revisit History's Most Painful Moments [Indiewire]

Cassian Elwes Endows New Indie Writer Fellowship Via the Black List
[The Black List]

Franklin Leonard Answers Some Questions About The Black List's Cassian Elwes' Screenwriting Fellowship [The Bitter Script Reader]