Thursday, July 31, 2014

What's the difference between an average script and a great one?

Ed writes: As you’ve read and evaluated scripts, are there common ingredients missing in a script that is good but not good enough to go anywhere? Are there characteristics you notice between a script that’s OK and one that’s oh-my-God-I-have-to-see-this-made!

This is a great question -- and it's difficult to answer. You're onto something with the idea of the "oh-my-God-I-have-to-see-this-made" script. On a practical level, your script needs to be something that will make the reader take action. A script that will make them write "Consider" or "Recommend" in coverage, forward it on to a boss or other person who has the ability to take the script to a buyer, buy the material themselves, or represent the writer. If your script doesn't make a reader do one of these things, then they didn't love it that much.

A reader friend of mine said that after ten years of reading over 10 scripts a week, he only remembers about 15 scripts. I feel similarly; sometimes I'll be asked about a script I read two days ago and I'll have to re-read my coverage because I can't remember anything about the script. Unfortunately, most scripts are forgettable. Fine. Standard. Mediocre. So that's step one: you need to write something memorable.

I know that might sound intangible and unhelpful, but that's because impressive scripts are memorable for all different reasons. A script might have a really unique main character or point of view, laugh-out-loud dialogue or a high-concept, unusual premise. But the common theme in all of these things is originality. Most of the scripts I read feel a lot like all the other scripts I read (or movies I see). Most scripts have nothing new, fresh or different about them. They present characters who are just like every other character, dealing with the same things you've seen a thousand times before. They go through all the plot points you expect, with no real surprises or turns. Nothing that makes you think, "I've never thought of that" or "I've never seen that before." One of the challenges of screenwriting is working within convention and structure without resorting to the cliche, formulaic and expected.

Another difference between OK and great scripts is polish. Great scripts feature action and description that create mood and atmosphere along with dialogue that sticks in your head. Don't miss any opportunity to show off how well you can write. When people read your script, they should feel like they're experiencing a great movie -- but you don't have the advantage of the actual visuals or performances, so your words on the page need to convey everything: emotion, atmosphere, intensity. Is reading your script an experience?

Keep reading professional scripts and you'll see the difference. Also, if you're working to make your current script better, the problem might be in the concept itself. You can polish characters, dialogue, etc., but if people don't find the premise memorable or original, it may be time to move onto another idea.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Creative Spark: Paul Haggis

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

U.S. Writers: Go to Africa With Vocativ's New Short Script Competition

Want to make a film in Africa? Check out Vocativ's new short script competition.
We are launching a nationwide competition to find an original script for a short film that will be produced and shot in Nigeria’s film capital, Nollywood. 
We want to see how the magic is made. To do this, we will take the winning screenplay to a producer in Nollywood and follow the process from casting to postproduction. The completed film will be posted on our website. 
Here’s what we are looking for: a character-driven script that is no more than 10 minutes long, set in the present day, in the English language, utilizing no more than four locations—and regrettably involving no special effects. The deadline for submissions is Aug. 18, and you must be a U.S. resident to enter. 
Our Vocativ panel will judge the entries based on certain criteria (see Contest Rules), and we will announce the winner on our website on Aug. 25.
For more information, click on over to the Vocativ website.

Monday, July 28, 2014

What is a tracking board?

Heather writes: I've heard about tracking boards -- are you on any? Should I pay for a membership? 

Tracking boards are email groups/message boards where assistants and others in the industry share scripts and information (email addresses, job opportunities, info about what specs have hit the market, etc.) I'm on a couple, but they're free; the idea is that you're an assistant (or someone) who has access to some information and scripts, and you're willing trade that access with other people who can give you access to their own information/scripts/etc. You can check out this 2013 Studio System article about some of the tracking boards in Hollywood.

If you're only taking things and not offering anything, then your membership is less useful to people -- but not everyone works in the industry, so in recent years, people have started paid tracking boards like and I don't have personal experience with these boards (please comment if you do).

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Should a writer join an agent trainee program?

C writes:  I'm contemplating applying to an agent trainee program and wanted to pick your brain about a few things. I want to write for TV and from the jobs I see on the tracking boards, 99% of them require at least a year at an agency. If I advance to the interview stage, do I lie when asked if I want to be an agent? Plus, there's my MFA in Writing & Producing for Television. Do these programs know people apply for other reasons besides the agent track?

Working at an agency is a great idea for an aspiring writer. You'll start working with agents, writers, directors, managers and assistants to managers, producers, studio executives and network executives. Although the pay is dismal and everyone's experience is different (my boss was nicer and had a lower volume desk than most), I'm really glad I worked as an assistant at an agency. Like you, I soon realized that I would have a hard time even getting an inerview to be a development assistant without a year of agency experience. I didn't end up continuing on that development path, but the agency experience was still valuable: it's how I met my manager, the first producer/director I developed a script with, and the first producer who hired me for a paid assignment. I'm not sure where I'd be had I not worked there.

I don't think you have to outright lie in an agency assistant job interview. It's true that some agencies will not want to hear that you're a writer (they worry that you're just trying to get them to represent you, and that you suck as a writer), so I wouldn't specifically say that you're still a writer. Still, you don't have to talk about how much you want to be an agent, either. Just spin it that you're not sure what exactly you want to be -- you want to find out more about agenting and producing, and you want to learn as much as you can, etc. -- and you'll be fine. And yes, agents and HR reps know that lots of people apply to agencies just to get some experience before moving on to other things. Usually, as long as you stay for the amount of time you promised, agents will even make calls to help you get your next job. (For more on interviewing, check out my old post about interview tips.)

The trainee program is a bit different; when it comes to trainees, agencies are looking for people who definitely want to become agents. They'd be putting too much of an investment in you if you're just looking to do a year and get out. This might be a moot point, though; usually, trainees are chosen from people who are already assistants inside the agency. Where I worked, even some seasoned assistants were rejected when they applied to be trainees. I know UTA will advertise for its trainee program on the UTA list, but I'd be surprised to learn that outsiders were chosen. (Please comment if you know otherwise.) Also, be aware that agencies and their trainee programs can be very political. You might be brilliant and hard-working, but if you're not on the right side of the right people, you're doomed. Some of this stuff is totally out of your control.

For both assistant and trainee positions, an MFA can only be an asset. Yes, it might betray your writing aspirations, but it's not like people commonly get MFAs in Talent Representation. Lots of agents went to film school (plenty for writing/producing), and although entertainment professionals hold a variety of degrees, I don't see how an MFA in Writing & Producing could ever be seen as a bad thing.