The mystical art of alchemy has often been compared to the act of writing fiction. Each requires dedication to an ethereal and misunderstood art. Both involve struggling to create precious gold out of ordinary, everyday things: base metal and words. Yet, if the motto of the medieval alchemists was “Our gold is not the common gold,” then the modern screen adaptation would read, “Show me the money!” A multi-million dollar how-to-sell-a-screenplay industry has risen from the Southern California desert like a golem sent to feed our culture’s hunger for fame and fortune. These books, Web sites and conferences promise to transmute unformed ideas into six-figure spec screenplay sales.
As we all know, there are great stories lying dormant inside brain folds all over this country. They just need a little nudge to get out. How often does an exchange like this one, from Alexander Payne’s film Election, happen throughout America?
Yeah, it’s serious. I mean she inspires me in ways Sherry never has. She even wants to read my novel.
But you haven’t written your novel.
That’s the whole point. It’s all in my head; it’s right here. I just got to get it out there. Tracy wants me to write it so she can read it. It’s beautiful.
What would drive a mature adult man to talk like that? Only that unattainable Lorelei called the Great American Novel and its younger ADD-challenged brother the Great American Screenplay.
On Nov. 11 and 12, the North Carolina Writers’ Network inaugurated the first annual N.C. Screenwriters’ Conference in Raleigh to help provide an informative nudge to local screenwriters. One hundred and forty participants swirled around luminaries in overdetermined huddles at the Sheraton Capital Center after sessions such as “What Do Producers Want?” “Creating Indelible Characters and Stories,” and “Industry Professionals Tell You How to Get Started.” Panelists offered advice to locals, far removed from Hollywood, on how to break into the movies, and reminded us that, thanks to the Internet, the opportunities have never been greater.
Of course, the first and most painful step to screenwriting success lies in crafting a brilliant screenplay. Making it in Hollywood is such a nebulous phenomenon that there are as many ways to go about it, as there are successes. One time-honored industry saying does state, however, that you only get one shot, so make it your best. When a script has received bad coverage from a reader at a studio, it is entered into the system and there it shall remain forever. A screenwriter awarded harsh treatment from a reader is in more trouble than a hooker wearing hot pants in Afghanistan. Chances of survival are not good.
Upon completing a first draft, there are a few tangible steps a writer can take to protect her work. It is important to register the script with the WGA at their Web site, www.wga.org, or through snail mail. This service costs $22 for nonmembers and reputable producers won’t read a script unless it has been registered. Almost every blockbuster results in dozens of lawsuits claiming that the premise was stolen. In addition to providing protection for your property, the WGA Web site is a great source of information on issues ranging from retirement benefits to this summer’s potential WGA strike.
One word of advice: Do not let a preoccupation with getting ripped off become a negative influence on your writing career. Scripts are stolen, rarely, but if it happens to you and you can prove it, there is more money to be made through a plagiarism lawsuit than most spec screenplay sales anyway. Concocting a great script and trying to break into the movie industry is hard enough without becoming paralyzed by fear. Write your heart out, take efforts to protect your work, submit your scripts and relax.
The real apprehension for most writers living outside California and New York is in knowing when a script has reached professional quality. Sure, all of us have read a few of the hundreds of produced scripts that lay in wait on Web sites such as www.scriptorama.com, www.scriptshack.com and www.scriptcity.net, but it is not so easy when considering our own masterwork. Most people in North Carolina have never met a studio script-reader, let alone had a piece of writing critiqued by one. Luckily a whole industry has sprung up to assist screenwriters in preparing to run the Hollywood gauntlet.
One of the proven script coaches is Blair Richwood of Richwood Consulting Services, www.scriptnotes.com. She draws upon years of experience as vice president of creative affairs to Barry Sonnenfield, producer at Sincere Pictures, and as the director of development to Garry Marshall. Many of her clients have sold scripts and signed on to large studio deals as producers. Richwood was also on the faculty at the N. C. Screenwriters’ Conference and provided many excellent tips on how to get started in the filmmaking business. On why a script consultant can be so important, she says, “Because writers have lived with the script for so long they often can’t see fully what is on the page. Their minds are often full of the characters, story ideas and dialogue as they imagine it. This is where you need a pair of fresh experienced eyes to help get the script to the point where it is the absolute best, tightest, funniest or most heart-wrenching, accurate, clean, professionally formatted draft you can make it.”
Suppose a writer has worked and reworked a script until she is so sick of it she feels like scratching her eyeballs out with those shiny metal brads? Blair Richwood offers more advice, “Once you have the script to the point where you fully believe in it, you then become your own businessman in trying to get an agent, and I would tell any writers from outside of California or New York that they do need an agent.” She adds, “The main reason for getting an agent is that they have years of experience and a huge Rolodex full of contacts. They are able to understand the changes that are posted in the trades every day [Variety and The Hollywood Reporter] and the ones that aren’t.” Agents can also gauge how the studios are interrelating with each other and what they are buying. “They’ll help you formulate a game plan that will provide the best opportunity of success for your script.”
Now you’ve decided you need an agent, but don’t know any, and as far as you can tell, there isn’t one within a day’s drive of Chicken Bridge Road, where you live. What do you do next? “First, it is helpful to familiarize yourself with who the agents are,” advises Richwood. “There is a book put out by the Hollywood Creative Directory called Agents and Managers. You look through it, and you will want to pay close attention to the ones in Los Angeles. Narrow it down to a list of who is in Los Angeles, what names you have heard before, and what agents provide literary representation, because that means screenplays.” According to Richwood, you should choose someone with an A after their title, rather than an M, which means manager, as you won’t have anything to manage yet. You also need to decide whether you want your script to go to a medium-sized agency or a small agency, and craft a letter of introduction on your script accordingly. “This introduction will, in one quick line, need to catch the attention of the agent,” she emphasizes.
“In a second paragraph have a quick logline, one or two lines, that includes the genre, the tone, the protagonist, the antagonist, a sense of the stakes, and doesn’t tell the ending. The whole goal of a logline is that it is a commercial for your script. So why give it all away?” adds Richwood. In a third paragraph, include a short piece about why an agent would like to represent your script and that you would like to send it out. “The fax number is in the book,” she concludes, noting that faxes are the preferred method of query for agents.
There is a zip code bias against writers not living in the main media hubs of New York and Los Angeles. Readers just assume the script isn’t as good when they don’t recognize the place from where it has been mailed. That is why when attacking the Hollywood script market from far afield, you should start by developing your craft to a highly professional level. This doesn’t mean finishing that first draft of your first script and shot-gunning it off to every agent in the book. You are about to enter into the most competitive job market in the world, except maybe president of the United States or Laker Girl sweat wiper-downer, so be smart about it. If you can’t land an agent, then you are not ready for the Hollywood script reader anyway, so channel your frustration into creating characters the world will love, or hate, whatever your voice may dictate.