Comprehensive, line-by-line screenplay consultancy.
Fast, personal attention.
→ What Do We Offer?
Oren Peli was afraid of ghosts. He had never made a movie, about ghosts or anything else. He decided to give it a shot. He’d make a horror movie, and it would have no script.
He found two actors on Craigslist. Cast them for chemistry. They improvised the scenes. They shot it, sometimes working 18 hour days for 7 days. He got it in the can for $15,000.
He had few industry contacts, and no agent. In 2007, he screened the film at the ScreamFest Film Fest. It was a sensation. His actress won the Best Actress award. From this exposure, he got an agent at CAA. The movie was shown at Slamdance and again, it was a sensation. By 2008 his little film was being shopped for distribution. A DVD made its way up the food chain at Dreamworks until it ended up with Steven Spielberg who, supposedly, was so freaked out by the movie he kept it in a garbage bag. Dreamworks producers purchased all domestic distribution for the movie for under $1,000,000 dollars. They planned to reshoot the movie, possibly with a script. Subsequent screenings blew enough people away that they decided to release the director’s original cut. Squabbles between Dreamworks and Paramount delayed the film’s release ‘til 2009, but even this seemed to work in the film’s favor. The initial release only went out to 12 “college towns.” Online audiences were encouraged to “vote” for expanded release of 20 cities, large-market cities actually excluded. By then, it went viral. Everyone had heard of this movie, but no one had seen it. A frenzy ensued for this $15,000 horror movie. Paranormal Activity was finally released multi-city.
As of this writing it has grossed—wait for it!—$107,917,283.
It became the single greatest profiting movie (cost to gross receipts) in history.
Paranormal Activity 2, released last year, was a failure by comparison. It cost an outrageous $2,750,000 and has made a paltry $84,749,884!
What are the odds that your $20,000 credit card movie gets you a CAA Agent, a seven-figure sale, invites to Ouija board parties at Steven Speilberg’s, or a PARANORMAL ACTIVITY 2-style sequel that grosses 84 mil? Ah, not great. At all.
Does that mean this isn’t a worthwhile approach? Of course not.
There are many success stories of low-budget feature filmmakers: Blair Witch Project went “viral” before it even hit theaters. Robert Rodriguez’s El Mariachi famously cost $6,000 (not counting, what, $500,000 in processing costs?) Another recent, terrific feature, Primer, was made for $30,000 by Shane Carruth, and won at Sundance in 2004. Then there’s Clerks which, to quote Wikipedia, “was shot for the sum total of $27,575 in the same convenience store where Smith worked. It went to the Sundance Film Festival in 1994, where it won the Filmmaker’s Trophy and was picked up by Miramax before the festival’s end. In May 1994, it went to the Cannes International Film Festival where it won both the Prix de la Jeunesse and the International Critics’ Week Prize. Released in November 1994 in two cities, the film went on to play in fifty markets, never playing on more than fifty screens at any given time. Despite the limited release, it was a critical and financial success, earning $3.1 million.”
One last example: A friend, Tim Rutili of the band Califone, made a $30,000 movie (All My Friends Are Funeral Singers) that made Sundance last year. A highly-personal movie, what Tim wanted to do is make a statement about superstition. What he didn’t want to do, or even consider doing, is write a movie that would be sent out to screenplay contests, readers, agencies or ProdCo’s. No, he would keep control of the process, saying exactly what he wanted, and make it for a price he could raise himself–thereby having to answer to no one but himself. He made Sundance with it, and though it didn’t get a traditional distribution deal, it will make its money back and has opened possible financial connections for his second movie this year.
The credit card movie is a real option for the Unknown Screenwriter. You must write it carefully, with an eye toward ultra-low budget filmmaking, and with the intention of shooting it yourself. It must also stand apart from the umteenth number of other low-budget movies out there. When you lower the boundaries of entry, it’s not just you who will step over the rampart.
This is how you get proactive. This is how you can make a noise. Make the powers-that-be learn your name.
In an age where even Aunt Ethel has a $3,000 JVC High-Def Mini DV Camcorder, aren’t the odds against you? Isn’t there a financial risk?
Yes, to all.
Are you going to let that stop you?
Like they say in the craps pits: You gotta bet it to get it.
“Consider: for all the gobbledygook [film studio] executives spout about backstory, all that we, the audience, want to know is what happens next. That’s the only thing that’s going on. . . . Character is nothing other than action, and character-driven means the plot stinks, and you’d better hope the star is popular enough to open the movie in spite of it.” – David Mamet
It always surprises me, the disparity in the number of high-concept/Studio scripts I read vs. the character-driven/Art-House screenplays. Waaaay more character-driven pieces find their way to me. Why do most new screenwriters write character-driven stuff? It’s not a stretch to say that, often times, they have a personal story taken from their own lives, or from someone they know.
That’s fine. But ask yourself this: What movie are you writing? Studio budget? Art-House? Who is your audience? Should you even concern yourself with such trivialities?
As usual, there are no easy answers. For myself, early on, I never considered my audience. I had something to say, I would say it. Through a certain lens, it’s downright crazy to think that you need the approval of a certain segment of people in order to write what you want to write. Ridiculous!
Of course, I was writing poetry and plays then.
Writing for film? Whole different ballgame.
Unless you have the money. Like I’ve said, if you have the money, then you can write your script in magenta crayon. Write it in 16 fonts and make it 202 pages. You have the $$$$! However, if you’re writing for film, and your movie will cost more than an ATM withdrawal, you might want to consider asking: Exactly who will pay 10+ bucks to see my movie?
Obviously, Napoleon Dynamite didn’t do the business of The Hangover. Charlie Kaufman never had a movie open with the box-office numbers of Shrek, or Shrek 2, or Shrek 3. And for every Sundance passion project with voice and quirky personal vision, there’s a Laura Croft, Tomb Raider, driven, like almost all genre films, by what happens next. So the question, Good Reader, is: What are you writing?
I prefer character-driven, smaller budget scripts. I also feel strongest working the genres of drama or black comedy. These are strengths–for me. Have you identified your own strengths as a writer in terms of genre, in what you feel most comfortable writing? I don’t avoid writing bigger budget projects out of fear of “selling-out.” Somebody, please, tell me where the sell-out door is!
It’s probably more the recognition that what the studios buy (remakes, Marvel comics, graphic novels, sequels, and branded entertainment) simply isn’t what I write. My own writing is tailored toward the Indy market, or low-budget self-producing. Try to identify your strengths as a writer and tailor your marketing to attack where you’ll have the most success.
What’s your hook? Does your movie have a killer hook that can be pitched? How about this one: Snakes On A Plane! You get the whole movie in a single sentence! Maybe the hook is a never-before seen character: James Bond, Austin Powers, Harry Potter. A device: A remote control that can stop time… Or a concept: An unscrupulous lawyer can’t tell a lie for 24 hours.
A couple of my students wrote spec episodes for Madmen and Entourage. I encourage this. These specs won’t get made. But writing a killer Entourage episode is a calling card. It can also be used as a writing sample to open doors for you at an agency, and later, possibly lead to assignment work.
Write for yourself first, but know your audience. What’s new and universal about the story? The instinct in Hollywood is to just say no. Why jeopardize a nice gig to greenlight your quirky, touchy-feely Michael Cera/Jon Heder vehicle unless they believe you will make them wheelbarrows-full of money.
In an ideal world, you being THE WRITER, you would concern yourself only with matters of artistic expression. You wouldn’t answer to a single John Boehner-tanned, Davoucci-pleated, Hollywood finochio. And in a non-ideal world? You don’t have the money to make your vision happen. If the studio system isn’t for you, write your script with an appropriate budget, go Art House and market it to Indy circles, and/or the Festival route.
Write every page toward your audience. Infuse the script with what they—and the powers-that-be who greenlight movies—want.
In the darkened dead of night you can still write your Keatsian odes. Nobody will rob you of your inner-poet. We’re talking about getting you over the hump.
Like the Great Poet once said: “Just make it, babe.”
Is this the image in your mind:
Do need to live in Los Angeles?
You’re a screenwriter. You’re considering the move to LA. But is it the right move?
I’m not going to give some simplistic answer to what is, clearly, a complex and personal question. I did, though, want to throw a few ideas around this question. But before that, let me take you on a brief History of Cinema Tour, circa Chicago 1911…
100 years ago, nearly 20% of all movies came from Chicago. The Essanay Film Company of Chicago, along with the Selig Studio, represented two of the top 10 producers of silent films. Why Chicago didn’t maintain that elite status had as much to do with simple factors like the weather as it did with more complex issues, such as the burgeoning Star System. The brutal Chicago winter of 1915 drove Charlie Chaplin out of town (he made only one film in Chicago for Essanay, His New Job), leaving along with the likes of Gloria Swanson (an extra at Essanay) and Bronco Billy Anderson (the first silent movie cowboy star) for the promise of year-round Los Angeles production and sun.
Flash Forward: 2011 Chicago has a thriving film community. There are a multitude of resources—student and professional—dedicated to making movies. Columbia College and Flashpoint Academy train hundreds of students to take a place in the film business every year. Chicago Filmmakers has been a grass-roots film community for 20+ years. IFP (Independent Feature Project) has weekly screenings of local filmmakers and filmmaker resources in addition to a high-profile Producer Series that gets national names. The Illinois Film Office has been instrumental in drumming up production (31% tax giveback, one of the best of any state). Informal groups such as Chicago Screenwriters Network and Meetup.com nurture their own filmmaking communities.
Now let’s think about some of the movies made in Chicago: The Dark Knight, Batman Begins, The Blues Brothers, The Breakfast Club. Eight Men Out, The Fugitive, Henry, Portrait Of A Serial Killer, Hoop Dreams, Home Alone, Risky Business, Spiderman 2, Sixteen Candles, The Untouchables, Wayne’s World. Great movies!
And the actors! Recall the homegrown talents that have come out of theaters like Second City and Steppenwolf to go on to national film and TV careers: from Steppenwolf’s John Malkovich, Gary Sinise, and Joan Alan, to William Peterson, to John Cusack and, most recently, Academy Award nominee Michael Shannon. The list of actors Second City has contributed to Saturday Night Live and the national comedic landscape are too numerous to mention.
The resources Chicago brings as a superb filmmaking town are second to none. Everything, absolutely everything you could want is here…
But? How can there be a but? Chicago as a filmmaking town has everything! Locations, actors, crew… Everything, but…
With the exception of the occasional independently-financed project and a producer like Gigi Pritzker (Green Street Hooligans)–where is the money coming from for feature-film production in Chicago?
The answer is: LA.
Which brings us back to you, Good Reader, and the decision you need to make. Do you need to be in LA to be serious about your screenwriting career?
So many factors to consider—age, family, job, temperament. How long will you devote to giving screenwriting a shot as a career? Can you give it a year without success? Five years? What’s realistic? Do you have the resources? Will you fit in with the LA lifestyle celebrated ad nauseum in everything from Entourage to Day Of The Locust? Are you ready for the sharks, schmoozers, and dream weavers?
Playing Devil’s Advocate here, I think there are a few things we can agree on:
• It’ll be more difficult to take meetings if you live in Iowa.
• It’ll be a longshot to work on the Paramount lot, or in a management company in any capacity, if you live in Rhode Island.
• It’ll take a papal miracle to work a daily gig as a Prodco intern, a PA, or toast-scraper if you live in Idaho!
A former Columbia student went out to LA upon graduation. Got a gig as a script reader, working as a toast-scraping PA in a production company. He hates it, barely making rent. The job is what it is. He’s looking around for something else, casually mentioning he interviewed for an Assistant’s Assistant job at CAA.
Now that’s interesting. Why? Five years from now this same struggling kid could be a force. Maybe he gets his script in the right hands through a contact he made. Maybe he infiltrates CAA and works it from the other side. Relationships! The business is about relationships. It only takes some small bit of luck, one fortuitous turn, and he’s working at CAA. What happens then? Then he becomes someone you want to know. This couldn’t happen if he was living in Chicago. He went to LA and is making things happen.
That said, there are plenty of professionals who don’t live in LA. You are your script. Doesn’t matter if you’re in LA or Chicago or Boise. If the script doesn’t sing, it won’t matter.
You want my two cents? Don’t go to LA until you’re invited!
Oh Christ, a query letter?! To find an agent?! You would stand a better chance having sex with Tiger Woods during a lightning storm, in a sand trap on the 18th green of Amen Corner, than grabbing an agent with a query letter.
Sadly, it’s true: Many agencies won’t even look at a query letter. Industry recommendation only. Of the agencies that do look over query letters, 99% are rejected, flat out.
But guess what? Sometimes, you get lucky. I can attest to that. I got William Morris with a query letter.
Long story short: New agent looking to fill out his client base with new writers. He had a special interest in casino movies. Liked my query letter, so he asked for the script. Liked the script, so asked to meet me. Liked me, and signed me. Piece of cake, right?
Alas, it’s not. If you want some kind of formula for what you need to do, it might be: Exact script in the exact hands at the exact moment.
The script has got to be pretty much flawless. But you’ve got to be country lucky too. Here’s where the query letter comes in. Query letter writing may not the strategy, but it can be a piece of your strategy.
Let’s say you write a horror movie. You decide to go the query letter route. Try to target agents who might respond to the horror genre. Go to www.donedealpro.com. Subscribe. Find out which agents have sold horror. Get their names and agency info. Target Production Companies too. Get the Hollywood Creative Directory. Find out which companies are selling your genre.
Next: Write the query letter. How hard can that be? All you need do is coherently summarize your 100 page movie, and the reasons for its commerciality, in a page.
A page?! How the heck do you do that? Basically, this is cold call selling on what might as well be toothpaste.
Remember, this isn’t about you, it’s about the agent. What’s in it for them? Why should they be interested? These agents don’t know you. Boil your idea down to its most commercial, to its most exciting. Write the concept, write the hook. Tell the plot in broad, bold detail. Tighten it. Read the summary paragraph as a pitch, out loud, to everyone you know. What excites people about your story? What bores people?
Start again. Tighten it up. Agents understand that if you can’t write the hell out of this one page, you probably can’t write a screenplay. Put yourself in the shoes of the agent. Imagine the stack of these queries they must go through each week.
Why would someone pay $10 to see this movie? Who’s the audience? Why are you the only writer for this material? No negativity here. No uncertainty. Present your professional writing credits, if any. Be positive, no “hopefully” or “maybes”. Include an SASE or stamped postcard.
Lots of negativity in cyberspace about query letters, but this misses the point. There is very little downside to writing a strong query letter and sending it out. The cost of mailing out is reasonable. The time requirement to research agents and current sales is also no big deal.
No mass mailing. Identify every agent that will have an interest. Send out letters in groups of 20: An A Group, B Group, etc. Mail out to the A Group. As the rejections come in check them off the list. Stay updated. Don’t give it more than 4 to 6 weeks before you send out to your second wave. If you’ve written a good query, ideally out of 100, five or so agents will ask to see your script. If, after the first couple of Groups, not one asks to see the script, you need to rework the letter.
Interested agencies will ask you to sign a RELEASE FORM allowing them to read your script. This is standard practice. Send back the release with the script, and wait for the agent’s response.
Are the odds great for you succeeding with a query letter? Nope. But it’s a strategy, one of many you, the Unknown Screenwriter, can use. Control what you can control.
Or get thee to a Nunnery and pray for your career to take off. Whatever it takes to get over the hump!
You’re just starting out as a screenwriter. You have no agent, no professional credits, and no industry connections. What the hell can you do to sell your script?
Screenwriting contests are a popular option. You don’t need any of the above to submit to a screenwriting contest. Anyone can do it. The question is, should you do it?
Applying to a screenwriting contests is easy. All you need is an entry form and a copy of your script. Oh, and that $40 entry fee.
Go to http://moviebytes.com/directory.cfm for a complete list of screenwriting contests. They even break them down for “Most Significant” and “Readers Choice”.
Which contest do I recommend? The #1 is pretty much undisputed: The Nicholl Fellowship
Sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, Nicholl is the hands down the most influential contest. Five $30,000 prizes are awarded. Even making Semi-Finals (down to 150 from 8000 scripts) is a big deal. Example: My script, Crossroaders, made the Nicholl Semifinals in 2004. Before the week was out I had more than 20 email requests for the script from Prodcos (Jerry Bruckheimer, Benderspink) to agencies, and managers. None of these had heard of me before Nicholl. A Columbia Film & Video Colleague also got semis that year and came away with a manager. Another Columbia College teacher actually won the Nicholl Fellowship. His script was greenlit and ready to go until Billy Bob Thornton met Angelina Jolie. The project, apparently, was shelved and never saw the light of day. Horseshoes and freakin’ hand grenades.
Beside Nicholl, also prestigious, is Austin:
There are others I’ve sent out to: Page, Zeotrope or Slamdance. Note: Responses from these contests vary greatly: When I finished in the semi-final round at Slamdance (down to 50 from 2000 scripts) there was only one request for my script. I’d recommend contests with big cash prizes (Page), or local contests with few entries (Written Image, for instance, is open only to Columbia College alum and has a $5000 prize with fewer than 500 entries), odds you have to like.
There is some downside, of course. If your script doesn’t advance, you will never find out why. Reason for rejection is not given by the contests (unless you pay for additional critique, an option only available with certain contests.) Also, the $40 entry fees add up. Be selective to which contests you apply. Avoid mid-level contests. Beware the claims that “industry professionals” will read your script. Go to their winner’s archive. How many movies have been made, or even optioned?
Sending out to Nicholl, and a few other cream-of-the-crop contests won’t bankrupt you, and will get you instant attention should you advance far enough.
You’ve written the damned script, send it out!
A word to the wise though: It’s tough out there, any way you go. Just look at what happened to this guy…