Saturday, April 22, 2006


What is the proper etiquette for switching managers/agents, assuming you already have representation that doesn't seem to be working for you?

The relationship between client and agent is a professional one – so any “delicate” matters should be handled professionally.

At the very beginning, you and the agent should sit down and discuss expectations and the game plan. (It’s a two-way street. You must do your job in order for the agent to do his.) If you feel the agent has not been able to help you reach these goals (and you’ve regrouped to discuss), then you might want to seek new representation.

The truth is that if the client is feeling the strain – most likely – the agent feels it too. Often, the break-up is mutual; one party just happens to beat the other party to it.

Never leave one agent without having another lined up. Try to create the buzz that several agencies are interested in signing you. (Agents love the “competitive sign.”) After you have been signed, send a letter or e-mail to your agent dissolving your professional relationship. If it isn’t personal (hopefully it’s a business decision), you can call the agent too. An agent understands that somewhere in his career, his heart will be broken. It’s in the job description. Neither party should burn bridges since clients often return to former agents.

How much value to aspiring screenwriters are the peer-review websites that have popped up in recent years? How seriously can one take critiques from others who have the same (or even less) limited experience?

Peer review sites (like Zoetrope) can be a healthy place to create a core of intimate, trusted allies in your pursuit of writing screenplays. And they can certainly be helpful in getting a sense of how your screenplay works on a “gut level.” It’s also a good place to read scripts. Hopefully, writers balance off their reading list with recently sold spec scripts as well.

Feedback, however, must be dealt with carefully. I peek into message board forums where feedback on script pages is bandied about, and I have seen peer reviews of scripts as well. Some of it's blood curdling. Much of it can be regurgitated, generic advice formed – not by experience – but by textbooks and message boards. Don’t be swayed by didactic rules that many dilettantes preach. For the most part, only use feedback from these sources as a way to validate what you have suspected all along. When you have come to trust and judge a fellow writer (you know his work and know his real name and not some anonymous screen moniker), you could consider more detailed, intricate notes. But regardless of where feedback comes from – APPROACH WITH CAUTION!

I've been asked from different producers to write a beat-list of a project they have and want to hire a writer for. What do you think is essential to include in them?

A “beat sheet” or a “step sheet” or (as you refer to it) a “beat list” is simply a list of the “beats” within the story. Beats are the sign posts within your screenplay that allow one to understand the narrative and see the flow and direction. A beat sheet could be detailed, listing each scene; or it could be more general, listing the major scenes. That would need to be clarified by the producer. There is no specific format for a beat sheet. Individual writers and producers may have their own format. Since a beat sheet is fairly self-explanatory, a format seems superfluous.

A beat sheet for ERIC BROCKOVICH (draft dated 3/22/99) could look something like:

1) ERIN squirms in a job interview – fails to win the position.
2) ERIN’s Hyundai is hit by a Jaguar.
3) An injured ERIN sits in the legal office of ED MASRY. He takes her case.
4) ERIN’s unruly behavior in court fails to sway the jury; she loses.
5) ERIN returns home to learn the babysitter is quitting; her son is sick. She is broke.
6) At a diner, she orders a meal for the kids only.
7) ERIN storms back to ED MASRY’s office and demands a job; he reluctantly hires her.

These seven major beats sum up the first 16-pages of the screenplay. These are simply snapshots that provide the reader with basic story content.

In the last five years, what's the best script you've read? And why?

This can be a hard question to answer because there are many wonderful scripts that have “remained with me” since the first time I read them. In the twoadverbs forum, I have a thread called “Great Scripts You Probably Haven’t Read,” where I share some titles.

But I’ll go out on a limb here, however, and say the best script I’ve ever read was Charlie Kaufman’s ADAPTATION.

For some reason, I got the script without a title page. Someone told me it was called THE ORCHID THIEF, and it was written by “Don Kaufman” (who, of course, was the “co-writer”). I was looking at it for Sharon Stone (as Susan Orleans).

By the end of page one, the writer had broken almost every “rule” of screenwriting. By the end of page two, it seemed like the writer was purposefully trying to aggravate me. By the third page, I realized the joke was on me. The script violated every book and sage that has ever shared dramatic wisdom. And the concept itself – a writer writing – was the biggest felony of all.

I loved ADAPTATION because it was written for the likes of me, the Hollywood dramaturge (with an MFA), who passes judgment on scripts and offers up notes and changes subscribing to ridiculous formulas and paradigms in order to cram the story into a particular sort of Hollywood archetype.

I thought the script was brilliant on every level (intellectually, emotionally and dramatically) . Its satirical view of writing a studio screenplay was stunningly accurate. And in its pursuit of breaking all the "rules" - adhered to them quite nicely. The script has a sort of indescribable depth. In retrospect, the experience was like looking into the reflection of a mirror held up to another mirror.

The inclusion of screenplay guru Robert McKee as a character was brilliant. Ironically, I read in an interview that it was McKee’s suggestion to delete the “Swamp Ape,” an excision that I believe hurt the film’s third act.

While I loved the screenplay, I felt the movie could not do it justice. Since the script was about "screenwriting," it simply worked better in manuscript form.

In a facile example, the beat with McKee chastising writers for using voice-over - after Charlie delivers a lengthy one - works better on the page. We read Charlie’s voice-over and then read McKee’s furious warning. It’s just funnier to see Charlie’s long voice-over directly above McKee’s admonition on the page. Much of the script worked like that. The satirizing of dramatic structure itself, for instance, resonated stronger on the page while it was lost within the cinematic experience – where structure is meant to be invisible.

As a result, the script breaks the biggest rule: Screenplays are documents designed as the foundation of a movie. I think ADAPTATION shines best in its original form. It could never be a better movie than it is a screenplay.

Just read your post on SOMETHING FOR NOTHING. Since you don't have a comments section, I figured I'd share my experience directly, and maybe you can pass it along either via the blog, or directly to the guy who asked the question.

I recently graduated from USC with a Master's Degree in Film/TV writing. While there, my writing partner and I came up with a few pitches for reality shows. We cut together a 5-minute teaser trailer of the best concept, and went to the director of our program at USC to ask if he knew anyone he could take it to. He hooked us up with a small production company that has been around for 20 years and has had 20-25 shows running at various times over the years, mostly on small cable outlets like Discovery and TLC.

We went in and pitched the show, along with two others. The producer was floored, and said he wanted all three of them, right there on the spot. Not bad for our first-ever Hollywood meeting, right?


A few days later his legal department sent over the option papers. One year option, no money, and extremely lopsided in favor of the producer's complete control and ownership of the project if it sold. We didn't expect much out of the option, but we at least thought we'd get something.

We weighed our options: It was our first meeting ever, so nobody else had seen the project. If this guy loved it so much, maybe others would too. On the other hand, we were new writers with no representation ... were we shooting ourselves in the foot by passing on the option?

Ultimately, we decided to believe in the integrity and value of our work, and we passed. Two days later, the producer called us personally. He said he was truly, truly enthusiastic about the project, and was disappointed that we had passed. He asked us to reconsider, and to make a counteroffer. So we went to our attorney and drew up a more favorable version of the contract, one that had a small up-front payment, but considerable backend points, bonuses, credit guarantees, etc.

After some negotiation, we arrived at a deal we were all happy with. We didn't make much money off the option (a few thousand dollars, split between the two of us), but we at least felt like our ideas were valued and we were being treated fairly.

That's when the real value of the option began to present itself.

This producer truly was enthusiastic, and though fairly small-time, was well-respected enough to get meetings all over town. We got the opportunity to pitch to top people at top networks, smaller cable networks, major production companies, etc. ... all without an agent. He also brought us on to develop several of his own projects, where we had the chance to shoot a few pilot presentations and cut our teeth on directing as well.

Several of our meetings involved other producers ... and their agents. One agent was so impressed with our pitches in a network meeting that he tracked us down in the parking garage afterwards and offered to represent us. That brought even more meetings, more contacts, and more exposure of our work.

We never ended up selling those shows, but the experience got us great contacts, an agent, and great trial-by-fire opportunities to learn the pitching and selling game by actually doing it. We didn't know it at the time, but rejecting that option was the best thing we could've done. It put us in the position of power, tested his real commitment to the project, and forced everyone to take us seriously as equal partners, not just as dumb kids fresh out of school.

Hope this helps someone making a similar decision ....

The moral to this story is the first offer is NEVER the only offer. If a producer is so unyielding that he will not make any considerations, it is smart to pass and move on. Never be afraid to NEGOTIATE and COUNTEROFFER!

In your blog SOMETHING FOR NOTHING, you left out the most important element when considering signing a free option: the lack of “self respect.”

Don’t be a pussy. Only a fool or a poet thinks like that. Put the emotions and ego aside and examine the situation intellectually and logically. “Is this a viable opportunity to advance your career?” Anyway, if you had any self-respect, you would have gone to law school and abandoned this pipe dream.

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