Monday, May 29, 2006


I keep hearing different things about what types of spec scripts are more likely to sell these days, especially if the writer is a novice screenwriter.

On one hand, I hear that the only type of screenplay that a novice screenwriter can hope to sell is "high-concept" - which appears to mean an action movie or some type of fantasy movie. A family drama, like "Ordinary People," would not sell today without some type of fantasy twist (e.g, like "Freaky Friday").

What type of spec should a novice screenwriter try writing?

In general, the spec business is “concept” based. However, low concept specs have sold too.

Part of sustaining a career in this business is having that uncanny sense of what buyers want. It’s a natural (or supernatural) ability to have an affinity toward concepts and ideas that happen to sell. If you’re cut out for this business, you’ll write what you want and sell it.

Luckily, you’ll only have to do that once or twice. After that, you can make a living off assignments.

A high concept comedy is a good place to start.

Do some research and read the concepts of scripts that have recently sold on spec – especially from new writers.

Here are the loglines for three spec scripts sold in the recent past written by new writers:

JUNO (dramedy): After having sex for the first time, a savvy high school sophomore becomes pregnant and rearranges her life in preparation to put the baby up for adoption.

KILLING ON CARNIVAL ROW (Thriller/Fantasy): In a noirish city where humans and fairies cohabitate, a detective is accused in a series of murders targeting the mythical creatures and he sets out to catch the killer.

THE ART OF COOL (comedy): As the homecoming dance approaches, the biggest loser in high school gets help from the cool transfer student in a battle for domination over the hip kids.

The needs of buyers vary and shift with the wind. It may be easier to tell a writer what not to write – rather than tell him what to write. (But I’d only be comfortable doing that on a project to project basis – after hearing the pitch.)

However, I like your idea of ORDINARY PEOPLE meets FREAKY FRIDAY. Timothy Hutton and Mary Tyler Moore switching places leaves room for all sorts of comic high jinks.

I asked a script reader here in the UK if male and female writers tend to write different kinds of scripts?

His response was a) on the basis of the scripts he receives there are many more males than females trying to break into scriptwriting, and b) when he does read a script by a female writer it's far more likely to be a romcom or a relationship drama than say a thriller or an action piece.

If that's true in Hollywood as well, is it because those are the sorts of stories that women want to tell, or is there an industry frame of mind that automatically pushes them into those genres?

There is some truth to the concept that “men are from Mars and women are from Venus.” Many married couples would attest to that.

I think most writers create work that fits in with their sensibilities.

I don’t believe that Hollywood stereotypes writers based on their gender. I think writers brand themselves based on the genres they write and write well.

Susannah Grant has proven proficiency in writing stories about women. A studio is not likely to approach her about writing an action movie. However, the same could be said for Mark Andrus – who tends to slant toward character based work. Writer/director Kathryn Bigelow, on the other hand, has shown interest in writing (and directing) genres other than chick flicks.

I think Hollywood finds comfort in hiring a writer with genre precedence. If a woman has written successful action movies, a studio would hire her.

There may be something more inherently “masculine” about writing for the screen. My experience has also been that more solicitations come from males than females. (Maybe female execs get more solicitations from female scribes). Maybe more women are writing novels. After all, if young men drive the box-office, perhaps women, on a whole, aren’t connecting with that demographic.

But let’s not forget that women helped build this business: Francis Marion, Anita Loos, Gene Gauntier, Mabel Normand and Mary Pickford, to name a few. And there is a wonderful organization called WOMEN IN FILM that was founded almost 70 years ago. Its mission is “empowering, mentoring and promoting women in the entertainment and media industries.”

What is the difference between a manager and an agent? What do they each do for me? I'm an aspiring writer, so at this point it doesn't really matter, but I assume in the future I'll have to know.

...With lots of hard work and luck.

In a perfect world, an agent gets you work and a manager manages your career.

However, there are no strict guidelines on managers (like there are for agents), so the lines are blurred.

Many writers only have an agent. And many writers only have managers, who must use lawyers to broker the deal. Remember, managers cannot negotiate deals, but agents can.

Bigger agencies have the ability to package your screenplay – giving it a better chance in the market. (“Packaging” means putting together talent and funds to make it a more attractive package to potential buyers.)

For new writers, a manager is a good choice. He’ll help launch your career. He’ll help you choose the right projects to spec, he’ll critique and help develop your work, and set you up with meetings. He’ll even help you land the best agent when the time is right.

Some managers attach as producers (agents cannot). This often gives them additional interest in your script, because it could mean a greater source of revenue if your script is set-up/produced. (Managers will return the 10% commission in lieu of a producer’s fee).

Since many management companies work like production companies, it can be easier to get your work to them.

Some respected companies like BenderSpink (HISTORY OF VIOLENCE) allow writers to pitch their ideas online. You’ll be hard-pressed to find any respectable agency doing that. So, access to managers might be easier.

In your blog 'Screenwriting 101,' you say that goals should be active rather than reactive. If a protagonist's goal arises from the inciting incident, which is a result of the antagonists action, then is this not reactive? Or are you talking about actively pursuing the goal once the inciting incident takes place?

Yes. I am referring (for the most part) to pursing the goal once the inciting incident takes place.

In an archetypal structure, the goal isn’t established until the end of the first act. The inciting incident (which the protagonist often does not initiate) can occur twenty-pages earlier.

Once the goal is established, the character actively pursues that goal. There is a cause and effect relationship in drama, so one action will cause a reaction that will spur another action and so on. But the protagonist must keep his eye on the prize and actively push for it.

The protagonist’s active pursuit of his goal moves the story forward toward its climax.

Harrison Ford is reactive in THE FUGITIVE, running from Tommy Lee Jones. However, the script also gives him a goal to clear his name – which keeps him active.

Keep in mind, the very definition of the word "goal" implies an end toward which effort is directed. And "effort" could be defined as conscientious activity.

The very idea of "goal" is active.

I am an aspiring screenwriter and had a chance to view "Bright Star" after reading your May 11 comment. For me, the film showed a good possible outcome if the story of Jesus Christ occurred today and it worked for me. The hard luck of Joseph and Mary was especially indicated (particularly the arrest for solicitation). I thought the film tied everything together at the end (moving to Cairo Illinois). I agree that the setting could have easily been another urban environment, but I liked how the film subtly set up the Chicago atmosphere with the Chicago Theater billboard, etc. Mary's character seemed to be almost smirking when she whispered the circumstances in the Doctors ear. I may have opted for a slightly different vibe there, but overall, I thought the movie was a nice Christmas short.

I’m glad you enjoyed it – as I’m sure the writer/director is as well. (Are you related?) However, his original question to me asked how to get a paid directing job from a short film.

In my opinion, a “nice Christmas short” isn’t going to kick open Hollywood’s doors.


Let’s not forget those writers who passed away this last month. Their contributions to our industry and our lives are greatly appreciated.


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