Tuesday, September 26, 2006


Which contests /fellowships do you reckon to be the most respected /watched by story pickers?

In terms of notoriety, I would think story pickers keep a close eye on the Nicholl Fellowship first and foremost. The Disney Fellowship follows close behind.

But in my opinion, the Disney Fellowship gets the highest grades as a "contest" overall.

Disney offers fellowships in both screenwriting and television. The fellows relocate to Los Angeles and earn a 50K salary for the year with benefits (which increase the overall pecuniary worth). Aside from becoming chummy with staffers at Disney, the opportunity allows for a greater network expansion.

My second choice would be the Nicholl Fellowship. Sponsored by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, this pays fellows 30K for the year. The Nicholl, however, isn’t a program that allows much interaction within the industry. But the contest is so prestigious that the industry often reaches out to the winners.

Just like the business itself, if the winning script isn’t marketable, it may not advance the career of the victor. Regardless, these two contests are the most high profile of the lot.

I’m currently judging the ten finalists of the Big Break Screenwriting Contest (sponsored by “Final Draft”) – which awards a top prize of 15K.

I’m an advocate of entering contests with big cash prizes. Since the odds are against a contest win launching your career, taking home the cash is a joyous consolation prize. The Screenwriting Expo has an annual contest that also gives away a generous amount of cash and prizes.

The fundamental flaw in screenwriting contests remains that the winning scripts are often projects Hollywood would never produce. Furthermore, as I’ve said in the past, contests do not necessarily reflect the quality of work on par with professional scripts circulating the town. The winners are often the best amateur scripts (the best of the worst) and cannot compete with the screenplays of Hollywood’s top scribes.

The irony here is that selling a script and winning a contest may not be all that different.


I recently finalized my travel plans for Screenwriting Expo. Will you be speaking there? What do you think of the conference? Anything I shouldn't miss?

The Screenwriting Expo is a great event for writers. It’s a place to meet with other scribes and hear some interesting writers and executives lecture – all at a very reasonable price. Furthermore, it features a screenwriters’ Wal-Mart (minus the “always low prices”) in which to buy all sorts of paraphernalia.

I have never attended the Expo, but I’ve yet to hear a negative review of the event overall. The Expo seems to lack the sort of “intimacy” that I prefer, so I have purposefully chosen to stay away.

I would avoid pointless lectures about how to format your script and gravitate toward speakers that rarely make public appearances. Many of the lecturers are authors (screenwriting books) who play the seminar circuit, making it easier to catch their act anytime of the year at a hotel near you or via their book. At these sorts of events, speakers are often using the platform as a way to sell their snake oil.

Allow your own inspiration to guide you to the right lectures – instead of the bells and whistles of empty promises.

Send me a full report on your experiences, so I can publish it here and offer a more educated answer to the question the next time it’s asked.


I thought this would be a fun question, but I'm also genuinely interested in your answer. I see that you'll be a guest at the Take-A-Meeting portion of the Austin Film Festival. So, in your words: Is it worth it? Is someone from outta town going to gain more from that, or would it just make sense to submit a logline, query, or phone call to the company you work for?

It certainly behooves the scribe to write queries and make calls. However, a captured audience is always the best opportunity for sharing an idea. An executive can still reject it, but it’s a little bit harder in person than over the phone. Conversely, I do believe that executives and producers who attend these events are actively looking for talent and material, which means they are, most likely, open-minded to any sort of correspondence that can put them in contact with writers and scripts.

It must be understood that these events can be brutal for the executive. The hours are long, they are not paid, the pitches are often terrible, and the task at hand is tantamount to bashing the skulls of baby seals. Since the majority of the ideas are not movie-worthy, it is stressful having to batter the dreams of clueless hopefuls that may have invested a substantial amount of time and money to attend the event. Furthermore, from the executives’ point-of-view, there are simply easier and more efficient ways of finding material.

Is it worth pitching your story at an event like this? It is if you’re pitching it to me. I don’t mean to be cavalier with that answer, but the truth is that I’ll provide valuable feedback on your pitch – especially in a one-on-one session that lasts fifteen minutes. My first intention at these events is always to educate. This is a rare opportunity for a writer to pitch her idea and get advice on the story and the performance too. The egotistical “showman” in me takes these events seriously (even the free events that I’ve sponsored), and my goal is that the writer exit with something worth her time and money.

However, I cannot speak for all who sit on my side of the table. The key to attending these events (for the writer) is to meet with a familiar name. I recently attended a pitching event (stepping in at the last minute for a co-worker who had to bail). I was quite horrified at the quality level of “executives” and “producers” present. Many of those listening to pitches had more important motives than finding material. For example, a well-respected production company sent an assistant (or the assistant merely chose to go without much support or blessings from the powers-that-be) – an aspiring writer himself – who attended the event merely to pitch his story to the other producers and executives in attendance. (By the way, this is quite clever, but it isn’t fair to the writers that have paid three hundred dollars to pitch for the weekend.)

There were several instances where I was being pitched a story by someone I thought was a writer but turned out to be an “executive.” Others attend because they have some sort of service that they’re trying to introduce to fellow execs and producers – using this forum as a good way to network.

Sadly, too often, writers are paying to pitch to “insiders” that have no clout, no acumen, and little interest in their story. It makes more sense to pitch to a name you recognize – rather than being seduced solely by the company name. The dilemma here is that rarely will these events offer names, because the lists are subject to change and attendance might diminish if it’s learned the “executive” is actually the agency valet.

It should be noted that many of these events are not picky about who listens to the pitch – as long as they can advertise the company name. A respectable event will advertise the names of the executives and producers who will attend and even have them sign a contract to insure their attendance.

In the end, the thought of a writer launching his career from one of these events is slim-to-none. However, it is a rare opportunity (if the setting is genuine) to allow a writer a face-to-face meeting with someone who has the ability to impart valuable information.

If the session is judged more as a learning opportunity (like a mini-class) – rather than a chance at stardom – then the time and money are well spent.


You mentioned in your most recent post (Mailroom #7) that you often get requests from out of town writers to meet with them while they're in town. You didn't mention if, or how often, you actually take them up on that request. I'm just curious since it's a tactic I've seen mentioned elsewhere, and it makes me wonder how successful a tactic it might actually be.

Two factors go into meeting out-of-town writers. 1) My schedule. 2) Is the writer paying for my lunch?

I suspect my percentage is at about 60%. Interestingly, I don’t get as many requests as you might believe. Firstly, I’m not all that interesting – and most writers would rather spend their valuable time elsewhere. Secondly, most writers are shy and would never attempt to make that sort of contact. Actors, on the other hand, are fucking nightmares. They’re all extroverts and have no problem with calling and haranguing until they achieve their objective.

I met a writer at the Damah Film Festival who has been stalking me ever since. I’ve finally capitulated to his constant e-mails and we’re having lunch in two weeks.

One of my favorite stories belongs to TV and screenwriter Jeff Lowell.

When he was breaking into the industry, he wrote a rather obsequious letter to every TV producer in town – praising their work and asking if he could have a moment of their time. Many responded in the affirmative and several asked to read his work. (He had a funny SEINFELD spec.) One of these meetings landed him a staff writing job on THE GEORGE CARLIN SHOW. This led to other staff jobs on BLESS THIS HOUSE, THE DREW CAREY SHOW, CYBILL and SPIN CITY. He recently penned the feature JOHN TUCKER MUST DIE.

I think this sort of tactic can be effective, but many factors go into having the sort of luck and success that Mr. Lowell experienced. However, it’s certainly worth the effort.


Could you address the "rule" that writers shouldn't even bother querying agents until they have at least three exceptional scripts? I'm pretty sure I know where you stand--that the concept/logline of the script on the table is all that matters. But what about agents? Obviously you can't speak for all agents, but do you have any insights/anecdotes on how some of them feel about this?

I think it depends upon the type of script you’ve written.

Most agents usually sell one writer’s script at a time. So, one script is more than enough. But it has to be the right script. A high concept story with solid execution may be more advantageous than ten brilliantly written scripts about an Iowa earthworm farm.

It certainly behooves the scribe to have more than one script in his portfolio which can serve as writing samples. Each individual agent has his own standard operating procedures. The best way for a new writer to be prepared is to have several scripts under his arm. If an agent only requires one, the writer is ready. And if he requires more than one, the writer is also ready.


For the last year I have been developing a 30 minute 'serialized film' for Internet distribution. It is high concept and big budget. I strongly believe that the Internet is going to be the next big thing for Hollywood, once someone figures out how to take advantage of it. I have. My idea incorporates a framework with a hook that makes it necessary to be presented online. It fully exploits the opportunities that the Internet provides. My problem, and it's the same problem that everybody has, is getting it to the right person. I am at an even greater disadvantage than a feature spec writer since my market is totally unexplored. Warner setup Studio 2.0 recently to make short form content, so there is movement in this realm, but my idea is big. No one seems to be thinking about original dramatic content that is 30 minutes long that cost as much as a high concept TV show (I.E. Lost). Cold calling the major Internet players gets me the standard "We do not accept unsolicited material". Calling the major agencies is even worse. The few industry people I know love the idea but do not know what to do with it, except wait for someone else to pave the way. I cannot do that. This project needs to go into development soon (as in now) so that it will be ready in about year. At that time an Internet viewing audience will be firmly established and the unveiling of the show will be right on time. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions? I need to clear my corkboards of this idea, and I can't until it is made.

Impatience is both a blessing and a curse in this business. I’m in the same boat as most everyone; I know very little about the Internet.

At this point in time, I cannot see anyone spending a similar budget as LOST to produce a serialized program for the Internet. There’s no infrastructure set-up yet to insure that investors could earn back their (big budget) money. Agencies are still standoffish because no one is sure how to commission these sorts of deals. And although I think “Google” (and others) could be the movie studios of the future, I don’t think audiences will rush to their computer screens anytime soon to watch feature-length films. (That is sure to change when the Internet is fully integrated into our televisions sets.)

Although the name of the game is always about CONTENT, the Internet is only beginning to experiment with a system that allows viewers to watch current TV shows (and old favorites) on line – a service that will eventually carry a fee. Perhaps, if audiences demonstrate an affinity for that sort of distribution then more aggressive type programming will be born.

I’m at a loss as to how to help you here. If you have found possible interested parties (like Studio 2.0) that are requesting you submit through representation – then simply hire an entertainment attorney. He can officially submit your project. If your idea is as fully realized for the Internet as you believe, those in that business will recognize it.

Congratulations on your idea – which may be ahead of its time. You’re a pioneer – and like many pioneers, you’re basically on your own to forge new territory and will probably meet a horrific fate.


I've never had an agent, so I don't get it. Recently I've heard a story about a guy who turned his freshly polished (and 6 looong months nourished) script to his agent and she hated it. Not just some bits but everything from the page 1. I read about it all the time. Nope, I just don't get it. Don't clients discuss scripts with their agents? I mean, not just scripts, but concepts, synops, everything? Don't agents warn clients not to waste months of writing on something they can't possibly sell?

Agent/writer relationships vary. Some agents want to be involved in that process – helping a writer choose what concept would be best suited for the marketplace. Some writers aren’t interested in that sort of feedback – believing that writers should write and agents should sell.

When scribes spend six months writing a script, they expect their agent to perform. Working writers who have clout within an agency often demand their representation be successful. This can be very difficult if the script is not good. Of course, the difficulty quotient rises and falls based on the writer’s level of success within the industry. It isn’t easy to tell a working writer - whose salary contributes to the agency - that his script sucks. An agent might distribute the script to a select few to get some feedback, which he can then take to the writer. He might say, “The script isn’t getting good feedback and it might be smarter to put this project on hold for the time being. We don’t want to stall your momentum right now.”

But writers leave agencies all the time (in search of new reps) because agents will not go out with scripts (to try and preserve the writer’s image). Scripts not selling and projects failing to be realized (after being set-up) are other reasons that motivate writers to look for new representation. A script is a writer’s livelihood, so she has plenty of reason to have high demands. Conversely, the quality of the work an agent markets sets the standard for his business. Often, the writer’s needs clash with the agent’s – especially when the writer’s demands exceed the limitations of the screenplay.

Ultimately, the representation works for the talent. It isn’t the other way around. But it is often a complicated and emotional relationship which goes beyond the barriers of an agent simply telling his client to write a different script.


For the past several years now, you've made your presence known to new writers in a variety of ways....the college course you teach...The Inside Pitch TV show.....a growing presence on the Internet culminating in your heavy involvement in http://www.twoadverbs.com/ ....and now this groovy blog. You leave a bread crumb trail of e-mail addresses for newbies to pick up and you make no secret about who you are. Why do you think you do what you do for new writers, Christopher? Nobody else really even comes close to matching the energy you put into new writers. ALL your e-mail inboxes must be INUNDATED with queries...cries from the coal mine...pleas for help...and more queries....Do you ever regret putting yourself out there the way you have?

The one thing that might surprise you is that writers have always been respectful – which has fueled my continual efforts. There is very little sacrifice made by shedding anonymity and reaching out. My wife might disagree a bit, since I do spend a lot of time answering e-mails, but it’s a “hobby” of sorts. It’s something I do outside of work but within the parameters of my knowledge base.

If I were a plumber, I might use up my free time with “Habitat for Humanity.” Or if I were athletic, I might play golf. Instead, I choose to offer my opinions and feedback about scripts and the business. It’s no big deal. (In fact, it’s rather self-serving and maybe even a little sad.) But I enjoy it and have met a lot of talented people (from all around the world) over the years.

Furthermore, there has been a constant and happy kismet from my extra-curricular activities – which has kept my life interesting.

As for the hyperbolic notion of “putting myself out there,” I’m just sitting at a computer answering a few questions.


Could you give your thoughts on including character direction in action lines? There seem to be two schools of thought on this. For example, let’s say we have a scene where a man enters a room, reads a ransom note, and becomes upset. One way to describe this character is to list his actions: “He bites his fingernails, checks his watch, looks in the mirror and cries.” The other approach is to simply say “he reads the note with growing concern.” I understand that it isn’t the screenwriter’s job to interfere with an actor’s take on what their character would do, but I can’t tell which approach is less intrusive to that process. Any thoughts?

In my opinion, you’re not writing the script for the actor, you’re writing the script for the reader.

Your objective is to simulate the experience of a movie using the written word. Not an easy task. (The WGA had that great ad campaign featuring various scenes from the scripts of famous movies – reminding us that a writer was responsible for it.) There is no right or wrong way here. I’ve seen all sorts of methods used – including writers telling us the thoughts of the character.

The best method is the one that communicates the emotion of the beat to the reader.

It’s always fun to read screenplays of your favorite movies (after you’ve seen the film) to see how a particular scene or beat was written on the page. You’ll learn quickly that all writers have their specific techniques.

I have no opinion either way. Ultimately, I never judge these sorts of things until I see them in print and understand the way they work within the context of the script as a whole. These sorts of matters are often discussed ad infinitum by screenwriting teachers in an attempt to engender some objective rhyme and reason out of the very subjective craft of screenwriting. Your success depends on making the right decisions that communicate the movie in your head - via the page - to the reader.

There is no blanket answer – which is what makes the craft so unpredictable and wily.


I might have a chance to pitch to a production company, I would appreciate knowing your opinion of my logline: A TRUE STORY. In 1913, a friendship between a St. Louis housewife and a 17th century spirit from England becomes an international sensation.

The idea of a “true story” creates some genuine intrigue because of the supernatural element here. However, the logline itself is too vague.

A challenge the writer often faces is the amount of information she should include in the logline. In this case, there simply isn’t enough. This pitch fails to stimulate any interest because it isn’t clear as to what the story is about.

When I read a logline, I expect to find the dramatic “mission statement.”

The “mission” is focused on the protagonist and his pursuit of a specific goal – either physical or psychological. It is this goal – the mission – that creates the throughline, the conflict, the tension, and the “hope and fear” of the narrative.

In this case, “a housewife and a ghost become pals and create a sensation” doesn’t allow us to understand the conflict in the story. There is no dramatic "mission statement" here.

It isn’t clear who the protagonist is and what s/he strives for throughout the story (the mission). The logline doesn’t open a window to your story, allowing me to peek inside and envision the cinematic possibilities.

If a logline does not allow the reader to “see the movie” then it hasn't achieved its objective.


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