Saturday, April 29, 2006


If I don’t sell a script soon, I’m going to die! What should I do?

Start making funeral arrangements.

You’ll probably never sell a script. Most writers never sell scripts. Why should you be any different?

But I’ll try to answer this question – even though there is no answer.

It all comes down to having the “right script”. This goes against modern wisdom that preaches “write a great script.”

“Great” scripts do sell, but so do bad scripts. So, one could just as easily suggest “write a bad script.”

"Great" is a buzz word.

"How can I make it in Hollywood?"

"Write a great script."

Teachers and purveyors of HOW TO books use "great" every chance they get. What else can someone say? "Great" makes everyone look smart. Writers are writing great scripts, and Hollywood is selling/buying great scripts.

And, in such a tough, puzzling business, "great" allows the writer to actively strive for something specific (so he thinks). He enthusiastically tells himself, "All I have to do is write a great script and Hollywood's doors will open for me!"

But anyone who works in the business knows this is not entirely true.

I suggest writers write the “right” script.

The notion of the "right script" selling is just a more realistic approach to the way the business operates.

This shouldn't prevent scribes from writing a "great" script anyway.

But “great” is subjective. In the end, only the person who buys the script may think it’s great – which means it isn’t necessarily great. It’s just the “right script” for the buyer.

It’s almost impossible to find a script that everyone would agree is “great.”

The WGA recently voted CASABLANCA at the top of its “GREATEST SCREENPLAYS” list.

I like the movie, but I think the other top nine scripts on that list are all “greater” screenplays than CASABLANCA. It’s subjective. (I think many are more enamored with the movie that surrounds the CASABLANCA screenplay – rather than the script itself. There probably aren’t many alive today who actually read the screenplay before seeing the movie.)

The recent industry “Black List” anointed THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE (by the talented Alan Loeb) as a script favored by more executives than other screenplays in 2005. It wasn’t even close to being my favorite.

After STAY sold for 1.8 million dollars, everyone in town read it. And many scratched their heads.

I thought STAY was well-written, but I didn’t think it was a “great” script. (Disappointing, frustrating, inexplicable would be my choice of adjectives.)

Clearly, it was the RIGHT script for New Regency.

And that sale (fueled by THE SIXTH SENSE success) started a development trend of those sorts of surreal scripts with “surprise endings.”

If a script sells for 1.8 million dollars and starts a trend – pundits suggest it must be “great.” Ironically, STAY was a critical and box-office failure.

Maybe this is all just semantics. But many “great” scripts are written and never sell. And lots of bad scripts are written and do sell. So, my philosophy is to write the RIGHT SCRIPT.

Since struggling scribes are constantly given the same old, obvious advice, I thought I’d dish out some of my own obvious advice.

I think there are THREE basic ingredients that create the “right” script – which could lead to a sale.


CONCEPT is king in the Hollywood spec market – especially for “tyro scribes” (that’s Hix Nix Stix Pix for “new writers”). I hear lots of concepts from new scribes and rarely do any resonate with the sound of a “Hollywood movie.”

Part of being successful in this business is having a good head for concepts. For instance, I like the concept for TWO MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, a script in pre-production. In this story, an obnoxious divorce attorney must find his kidnapped wife before he’s forced to pay the unorthodox ransom: He must kill himself.

It’s a single-minded concept that conjures up plenty of drama and sounds like a movie. It’s simple. And simple is good.

I recently attended the Sacramento Film Festival, where some nice gentleman pitched me a metaphysical drama told through the mind’s eye.

It didn’t make any sense but his passion for the project was apparent. He pitched this in front of 150+ people – none of whom understood the new age rant either.

It only got worse when I asked him who he pictured in the starring role, and he answered, “All of us.”

I don’t think even Enya on crack would see the movie potential here. Although this man truly believed he stumbled upon a concept that would entice all, he was gravely mistaken. (It’s his prerogative to write the script, but he shouldn’t be surprised when it receives a Hollywood welcome similar to Scott Peterson at a Lamaze class.)

It’s safe to assume that if Hollywood generally isn’t making that sort of movie, it’s not going to make yours.

Having a simple and dramatic concept is key for a new writer because it’s easy to pitch – making it easier to sell. This doesn’t mean the story has to be elementary. It can have all sorts of layers and dimension – but don’t complicate the concept.

EXECUTION is how the concept is developed and communicated.

Exploit the concept. If it’s a comedy about a pathological liar who must tell the truth for a day, then the script must explore that concept to its limits. (“Write to concept” is a phrase I use.) The beautiful thing about a strong concept is that the execution doesn’t have to be stellar. It must show that the writer knows his craft, has talent, and the ability to do a rewrite. It cannot be a total disaster – like most scripts. But it doesn’t have to be Scott Frank either. Cockeyed character arcs and tinny dialogue can all be fixed.

A strong concept with adequate execution trumps a dull concept with excellent execution.

Why? Because as a new writer, you have no industry provenance for a producer or agent to trust you have the chops to execute a dull concept.

I often hear writers being told, “Write a great script and it will rise to the top.” What does that mean? How will it rise to the top?

MARKETING your script is the only way it can rise to the top. Keeping it on your desk or in a computer file isn’t going to help advance your career. You must get the script out there. This means trying to connect with industry executives and managers and agents. (The contest route is fun but should be supplemental to your marketing efforts.)

Recently, a writer e-mailed me to tell a startling story about how a script with the same title, concept and similar execution as his sold on spec by another writer. (Legal action is pending.) We eventually spoke on the phone, and oddly, the alleged theft became the farthest thing on my mind.

All I kept wondering was, “How the hell was another writer able to sell the script that you couldn’t?” It comes down to marketing. The other writer had more juice, more friends, more connections and knew how to network.

This is where the writer has to make it happen. Win friends and influence people. Do the research, find the (potentially) right people and contact them. Have a quota. Send out X amount of script copies a month and don’t stop until you’ve met or exceeded that quota.

The only way the script can rise to the top – is if it’s in the pile. Get it there.

In order to sell a script, there needs to be a magical convergence of at least three factors. You need a CONCEPT that immediately sparks interest and sounds like a movie. The script needs to boast EXECUTION that writes to concept – meaning the script exploits the premise to its maximum potential. And the script needs to be MARKETED in the way that it gets to the right people. Remember, these factors work hand in hand. For instance, it’s easier to market a script that has a strong concept.

But the sum of these three entities doesn’t have to equal “great.” It’s all about the “right script.”

You’ll sell the right script.

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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.

Please send your questions to

Friday, April 21, 2006


I have the possibility of a free option on my screenplay. It's a very short option period with a small production company. They have made some great connections with other projects they have and have presented themselves in a very forthright and business like manner. What are your thoughts on these kinds of options?

This is a difficult question to address.

My immediate thoughts are that most “free options” are a waste of time. However, before a writer walks away from any opportunity, he should look at all the facts carefully.

We all know the abysmal odds of selling a script or even getting one set-up. Most writers never even get their scripts optioned – let alone the offer of a “free” option.

An option is sort of a “lease.” When one leases a car or an apartment, he pays money in exchange for temporary possession of the property. The writer “leases” his script to a producer, who, according to the agreement, has a certain amount of time to get the project moving. It would be unheard of for a car dealership to offer a free lease on a new vehicle. Nobody does business that way, except, of course, Hollywood.

Most producers without deals do not have money to pay writers for tying up a script while shopping it around. (Most producers are also working for free.) So, they offer their services as sort of payment – with the hopes of getting the project set-up, talent attached or finding financing and making money for the writer later in the journey rather than in the beginning. Of course, that rarely happens, because the project is never set-up, never attaches (worthwhile) talent and never finds financing.

Despite the lack of payday, many writers without connections or influence could see this arrangement as a chance to get their material out on the market. So sacrificing the cash upfront could be an investment in the future.

But a little upfront money is good for everyone. It makes the writer happy, and pushes the production company to do its job (instead of it pushing the script to the far end of the desk). Without some sort of pecuniary investment, the prodco may not take the writer or the project all that seriously. And an inexperienced producer could do harm by saturating the market with the script (or other inappropriate strategies), making the script useless to the writer at the end of the free option - costing the writer more than the producer.

Conversely, the producers will introduce the script and writer to others, which might lead to new relationships and other (more profitable) opportunities. And forging a friendship with a potential up-and-coming producer could also have its benefits. Hollywood has an ironic sense of “cause and effect.”

Don’t be quick to jump at the offer without weighing the pros and cons.

1) Have others read the script?
2) What have their reactions been?
3) Is this the first offer made to you?
4) Are you considering this “free option” because it’s the best offer?
5) Who are these producers?
6) What have they produced?

They have made some great connections with other projects…” hardly sounds like much of an endorsement for a producer. (Give some leeway to a reputable producer with respectable credits.)

7) Why do you feel this production company is right for this project?
8) Is this a desperate move by a writer who sees no other opportunities?
9) Or a career strategy that might yield results?

And since these situations rarely yield results, you’re basing that decision on what?

10) Have you considered the worst that could happen?
11) What are you prepared to learn from this experience?

If you feel that this is a good opportunity for you, enter the deal with confidence and strength. Don’t ever feel like anyone is doing you a favor. The writer and producer need each other. And a “free option” is – in my book – more of a partnership. Since the producers want something for nothing, keep the option period very short – no more than six months. Set specific goals. What are your expectations? Be specific. What do you expect to see come to fruition in that short amount of time? Do not give them “first right refusal.” Empower yourself to walk away from the producers (and go elsewhere) at the end of the option if you feel they have not been able to advance the project. Also, get the producers to introduce you to their management and agency connections. And hopefully you can learn the ropes throughout the process too. Get as much “remuneration” from this arrangement as possible.

Much of this business is about taking chances. A hard industry calls for hard decisions and sacrifices. By accepting this “free option”, it could cost you your script. By walking away, it could cost you a career. Realistically, it will probably just be a time waster - doing neither harm nor good.

The decision you make should be based on your goals, where you are in your journey, and what you’re willing to risk.

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Tuesday, April 18, 2006


How co-mingled do you think screenwriting and directing are? Lately, I've been getting the itch to do more than just write. I want to direct...I think. I have no formal training and no real technical filmmaking knowledge. All I have is a growing desire to oversee the visual telling of the stories I write. How can an aspiring screenwriter put himself out there as a writer/director? Is it as simple as the old Nike slogan...grab your XL1 and JUST DO IT? We read a lot on twoadverbs and similar sites about the aspiring screenwriter, but the path of the aspiring writer/director seems to be shrouded in mystery. Can you shed some light?

I think writer/director is a much more powerful and attractive entity than either discipline alone. And we’ve seen writer/directors develop some star power over the years. However, I don’t believe that the writer is always the best director for his script. Some writers are myopic, and some movies would have been better served had they been directed by someone other than the scribe. Regardless, directing your own script certainly allows you to bring your creative vision to complete fruition – instead of having it filtered through the mind of someone else.

Directing films is a labor of love. It is usually driven by a passion that your question (above) seems to lack. Is your desire to “oversee” based on a creative need or just some ego-driven, type “A’ personality pursuit to control your scripts? (That’s not a bad thing, by the way.)

You’re not ready to “put yourself out there” as a director simply because you have the desire.

You need to direct.

A director and a screenwriter have different toolboxes – and you must discover if you have access to those directing tools and the skills to use them.

Work on some films, take a course, and visit message boards where you can exchanges ideas with other directors. Without your having any professional filmmaking/on-set experience (as a P.A., or editor, or assistant director or screenwriter or hairdresser), it would be nuts for a producer to risk the budget and give you a job – even to direct your own script.

When a producer buys a script, he knows what he’s getting. It’s on the page. A director’s vision is in his head. And a producer risks million of dollars with the hope the vision translates. (Buying a pitch is riskier than buying a script but not as risky as making the film, since the producer isn’t spending the sort of money on the pitch as he is to make the movie.)

Of course, you can finance your own film. But thousands of shorts and features are made every year by new directors. Most of those films are never seen – let alone released.

Back when Spike Lee made SHE’S GOTTA HAVE IT, everyone noticed because there was less competition. And it was a greater achievement (technically and financially) to make a film. With the advent of digital video and “Final Cut Pro.” almost anyone can make a film today. And almost everyone does. As a result, films from new directors flood Hollywood every year – just like screenplays. Similar to breaking through as a writer, you must score big with a film – winning important festivals or getting lots of buzz.

You could direct a few scenes from your script - as a "teaser" to show potential investors what you can do behind the camera. But attaching yourself as a director (to your script), without any real experience, would severely hinder a package. It can be easier for low budget genre movies. For instance, I’m working on a project with PGL screenwriting winners Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstun, and Marcus is attached to direct – despite an absence of professional experience. (He does, however, have plenty of on-set experience and learned the filmmaking process first hand.)

At this point, I suggest you perfect your writing.

Many of our best directors started as writers. Billy Wilder perfected his craft writing German screenplays, and Preston Sturges cut his teeth for ten years behind a typewriter before he directed THE GREAT MCGINTY. Steven Zaillian had written a trio of scripts before he directed SEARCHING FOR BOBBY FISHER. (He had even worked as a film editor before seeing his first screenplay produced.) Scott Frank, who has written some great scripts, had an uphill climb getting the opportunity to direct his first feature, the upcoming, THE LOOKOUT.

Why not wait until you’ve had a script produced (or maybe even ruined by a director) before you decide to take matters into your own hands? Regardless, you’ll need to dabble in directing in order to determine if it’s what you really want to do.

Ask the question again after you’ve made a film. I’ll have a different answer.

Send your questions to

Monday, April 17, 2006


1) Have you got any recommendations for foreign authors/screenwriters trying to make it in the US? This concerns not only me, but several other screenwriters, mostly French, mostly with very European projects in their portfolio. Personally, I managed to get some attention on American Zoetrope. My latest SP, very American, is definitely gathering some moss, and I have become ferociously addicted to rewrites. This is not something arrogant French authors are used to doing, but I’ve learnt a couple of lessons and become very flexible. I also managed to secure an attorney. So far virtually no one has read my work, except let’s say a dozen professionals (the name Aaron Kaplan comes to mind, for instance) who keep asking for copies, project after project. What’s the next step? An agent? Or production companies? Right now I have no real cash left, and I’ve retreated back to Europe. I thus have no possibility currently of meeting people in LA.

2) I've got a strange situation brewing and I'm wondering if you might have any thoughts. I'm over in Iraq right now and have just had a script based on the pre-war SpecOps raid of Bamerni Airfield optioned by a Turkish film company. I've got another very similar script and a comedy both in marketable shape. What's my next step? Especially given the fact that I'm not physically present to pitch . . . It feels like I've cracked the door open but now I need to step through into the room and I'm just not sure how.

Congratulations on your option, but an option in the Turkish film market is unlikely to provide you with any admission ticket to Hollywood. (Did you ever see the TURKISH WIZARD OF OZ?)

Believe it or not, your being in Iraq or France isn’t all that different from a writer living in Missoula, Montana.

Most communication between writers and Hollywood is through letters, e-mails and phone calls. Since you cannot attend parties to mingle and network, you’ll have to make contact in other ways.

Firstly, you must exhaust all your existing contacts. Be sure to squeeze them of any helpful information and leads.

If you haven’t earned more than five thousands dollars as a screenwriter, you can enter the NICHOLL FELLOWSHIP, a screenwriting contest sponsored by the ACADEMY OF MOTION PICTURE ARTS AND SCIENCES. This year’s deadline is May 1st. Being one of the five winners will create plenty of buzz for you and the script – and provide you with 30K of writing money. Even finalists and semi-finalists can catch some attention from this contest. Scoring high marks with peer reviews (on sites like AMERICAN ZOETROPE) carries very little clout in the world of Hollywood, and you’ll be hard-pressed trying to spin that into something meaningful.

Although many hate the dreaded query letter, they DO work in terms of getting someone to read a script. Since you are both out of town and don’t have many opportunities to visit, it is one of your few options. Query letters are a way to let executives know who you are and what your script is about.

Although you'll want to query production companies, managers and agents – your efforts might be best served by pursing management.

The likelihood of you being able to find the right production company for your script can be very difficult. Finding a manager might be a bit easier. Also, once situated with a manager (who will help guide you), he will come up with a logical strategy for marketing you and your scripts. Managers are a good choice for new writers who are developing their craft and business acumen.

Regardless of who you decide to query, you can obtain contact information from websites like DONE DEAL PRO or (something more expensive like) STUDIO SYSTEM. Look for produced movies in a similar vein as your screenplay. Locate the production company behind that film and query them. Find out what executives attend (for instance) the SCREENWRITING EXPO PITCH MART and query them. Visit message boards to inquire about experiences others may have had with particular individuals you’ll query. (Since you may not be able to meet any of these people you’re dealing with, this sort of information could be invaluable.)

Here is an example of a query letter and some suggestions (from my LOGLINE ARTICLE).

Dear Mr. Thalberg,

I am currently seeking representation for my new sci-fi adventure MINORITY REPORT.

In a future where criminals are apprehended before they perpetrate the crime, a cop is falsely accused of a murder he has not yet committed and goes on the lam to prove his innocence.

I am a former New York City police officer and an avid reader of science fiction. I’ve combined my expertise in both fields to write this screenplay.

May I send you a copy?


John Smith

Avoid silly, self-effacing, or obsequious letters. Be professional. Often, authors of comedy scripts try to pen funny letters. In some cases, it is effective. However, if the letter does not garner a chuckle, this can kill the script. Allow the pitch itself to earn the laugh. Sadly, goofy letters are often passed around the mailroom for a late afternoon chuckle before landing in the recycling bin. Or even worse, they are commemorated on the “wall of shame.”

Keep all information in the query letter pertinent. Avoid superfluity. For instance, a writer will tell an agent that she is a “grandmother of 12,” or another will say, “I have an accounting degree.” Only include what is absolutely necessary. No one cares if a scribe has an MBA from Michigan State. However, it makes sense to say, “I have a BA in film from….”

Do not include scenes from your screenplay in a query letter. Scenes, descriptions of your characters, action or actual dialogue can seem very unappealing when taken out of context. Screenplays deserve to be read in their entirety – as a whole.

Avoid insignificant praise. Never include readers’ positive comments. “My college film professor says it’s the best screenplay he’s read this semester.” “The local mailman said my depiction of the United States Postal Service is accurate and riveting.” “Mary Jones at Warner Brothers loves the script but says I must have an agent.” If Mary Jones loves the script, she will do everything within her power to obtain the script. (Mary Jones is politely blowing off the writer.) Occasionally, these quotes offer an unwitting sub-text that backfires on the screenwriter. Also, avoid hyperbolic descriptions of the screenplay. “It’s an action packed, thrill-a-minute character study with a romance that will break your heart.” Any kind of hype is unprofessional. It is silly for a screenwriter to praise his own work. It goes without saying that the scribe believes his “characters are riveting” and his story “important for our times.”

Do not include supplemental material. For instance: “With the hopes of enticing you to read my new screenplay, SHAME: A GIRL WITH AN STD, I have enclosed an eight-page booklet about syphilis.” The odds of the pamphlet being read are slim to none. Also, don’t send food or candy with a letter. No one in their right mind will eat food sent to them by a complete stranger.

Do not make casting suggestions (unless you are targeting an actor’s representative), do not suggest marketing concepts, and do not offer up taglines. You can refer to an actor to communicate the type of protagonist. ("Think of someone like Tom Cruise.")

Proofread the letter. One would believe writers have a strong command of their language. However, query letters are often littered with misspelled words. This also includes grammar and syntax errors.

Letters should be sent to a specific person. Be sure their name is spelled correctly. Refer to the “Hollywood Creative Directory,” the Internet, or call for the correct spelling. In general, calling ahead is a good idea. Double check to make sure the executive is still employed with that company. The agent’s name may appear in the “Hollywood Agents and Managers Directory,” but turnover is fierce, and the agent at UTA today could be at CAA tomorrow.

Avoid writing the letter by hand. Of course, an equal amount of care should be given to the envelope.

Avoid including “yes/no” self-addressed postcards - unless requested.

NEVER send the script along with the letter – unless requested.

When your script is solicited, do not ask that it be returned, and do not include a self-addressed stamped manila envelope for its return – unless requested.

The same applies for e-mail queries. There are services that will write your e-mail query and blast it all over town. However, those queries are often too long and laborious and make it difficult to enable one to "see the movie." Brevity is essential in a query letter. Those services might have an easier time getting your e-mail into every computer in town, but you should, at least, write the query.

Also, send the query to everybody. For instance, you might do some research and learn that a small prodco only makes horror movies. As a result, you decide not to send them a query for your comedy. But, unbeknownst to you, they have decided to look for material outside their trademark genre – a missed opportunity because you censored yourself. Let others determine what material is right for them. All they’ll do is say, “We don’t make those kinds of movies.”

Like war, there is no magic bullet in Hollywood. It is difficult for anyone to break through and earn a living. Living far away and being unable to visit makes it even harder. Strive to write the sort of movies Hollywood produces. (Having European projects in your portfolio doesn’t necessarily sound like an exciting proposition from my side.)

Finally, use the resources around you. Forge a career in the European market, which could lead to capturing the attention of executives in Los Angeles. Hollywood might salivate for the writer of the number one movie in Turkey.

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Friday, April 14, 2006


A production company exec has invited me in to meet. It’s my first meeting ever! I’m definitely nervous 'cause I know he wants to hear my ideas. What can I expect and how do I pitch?

The quiet, solitary and safe life of writing is turned upside down when the writer must meet potential buyers and employers.

However, your professional goal is to go out and meet as many people as you can and let them know who you are and what you do.

Most of these meetings are simply a way for the executive to get to know you, feel you out, hear your ideas and determine if you would be a writer he’d like to work with. In the early stages, it’s unlikely this sort of meeting will lead to an immediate job, but it’s still a positive and important step in forging a career.

My advice is simple.

First and foremost, be relaxed, confident and have fun. Try to show some personality (instead of the stereotypical dour and suicidal countenance of many scribes). Be prepared for some small talk at first. Always search for commonalities. Scan the room and look for clues. I have a poster of Altman’s THE PLAYER over my desk. If you’ve seen the movie, start off with a brief conversation about that. Get to know a little about the exec too. After all, you’re summing up this person as well. Is this someone you would want to work with?

Eventually, the conversation will segue into your sharing some ideas of projects you’ve been working on or concepts that are on the horizon.

Familiarize yourself with the pitch in advance, carefully choosing the structure of your presentation and the words you use. A haphazard presentation or distracting word can annihilate the pitch.

Make sure you know your story. Don’t pitch half-assed ideas to an executive and try to play it off as if it’s been fully realized. It only takes me one question (at most two) to stump a writer at his own story, if it hasn’t been well thought out.

Always start the pitch with the genre and logline. Let the exec hear the concept up front. Regardless of how complicated the story might be, introduce it with the most concise few sentences imaginable. Then you can open it up and go into detail.

It’s a Capraesque dramedy about an astronaut who, in 1962, is lost in space. Forty-five years later, in his small hometown, a man appears, claiming to be the astronaut. His arrival causes dissention amongst the townspeople and changes their lives forever.”

Setting up the pitch with a clear vision of the concept gives the executive a “map” to your story; he’s less likely to get lost or dazed. You can now begin filling in the blanks – talking about, for instance, the protagonist or going into the plot with more detail.

Less is more. The more you say the more faults the executive will find with the story. On Wednesdays, I lead the Agent Trainee lunches at work. We recently spent weeks on pitching. One trainee started off with a great pitch that went something like, “We all remember Jackie Robinson and how he broke the color barrier when he played professional baseball. Well, this is a comedy based on a true story about the first white man to play in the All-Negro baseball league.” After a banner start, he dives into the story, giving us more details and does a great job. At the point when he should have stopped, however, he continued with a coda, and told us all how this tragic figure ended up a lonely, broken alcoholic.

He had gone too far. This image spoiled the convivial mood that had preceded it and created confusion. (Is this part of the movie?) This is a textbook example of not quitting while you’re ahead.

These are the most important basics.

The rest you’ll learn through trial and error. (I have written an in-depth article on “pitching” that you can find on the home page of

Regardless of the outcome, your work has motivated the executive to make room for you on his calendar. This meeting will be a great experience for you. Remember to always enjoy these small victories.

Sometimes, it’s all there is.

Please e-mail your questions to


I have an opportunity to work with a company that guarantees to send out my script at least once a week for the duration of our contract. The company will also provide me with script analysis, casting lists and production budgets. The company is owned by a former manager who represented some heavyweights but there is a heavy fee too. Is this sort of service worthwhile?

No. Even if it were free, it’s all a lot of ballyhoo. Production budgets and detailed cast lists aren’t necessary if you’re simply trying to sell your script. Write a script and find a manager who won’t charge you any upfront fees.

There is a big industry in helping struggling screenwriters find a way to make a living in Hollywood. There are books, tapes, DVDs, classes, Expos, contests, pitch festivals, query services, logline services, coverage services (some offer referrals), script analysts and all sorts of online services devoted to promoting and marketing writers and new screenplays.

There are primarily two reasons writers would subscribe to any of these services. 1) To help improve their craft. 2) To take their career to the next level.

The truth is that the majority of these services will do neither.

When I first moved to Los Angeles, there was hardly this proliferation of services offered to writers. That came along with the Internet. Of course, there were books, classes and some contests - like the Nicholl Fellowship and the now defunct Nissan Focus Screenwriting Contest, where the top prize was a new car.

But catering to the class of struggling screenwriters is certainly not a new phenomenon. “How To” screenwriting books, for example, have been around since the birth of film. The Palmer Photoplay Corporation, Department of Education, in Hollywood, California offered a correspondence course in 1923. Six years later, the University of Southern California opened the doors to its film school. D.W. Griffith, Douglas Fairbanks Sr., Ernst Lubitsch, Irving Thalberg and Darryl F. Zanuck were among the first of its faculty.

A few years ago, I made an E-bay acquisition: A three-ring binder of the Palmer Photoplay Corporation’s “Series of Lectures,” which was once owned by Mrs. Mary C. Brockway of 119 S. Fifth Street, E. Missoula, Montana.

Being in possession of this book, I felt a connection to her. In the course of my work, I meet many aspiring writers who attend pitch marts, enter contests, use script reading services, take classes. Yet I came to regard this good woman as a pioneer - an icon of sorts. Mrs. Brockway became a symbol to me, representing the very first “struggling screenwriter.”

Mrs. Brockway dreamed of seeing her stories materialize in silent black and white nitrate. Back in 1923, there was no film school in East Missoula and Robert McKee had not yet begun his profitable traveling lecture circuit. There was no talk of “plot points” or in depth discussions of films like CASABLANCA or CHINATOWN either. The hot template for discourse was HAIL THE WOMEN (1921), which starred Florence Vidor. Luckily, for Mrs. Brockway, there was the correspondence course, a forum wherein, for a few paltry dollars, she could improve her craft and, hopefully, advance to the next level – which might even lead to selling her work to a Hollywood movie studio.

The Palmer Photoplay Corporation was not just a school dedicated to improving the craft of dramatic writing; it was also a liaison that linked “the individual author with the motion picture producers of the world.” Those students who successfully completed the coursework could allow the Palmer Corp. to represent their script in Hollywood – for a sensible 10% of any sale. This must have been very attractive to the likes of Mrs. Brockway, who couldn’t possibly understand the minefield of selling a script in Hollywood from her bucolic and gentle lifestyle of East Missoula.

Today, we see facsimiles of this situation – often with “representatives” charging all sorts of upfront fees during the development of a script and then either taking 10% of the sale or attaching as producers. But these shady reps never see the 10%; they don’t need it. They've made plenty of money from the struggling writer who pays those fees.

The claims and testimonials we often see can certainly lure in a struggling writer who sees no real hope of connecting with Hollywood. Palmer made it clear why their expertise was necessary. “…After Mary Pickford produced ‘Pollyanna’ we sold (a manuscript) to another studio for a young star that was based on exactly the same theme and the production of which was very much like ‘Pollyanna.’ The author of the story suggested that we submit to Miss Pickford, but it was so similar to “Pollyanna” that we knew that market was closed to the type of story in question. Had the author attempted to handle the story without being equipped with the knowledge that we possess, the sale would have been lost….”

Of course that testimonial mentions flashy names and titles (Pickford and “Pollyanna”) that have nothing to do with the Palmer Corporation. The references that would interest us – like the title of the manuscript they sold and the name of the “young star” - are conveniently left out. But to Mrs. Brockway, Mary Pickford – the biggest movie star in the world at that time – was the best possible endorsement. It seems safe to say that Palmer made more money from the correspondence course than they ever did from the sale of material.

These advertising tricks haven’t changed in almost a hundred years – as most of these services have no real professional triumphs. In this industry of servicing struggling screenwriters, cryptic success stories are the name of the game. Many use old credits and drop names from a former life that blur the line – as if those names might have something to do with current endeavors.

Struggling writers can be so desperate, they’ll rationalize almost anything. After spending $200 at a pitch event, a writer told me, “It was worth it because I got to submit my script to a company. They finally ‘passed’ but I made a valuable connection.” A connection that cost $200 and one he most likely could have made if he simply e-mailed or cold called the same person. (Many of the execs and producers who attend pitch events are actively looking for material from new writers because they have no money to buy or option, preventing them from working with professional scribes. So, it’s just the same for them to get a query or a call. And the cost is considerably less for the writer.) But these sorts of events often profit off the timid nature of writers. And, of course, the glitz and frenzy of the event make it appear like it’s a bonanza for the writer – when it’s more of a windfall for the organizer.

The truth of the matter is that most struggling writers will never earn one cent in this business. But the dream is strong. In the original 1937 version of A STAR IS BORN, a clerk from Central Casting warns naive Esther Blodgett that her odds of making it as an actress are a million to one. Esther replies, “But what if I’m that one?” The same dreamy sentiment exists today, and it's part of the unique charm of Hollywood. But there are those who will profit from that dream.

There is certainly room for sensible indulgence – books, classes, contests and even Expos are all fun ways to mingle with other writers, discuss the craft, commiserate, network and exchange information. It all becomes questionable when the dream is exploited in exchange for cash and, in the end, the writer gains no value. Not to be all doom and gloom, there are those in Hollywood that are willing to form a balanced alliance with you – if you have the right material that suits their needs. You’re not likely to make that sort connection by paying for it.

83-years ago, Mrs. Mary C. Brockway had a Hollywood dream. Sadly, it was not to be. From all historical accounts, it seems Mrs. Brockway never sold a manuscript to Hollywood. In fact, her very first “Examination Questions” from her correspondence course was never even submitted to the Palmer Photoplay Corporation Advisory Board; she did not complete the course. Even still, as an anonymous trailblazer in the early days of film, this patron saint of struggling screenwriters will be remembered.

It is not known whatever became of Mary C. Brockway. It is probably safe to assume that she has departed our earthly plane. But her spirit still exists today – at every Expo, bookstore, pitch event, college class, on every message board and in every query letter.

I can only hope our dear Mrs. Brockway lived a glorious, happy life. And when she passed on, took with her a lifetime of stories that never sold but continue to keep her company.

Please e-mail your questions to

Wednesday, April 12, 2006


I went to a seminar where the guru explained that writing the character's thoughts or “talking to the reader” are absolutely forbidden. True?

Always be wary of any absolutes.

Teachers, authors and “gurus” need to have something to preach. But what we learn in the classroom is often usurped by real life. Reading screenplays will prove that this is a common practice used by fledglings and old pros. The edict to avoid “talking” to the reader or writing what’s in a character’s head certainly makes sense. The popular question that always follows the decree is: “How can a director film any of that?”

However, I would suggest that you are not writing for a director – but writing for a reader. Enabling the reader (who could be a director, producer, agent, story analyst) to envision your movie is the prime goal. And if an occasional “cheat” here and there – like telling us what a character thinks – communicates a desired effect, then you’re doing your job.

“She’s nervous. Wondering what the hell she’s gotten herself into.”

“He looks at her. He can’t believe she loves him.”

“He slams the door in her face and her world crumbles beneath her feet.”

These sorts of descriptive sentences are not uncommon in screenplays. Of course, someone might suggest you find a visual way to convey these feelings, but don’t allow others to force their style upon you.

In this passage from Shane Black’s LETHAL WEAPON, he describes the unleashed fury of Riggs (Mel Gibson).

And then the Devil comes in and kicks the door off its hinges. Okay. Okay. Let's stop for a moment. First off, to describe fully the mayhem which Riggs now creates would not do it justice. Here, however, are a few pointers: He is not flashy. He is not Chuck Norris. Rather, he is like a sledgehammer hitting an egg. He does not knock people down. He does not injure them. He simply kills them. The whole room. Everyone standing….

This uses a conversational approach that might piss off a more serious screenwriter. But its entertaining, friendly style pulls us into the read instead of alienating us.

Any effect used strategically and in moderation that benefits the read is successful. Shane Black doesn’t do this sort of thing in every sentence. He does it for effect at the appropriate time.

On the other hand, there are examples that could mark you as an amateur and hurt the flow of your narrative. An example would be descriptive passages filled with exposition.

He turns to his wife and sees her as if it’s the first time…as if it’s their first date at the drive-in in Piscataway on that warm summer night. What was the name of the movie? It didn’t matter then and doesn’t matter now.
This sort of passage pulls us out of the story. It includes details that are unnecessary to the unfolding action. If the name of the movie didn’t matter then and doesn’t matter now, why burden us with the detail?

Some common sense should be applied as well. Hopefully, a writer has an inherent sense of what will play or not play. However, lapses of judgment can happen, as in this example from an unproduced romantic comedy by a successful screenwriter.

They make love. It's so hot the page should burn your hands or make you want to masturbate.
Gross negligence can be found in a screenplay called THE HISTORIAN: GUARDIAN OF THE FUTURE, where the writer interrupts his narrative on page 44 with this:

NOTE: I am sure, you have noticed, that the writer, has used, an over abundance of voice over, for each character, with more to come. I know the majority can not be used, but hopefully it will keep, and help build, an intimacy, between the Director, and also the audience if so desired by the honorable builder, of this epic picture…I’m sure if you are reading this, that you have a keen eye, and talent, so I think this could be a master piece. THANK YOU FOR YOUR TIME. NOW BACK TO THE HISTORIAN: GUARDIAN OF THE FUTURE.

Please e-mail your questions to:

Sunday, April 09, 2006


This blog has been created to address questions regarding the craft and business of screenwriting.

Answers are based on my experiences within the film industry. Since there is rarely a "right" or "wrong" in this business, ten executives could answer the same question differently.

But they'll have to get their own blog.

Please be sure to visit There is an interactive message board there with lots of information for writers navigating their way through the Hollywood quagmire.

Please e-mail any of your questions to:

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