Many years ago, I taught a screenwriting class for high school kids at UCLA. The kids came to the campus for the summer from all around the country. In the class, we talked about the basics of screenwriting and saw how they were applied in both scripts and films. The kids pitched their own ideas and wrote scenes.
In my very first class, one of the kids was an enthusiastic high school thespian from Rhode Island who pitched me all sorts of ideas. His name was Josh Schwartz, and it was less than a decade later that he would go on to create THE O.C. and become the youngest show runner in network history. (I turned the tables on Josh and watched him teach a few years ago when I asked him to come speak to the ICM agent trainees.)
Once I was at a screenwriting award banquet and was surprised to see that the writer getting the top prize had also been a student from that class. I hadn’t seen him in almost ten years, but he went on to become my intern and eventually my full-time story analyst. Today, Gideon is one of the busiest in the business.
This leads me to Adam Levenberg - another kid I hit it off with back then. He was opinionated and loved movies and we kept in touch over the years. My wife even cooked for him once. (That’s impressive because she’s only cooked for me once.) Adam found his niche within the business and made his way through the Hollywood maze as a creative executive. Recently, he has been consulting and offered himself out as a prize in the twoadverbs logline contest that’s currently underway.
I asked Adam to contribute to my blog. In this article, he characterizes certain kinds of unrepresented writers. Here, according to Adam Levenberg are:
THE FIVE TYPES OF HIGHLY UNSUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS
In speaking and working with around 500 unrepresented writers in the past year, I've noticed some easy to spot patterns regarding unsuccessful work habits.
Everyone has their own style and approach to how they take on the job of screenwriting, but if you notice your own behaviors reflected below, I suggest taking a deep breath and asking "is it possible this characteristic has impeded my success in the past?" If so, resolve to switch up your modus operandi for the next few months and see if that helps generate stronger material.
Keep in mind, my advice here is directed towards writers who lack literary representation and are hoping to "break in" to the business. If you can effectively juggle five projects at once and are repped at a huge agency, get back to work!
The Juggler is always working on fifteen specs, pitches, and rewrites at once. He's got a ton of creative energy that is drained or diluted by spreading themselves too thin. He's often proud of his ability to work on several things at once, not recognizing that at the end of the day, none of the fifteen projects are worthy of hitting the spec market.
Often, The Juggler has been confused by reading about professional writers who seem to be working on several projects at once. He doesn't know that a professional might be juggling several projects over the course of a year, not during the same day, week, or even month. If you're a pro who turned in the latest draft for an actor or director who's working, it could take months for them to read it and turn over their notes for the next draft. This downtime can then be used to write an entire new spec.
THE SPEED DEMON
Speed Demon can write ten scripts in a year. They sit down at the computer and generate pages and pages of output. They are inspired by Stephen King or Aaron Sorkin, who can sit down and write a script in the amount of time it would take most of us to assemble an entertainment center. The Speed Demon loves notes, because they can deliver a new and improved rewrite in two days!
The Speed Demon's problems are multiple. Their scripts read as if they were vomited on to the page. They're rough to read and rarely contain valuable ideas, strong dialogue or clever screenwriting, simply because there's only so many worthy brainstorms one can come up with in a single day. Screenwriting isn't about finishing something fast, it's about bringing exciting ideas to the table.
There is value in spending some time (like more than one month) on a spec, since creative ideas flow most easily during the actual writing process when the brain is firing on all cylinders. The Speed Demon robs themselves of this fertile imagination time, resulting in multiple scripts lacking any value at all.
THE REWRITE KING & QUEEN
The Rewrite Queen wants to get her script right. That means she'll write it, spend a year "perfecting" it through multiple rewrites, get reaction from friends and family, incorporating their notes, then continually getting feedback from any source they can, which once again, will be channeled into a rewrite.
The process never ends. The Rewrite King or Queen sees their idea or spec as having value because the idea excites them. They believe any script can sell if it is "fixed". These royals are confused by what a rewrite actually means inside of the development world. In the Rewrite Queen's head, a "rewrite" can account for changing 3-5% of the script, polishing dialogue, changing a scene around here and there. They are their own development executive, trying to determine what must be changed in order to bring the script into "sellable" shape.
Years may pass, but the Rewrite Queen is still trying to "get it right" whatever it takes. Often, she'll speak as her determination is a badge of honor. It's not.
She doesn't know that in the development world, a working writer will deliver a spec, get feedback from an agent or manager, rewrite once and send it to market. If it sells, the writer may continue a series of rewrites, but they are no longer responsible for coming up with new ideas--instead, they execute the notes (aka ideas) of execs, producers, maybe an actor or director, and an army of assistants and story editors. The rewrite consists of drastically revamping characters, subplots, demolishing and reworking massive portions of the script, and trying to come out the other end with an improved draft.
So while the Rewrite Queen is plugging away at draft number twenty six, working Hollywood writers have amassed a library of material.
Years ago, The Pusher attained recognition for a screenplay they wrote. It might have been a free option, flirting with representation, or even attaining a big agent to send a spec out, only to have it not sell. The taste of potential success has not sent The Pusher back to the drawing board, confident in their talent. Instead, it has engendered confidence in THAT SCRIPT. There is a distinction.
The Pusher thinks if they can get enough new people to read the script, they will once again taste that success and move the project forward. Sometimes even represented writers continue to push their agents to send out their unsold scripts. This becomes annoying for the agent, who never thought it would sell in the first place but sent it out to make sure they could represent the next spec, as the Pusher may be genuinely talented and a great client.
Here's what the Pusher doesn't know: If the material is good enough, an agent will continue to send it out on their own. If the agent doesn't think they can earn money by selling it, why would they send it out again? Also, The Pusher is often confused as to the level of success that they tasted. They don't know that "free option" came from a producer who had no idea what they were doing or what a readable script read like.
In my consulting, I was hired to read three scripts for a client who worked as a surgeon. I'd also spent over an hour speaking to him beforehand and knew this was a brilliant guy who had a great grasp of cinema. When the three scripts arrived, I was surprised to find that he was lacking any fundamental understanding of screenwriting, story, or character development.
Of the three scripts, one ranked among the worst screenplay attempts I'd ever been hired to look at. It was so unreadable, I suggested we skip that one and focus on the other two to discuss areas of improvement. Here's the funny thing--THAT was the script that had been optioned by some no-name producer! Being a genuinely smart guy, the client learned during our talk and came back a month later with a script that was better than the vast majority of unrepped material I've seen. The success of a free option from a bullshit producer kept his talent locked up for years.
Contest wins are the most dangerous drug for Pushers, who can't take the hint the material may not stack up in the real world (even the winners rarely do, and if you don't believe me, read some "finalists" from ANY contest on Earth). They continue to "market" their spec and enter more contests to taste that validation one more time.
The Ego has the hardest time with advancing as a screenwriter because he thinks his script is great. He responds to every note with a long explanation of WHY he wrote something in a particular way. Instead of listening intently, The Ego digs in and prepares for battle. Very few of these writers make it to the point of representation--they are unable to meet constructive criticism with new, fresh ideas. The result is that they scare off any professionals who may be able to help them.
The Ego's biggest problem is not realizing that if their screenplay actually worked, the notes disputed would have never been offered or mentioned in the first place. The Ego is also the most likely type of writer to complain about the state of Hollywood movies or how unfair the process of breaking into the system is. They don't like to consider the fact their script doesn't cut it.
Sad truth--Often the Ego has massive raw talent and superb intelligence. Their biggest weakness is that they know it and use their smarts to defend the existing script at all costs instead of coming up with crafty ways to fix it.
THE EXCEPTION - THE SUCCESS
The most successful screenwriters are great listeners and great adapters. They treat development meetings like brainstorming sessions, recognizing that "notes" are not an assault on their screenplay, but intended to help make it better. The Success also knows that while they may violently disagree with a specific change, often there is something that falls short in the script that needs to be addressed. So they cook on that and figure out a smarter way to fix the problem than what was offered in the notes--after all, the Success may be paid ten to twenty times as much for this one job as the executive overseeing the project makes all year!
The Success makes meetings fun. He or she takes copious notes, willing to accept any great ideas that bring additional value to the script. After working a long time in the business, the Success is cool with tearing their scripts apart and starting over, as they recognize their job and sole purpose is to make other people happy--first their agent, then executives who purchase the script, later, the actors who must be excited enough to sign on, and finally the audience.
More articles by Adam Levenberg to come. You can contact Adam here.
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