Saturday, December 12, 2009

SCREENWRITING FALLACIES

The response to Adam Levenberg's previous two articles here has been positive, so he adds yet another entitled THE FALLACIES OF THE UNREPPED WRITER:



At the age of 16, I spent the summer at UCLA taking two classes, including an introduction to screenwriting taught by Chris Lockhart. In retrospect, I feel very badly for Chris, as those six hours per week (with only a handful of other students) allowed me an absurd amount of access to ask every question under the sun about screenwriting, movies, and the entertainment business. So I definitely appreciate his invitation to share this blog space and some of the information I've acquired that unrepresented screenwriters can use to their advantage.

I eventually graduated from USC Cinema with a degree in Critical Studies and then stayed in L.A. to work in the world of feature film development. During this time, I exclusively focused on writers, specs, what was selling to who, tracking down film rights, helping to build franchise properties, and evaluating books for feature adaptation potential.

When I opened up my consulting services to unrepresented screenwriters last year, I was surprised to hear many false assumptions repeated over and over. And quoting the great Shane Black "when you make an assumption, you make an ass out of you--and umption!"

The following include some of the "greatest hits" I continue to hear on a near daily basis. While I completely understand why a writer might embrace these fallacies, they are simply not accurate. As you proceed, remember that my advice is directed towards writers who have yet to secure a major literary agent or manager in Los Angeles.



Fallacy: I'M A HUGE SUCCESS IN MY FIELD, WHERE'S MY WRITING GIG?

A successful comic book writer recently moved to Los Angeles and asked me how he could find paid jobs writing movies. I suggested he get in line with the screenwriting teachers, television staff writers on hiatus, and successful authors who want those jobs as well. All those people are camped out behind the working feature writers, who are "in demand" by virtue of the fact they're already working. People always want what they can't have.

Writing for feature films is a specialized field with extraordinary competition. There is no such thing as career stability. Winning an Oscar twenty years ago will not sell your pitch today. There are many more experienced feature screenwriters who would like to work than actually are working at any given time. And they've got credits, sales, and pre-existing relationships with producers, actors, and executives. Until you sell a spec, don't expect to beat them out for an open writing assignment.

But if an Oscar winner's spec and yours go out the same day, guess which one is more likely to sell? The better script.



Fallacy: AN AGENT WILL REPRESENT ME BASED ON MY TALENT!

The only reason an agent will take you on is if you hand them a spec they can sell. They put it on the spec market and if successful, you're the hot new thing. The agent pockets a nice commission and tries to get you paid work, either rewriting or selling a pitch. A good agent is qualified to discuss a concept or give some feedback on a script, but its not their job to help you develop creatively (although some do).

If an agent sees promise in your work, maybe they'll look at another script you wrote, or your upcoming spec. This is not representation.



Fallacy: TALENT ATTACHMENTS WILL HELP MY SCRIPT SELL!

This one drives me absolutely insane.

If you can't land a respectable literary agent or manager, its a waste of your time to go after talent. It's worse than a waste of time, its annoying to everyone you're contacting. Stick to landing an agent and if they think a specific attachment will help, let them handle packaging.

Keep in mind, there are a very limited number of actors and actresses that studios buy screenplays for. Just because an actor has appeared in a huge movie, or even starred in one does not mean they have the power to get scripts purchased on their behalf. Even if you work in Hollywood, this is insider information that changes each and every month.

And nobody cares about the bargain basement actors for hire that you're capable of attaching on your own. Just because you have a letter from Wilfred Brimley's manager expressing his interest for the role of "Gramps" does not make your query letter more attractive to a production company. It just makes you look like a moron. And fuck you for wasting Mr. Brimley's time, the man is a national treasure and has better things to do then read your spec. That diabetes testing equipment isn't gonna sell itself.



Fallacy: THEY SAID NICE THINGS ABOUT MY SCRIPT--WHICH MEANS THEY LIKED IT!

One writer I recently spoke with claimed a production company really liked her script and would put it in the "keep pile". "Not for us at this time" is also a flat out pass. So is "we liked it but have a similar project".

Oh, don't forget "we enjoyed it but our slate is full". This is just a fuck you--there's no such thing as a producer too busy to set up a project.

Then there's the coverage companies, contests, and consultants. If you've paid money to ANYONE who claims your script is great, here's how you determine if they really meant it: Did they refer your script to a major literary agent or manager in Los Angeles?

If not, they may have given you an honest response but aren't connected enough to the industry to get your script to anyone important. If that's the case, why pay them in the first place? Another possibility is that they routinely tell clients they loved the script. There's a consultant out of NYC who gives fawning, glowing coverage to any spec in proper format. Most of the L.A. based coverage companies want you to feel good about hiring them as well.



Fallacy: THE RIGHT PERSON HASN'T READ MY SCRIPT YET!

When you go to the movies with friends, you might sit around after, drinking coffee and debating the quality of the film. Movies are different than screenplays and have far more elements to critique, such as performance, direction, cinematography, costumes, music, etc. Comedies that work on the page often fall completely flat.

The big mistake often made by unrepresented writers is assuming that a pass is based on the reader's personal taste. This is not the case. I once had a boss who suggested I see a gross-out comedy because the script was really funny. I asked if she was going and she replied "Ugh. I hate those movies!" Professionals keep their jobs by effectively evaluating the quality of screenwriting and marketability of the premise. Taste is a luxury used to inform what executives watch in their free time. A professional in the development world can evaluate any genre and determine which material has true value.

A great example is CRANK. The movie is a hyperactive hard-R thrill ride with limited audience appeal due to excessive violence and chaotic camerawork. But the screenwriting excellence of Neveldine & Taylor can be appreciated by anyone. They write wildly visceral action and smart, funny dialogue guaranteed to give you an adrenaline rush. Whether you care enough to finish the script is a matter of taste--but the talent of the writers is a given.

This week's smash hit is 2012. Many critics have said the visual effects are amazing but the script is weak. Really? I dare anyone to find the 2012 screenplay online and read the first 10 pages. Roland Emmerich is the master of memorably introducing an army of disparate characters, their backstories, locations, and present day dilemmas while putting a smile on your face with sharp dialogue and witty banter. This isn't "good" or "bad" screenwriting. This IS screenwriting.

Hollywood knows how to spot a great writer, even if its just emerging talent. If your writing is funny and makes a reader laugh, it doesn't matter if your script sucks and you don't understand story yet--someone will recognize your talent, call you, and walk you through the process of writing another idea. Same thing if you can write great action or inspire great chills in a thriller or horror screenplay.

So if you've made multiple submissions to production companies and gotten generic pass letters as a response, its time to stop "marketing" and start evaluating where the material falls short.



Fallacy: SELLING A SPEC WILL SOLVE ALL MY PROBLEMS!

Okay, in fairness nobody says this directly, but its definitely a common motivator for success.

Writers often believe that selling a screenplay will allow them to start a new life, buy a house, get a divorce, quit their job, or gain the respect of family members and friends. If you're counting on a screenplay to facilitate this change, its time to reassess your life plan. And the way you approach writing.

Writing with an eye towards a financial outcome completely destroys your ability to have fun with the process. And fun is where all of the best material emerges from your brain to the page! Writers who equate the sale of a screenplay to an outcome in their life can be guaranteed the script will never ever sell and their life will continue to suck.

So if there's a shakeup you've been waiting for, don't let the sale of a screenplay be your excuse. You know better now. Act accordingly.



Adam can be contacted directly at: adamlevenberg29@gmail.com



_________________________________________________________




INSIDE PITCH reader Andrew Sherman e-mailed me this reflective and rambling missive on Adam Levenberg’s “FIVE TYPES OF HIGHLY UNSUCCESSFUL SCREENWRITERS.” He titles his discourse "THREE UNREPRESENTED WRITERS YOU DON'T WANT TO BE!"



The "Five Types of Highly Unsuccessful Writers" have at least one thing in common: they refuse to accept and/or acknowledge that the movie-going audience is their boss.

When Billy Wilder (and his collaborators) were writing and making movies such as Double Indemnity, Lost Weekend and Sunset Blvd., they were not trying to make "great" movies. They were simply trying to make a movie that would "entertain the average guy on the street."

I don't (never have or never will) write with awards, contest wins or with "greatness" in mind. I write to emotionally move an audience (whether it be the reader or moviegoers) and to engage the audience for the entire length of the script/movie.

Success as a screenwriter is based on the same principle of success in any other field: having a successful routine and sticking to it daily. Ask a writer what he was doing today, last week, last month and last year and to the degree that the answer is related to writing is the degree to which the writer can expect success. Ask Tiger Woods the same question and the answer will be golf related. Ask Roger Feder and the answer will be tennis related.

For example, the rise and fall of the boxers at the Kronk Gym in Detroit can be easily summed up by the changes that took place in the locker room before and after training. In the years when Thomas Hearns and others were winning title fights, the talk of the trainers was always about some Sugar Ray Robinson-Jake LaMotta fight that was on TV the other night. When the championships and title fights started to elude the boxers, the talk in the locker room was about some slut that one of the trainers banged or about some party the boxers were looking forward to.

Like "The Independent," who thinks TOO MUCH of writers like Tarantino, Kauffman and Smith, there were boxers who thought TOO MUCH of Ali and tried copycatting his style. The results were similar.... the copy cat gets KO'd. Both think too much of their idols to the point of throwing away one of the things that are of most value: their own voice. If a producer wants to work with Tarantino, the producer will hire Tarantino, not writer-android number 11,694.

Sometimes, "The Librarian" uses research as an excuse for not writing... he's like the "professional college student" who's always studying but never graduating into the real world. And when they do write the 171 page first (and usually only) draft, it's a mess because they have too many sacred cows and will refuse to "kill their babies" in order to make the structure work.

"The Award Winner," the ones I know, refuses to understand that he can use theme in order to make his important point while entertaining an audience with a compelling story. Not only does he have to preach but he feels he must let the reader know that she is being preached to.

When did my breakthrough script come? When I sat back and reflected on the history of my writing... from kindergarten on.

I remembered I wrote something in the First Grade and Mrs. Johnson, my teacher, put it on the board with three stars.

I remembered in junior high school... Mrs. Boyd gave the class a book assignment. We could choose any book but the book had to be at least 200 pages. The day before it was due, I found a (30 page?) Marvel comic book on Magneto and wrote the report on that. A week later she handed out the papers with the grades on it: I received an "A++" (PLUS PLUS) with her handwritten note: "This is so well written and entertaining...!"

I remembered in high school, I spent most of the semester skipping my last class... my English class. I entered Mrs. McMillian's class two weeks before the finals and she dragged me to the principal's office saying I shouldn't bother because I had an automatic F. I asked her what the final assignment was and she said the entire semester was devoted to preparing for an essay. She made a big deal about how the students sweated to prepare for it and there was no way I could pass her class. Since the principal told her I had to be placed in her class for the remaining two weeks, I asked if I could write the essay anyway.

I received an "A PLUS" for my essay on inflation entitled "The Invisible Hole In Your Pocket." She HOUNDED me about how I came up with the title, about how interesting I had made the intro and told me she wanted me to read the essay in front of the entire class. I left to go to the bathroom and didn't return until a week later to have my report card graded and signed. She told me it was the only "A" she handed out in the class that semester.

In an Adult Ed class, I wrote an essay entitled "Technology v.s. The Constitution," which explored how the current laws were out of date in regards to advances in technology. The teacher gave me an "A" and wanted to set me up on a blind date with her daughter.

I reflected that I didn't know who Robert McKee or Syd Field or any of the other gurus were when I was writing those things. There was no internet, no screenwriting magazines and I hadn't even read a script at that point. I decided that I am, indeed, a "writer" and I just needed to respect the craft of screenwriting as opposed to focusing on the art... the same way I had respected the craft of lyric writing for so many years.

The difference between a craftsman and an artist is that an artist can do whatever the hell he wants while a craftsman works within the range of some expected specifications... someone who builds houses cannot build a front door that is only three inches wide or a front staircase that is the length of a football field... but an artist can. But once the artist seeks payment for his work, he becomes the employee of his audience and needs to cater to working within the range of their expectations/specifications... in short, he becomes, or is expected to become, a craftsman.

Then I put all my screenwriting books in the closet, disconnected my computer from the internet and wrote a screenplay that ended up taking me half way around the world and continues setting me up to be considered for high profile writing assignments.

I haven't had a big sale because simply haven't written (completed rather) a script that is worthy of a big sale. It has nothing to do with the imaginary bullshit slump in spec sales. It has everything to do with what I'm putting on paper and everything else are just excuses that losers use for losing both the big game and the blow job happy cheerleaders to the winners... the winners who focused on their daily routine instead of allowing every distraction imaginable to enter their lives.

For me, it's not IF... it's WHEN and as long as I find a way to pay the bills, when doesn't matter that much because, sale or no sale, option or no option, writing assignment or no writing assignment... I am protecting my writing routine and I am sticking to my writing routine.

Okay, my once-a-year rant is over. And on the positive side... this email didn't come from the Netherlands, I didn't ask for your credit card number to help a relative in Nigeria nor did I make any promises regarding penile enlargement.


________________________________________________________

The three finalist loglines have been chosen by the twoadverbs membership. The titles are:

HORROR COMIC
INVASIVE SPECIES
LORD OF THE JUNGLE

The loglines will be presented to a panel of industry professionals and the winner will be announced on Christmas Eve in the forum at twoadverbs. Good luck!


_______________________________________________________


Send comments and/or questions to theinsidepitch@sbcglobal.net

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