Friday, April 14, 2006


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.

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At 9:42 PM, Blogger Unknown said...

Thanks for this piece. It's a blind game... even when the struggling screenwriter already know that such expenses on coverage, contest etc might not yield any fruit, there is this ironic sense of fulfillment that comes with it... 'after all, what else can I do?'...


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