Monday, March 13, 2006

Advice to an Aspiring Hollywood Screenwriter

By Ned Barnett - (c) 2008

This morning, I got a request from a friend who wants to be a successful Hollywood screenwriter, asking me how I did it (I have a script currently in development). The advice I gave my friend is applicable to anybody who wants to break into Hollywood as a writer ...

Getting sold in Hollywood is a real challenge. I used to co-own a business called "The Hollywood Connection" and served as a script doctor/coach for aspiring screenwriters. I can tell you what I know, but beyond that (and as far as what applies to you) you need to judge for yourself.

First, read everything you can about screenwriting - both the "how to" and the "I was there" war-story books by successful screenwriters.

For the "how-to," note the copyright date - styles in screenplays change, and the more recent the advice, the more likely it is to be real and accurate. Roughly 20 years ago, the guy who went on to create Babylon 5 wrote a book on screenwriting - in that, he advocated putting original artwork on the cover of the bound manuscripts. That worked in the late 70s to mid-80s, but quickly became passe - now cover art is death-on-toast.

Next, read every script you can find. Sometimes, you can find sets of scripts that show development from first to produced. Did you know that the movie "Pretty Woman" started out as a horror film? Then they cast Julia Roberts and decided it just had to be a romantic comedy - they changed almost everything except the title (sorry - I can't resist: It went from "horror" to "whore").

Watching a few films about the Hollywood screenwriting process can be useful - even though they're fictional works, they often capture the spirit of insanity (The Player is one, another staring Kevin Bacon is also excellent - The Big Picture - it's great). Pitching a script can be a nightmare, and you've got to play by the rules or your dead.

Know this - if anybody buys your script, they WILL change it - often in ways that seem bizarre, certainly in ways that will displease you. If you want to tell a story with integrity, write a book. If you want Hollywood, expect the project to change beyond your recognition.

Also, expect people to steal your stories. The folks at Star Trek-Next Generation and ST-Deep Space 9 stole four script ideas I pitched them, and somebody stole a screenplay I wrote, then adapted it for Harrison Ford (if you read the two scripts side-by-side, you'd understand). There is NO recourse - if they steal from you, smile and write another idea. The only guy I know of who won in suing Hollywood was Art Buchwald - he invested a million bucks into the law suit (he had it to invest) and won, but never worked in Hollywood again. So when your ideas are stolen, suck it up and move on.

Next, before you submit anything, make sure that your screenplay is in all regards in perfect technical format - there are now software packages that will do this for you, though when I started, I had to do it manually (any big change in the script was followed by about 8 hours of non-stop manual reformatting). Hollywood spends most of it's time saying "no," so don't give them an easy reason to say "no."

Make sure your theatrical script is between 109 and 120 pages. TV/cable movies have different lengths - check that out.

Make sure it is in three acts. TV/Cable movies have five or seven acts - check that out, too.

Make sure that all formatting is correct. Not correct - perfect!

Make sure it is bound with two brads (using three-hole paper) with a construction-paper cover but no artwork.

Make sure it is registered with the Writer's Guild (copyright it, too, but don't tell them that).

In short, play by the rules.

Next, read the Hollywood Reporter religiously - know the names of the producers, their projects, etc. - "become" an insider, at least in terms of knowledge.

Network - ask every screenwriter you know who their agent is, and if they'll refer you to their agent (that's how you get an agent - client referrals). Make sure that when you pitch an agent, you already have three complete, in-the-can screenplays, and at least two or three others in various stages of development. Have ten ideas ready to pitch (and have short treatments on all of those, just in case anybody says "yes" to the pitch).

Buy (if you're really serious, subscribe to) the Hollywood Creative Directory and pour through it - identify every production company that has ever made anything even remotely like your project(s) - Hollywood people tend to keep making the same thing, over and over again. Few are real innovators. There is now an online version, but I prefer the print version.

Contact production companies you've targeted (in writing) asking for a pitch kit - they'll make you sign your life away before they'll talk to you (you basically sign permission for them to steal your ideas - really - but that's the only way to get in). Go in with your main project, plus the ten back-up pitches, and the two other scripts you're ready to show them. Do not let it seem like you're a one-trick-pony. Hollywood is full of them, and nobody wants to do business with a one-shot-wonder - they're looking for relationships as much as they're looking for scripts or screenwriters.

Here's a trick. Write a book based on your screenplay, and go find a publisher to get it published (not self-published). Hollywood treats published books with more respect than screenplays, but it's got nothing but contempt for self-published books. The guy who wrote Dances With Wolves couldn't get anybody interested in the script - so he wrote and published the story as a book, THEN Hollywood's proders were interested, and THEN he was able to show them his script.

Expect to lose, but never give up hope. Almost exactly 98 percent of everybody who writes screenplays never even gets an option. If you get an option, you're ahead of 97 percent of everybody else. So far, I have gotten three options - but no theatrical films produced - but my screenplay based on the USAF Thunderbirds is still in development (it could be funded at any time), and it literally may be funded this month. If that happens, I'll be ahead of 99 percent of everybody - and still won't have a script produced. Far fewer than 1 percent get a script produced - but oddly, the odds are better now than they were 16 years ago when I got started in this racket.

It's a crazy business. Sometimes I think winning the lottery is easier, and sometimes I think being a loan shark is a cleaner business. But it has it's attractions, and the brass ring is some big ring ...

Good luck!