Thursday, November 26, 2009

TwoAdverbs -- Vote Early; Vote Often!

Those that enjoyed Adam's article are invited to read two more excellent posts by the same author at Chris Lockhart's blog:

The posts are from November 19 and 21, 2009 if you have to scroll back to find them. Many other excellent articles on Chris' thread. He's activating the blog again and I suggest you subscribe.

You'll also notice my script, HORROR COMIC, is in the running in the logline contest. I'd appreciate any support as the contest is close! (You have to have been a member of twoadverbs as of 10/31/09 to vote. But the site is worth joining regardless -- and it's free.)


If you are a member click on the link below, go to FORUM / Contests, Representation & Networking / Sticky at the top is SEMIFINALISTS: THE NIGHT BEFORE XMAS LOGLINE CONTEST. Then you can vote for HORROR COMIC in the poll which is on the first page of the thread.

Thanks again!

Thursday, November 12, 2009


by Adam Levenberg

During the past year I've spoken at length with several hundred writers trying to break into the industry. After a decade of working inside the world of development and production, it was eye opening to hear the same false assumptions repeated over and over. While I completely understand why an unrepresented writer might embrace these myths, 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. For those writers already employed by the studio system--why are you wasting time reading this, you're on deadline!


Bullshit. It's easy to break into Hollywood with a mediocre script. It's hard to write a mediocre script!

Writers love to blame the system for not recognizing their talent or making it so difficult to have a "decision maker" read your screenplay. Please believe Hollywood is desperate to find new talent, its just that few unrepresented writers come to the table with the skills to compete with professionals already in the game. Perhaps the only exception to this is with comedy writers--if you're stuff is legitimately funny on every page, someone will take notice and help you develop a spec.

If you've entered a few contests and had your scripts turned down by several legitimate, currently active production companies without receiving a long phone call where they ask you about your other ideas, chances are guaranteed that the material did not stack up. It's your job to figure out why and improve! Otherwise your next script is unlikely to overcome these shortcomings.

Hollywood studios have an incredibly democratic process for buying material--they buy the best scripts. Period. Often great material gets shelved because it's not commercial enough, or too many writers, directors, and actors requested so many changes, the material lost its original value--but these are complications that occur after the sale.

Every deserving screenplay eventually finds a buyer to option or purchase the material. There are no exceptions.


As the film development executive for the only production company in Hollywood that actually produced films and had an active video game development division at the time (others make the claim, this one was the real deal), I spent three years listening to big writers claiming their pitch would be a great movie AND a great videogame! Turns out it was never the case. Not even once. Usually the concept falls short on both counts, otherwise they'd just pitch the movie. Or the game.

Today, a client mentioned that he might continue with a problematic spec script because it would make a great tie in promotion with a mobile phone provider. Movies don't get made like this--the production costs are too high and if the movie sucks, it could damage an otherwise worthy brand. If it did work like this, wouldn't we have already seen a Ronald McDonald movie?

Promoting your concept of a franchise as a selling point in query letters is a huge mistake. Nobody cares whether you believe it could be a great movie, video game, television show, and line of toys. These spin-offs are irrelevant if the script is not great. And if it is great, it will sell for big money, so who cares if it would also make a fun theme park attraction? You can't entice someone to move your script forward by adding value to anything other than what's inside pages 1-110.

You're not a mogul, just a screenwriter. And if you can't write a great screenplay, your Count Chocula Vs. Boo Berry pitch is irrelevant.

Act like a screenwriter, write a decent screenplay that stands on its own.


Screenplays have a shelf life somewhere between yogurt and milk. The world and cinema changes and its your job to stay current, not to push some script you wrote in the late 1990's that wasn't good enough to sell back then.

So if you find yourself hitting the pitchfest with the same concept for the eighth time because some no-name producer had a free option on it back when studios wanted to make a feature with the dude who played Mr. Belvedere, its time to give it up. If you can't write a great new script this year, I guarantee your old material is not going to sell. Focus on figuring out why the new script won't sell and what you still need to learn to compete in 2009.

On the same note, a rewrite will not breathe new life into a dead screenplay--it just wastes more of your time better spent developing new scripts. One of the biggest differences between professional and amateur writers is that the pros spend three to twelve months on a spec, put it on the market, and move the fuck on. Even if it sells, the writer is no longer in the drivers seat--their job is to implement the notes of the studio, producer, or director (often, whether the directives make sense to them or not).

Unrepresented writers often think they can rewrite something over and over to "get it right". If you can't "get it right" in six months to a year, throwing another two or three seasons is not going to help. Move on, write a few other scripts and come back later when you've mastered the art of rewriting. Otherwise, your script risks getting "lost in the funhouse" which is when you've done so many drafts, you've got a library of information in your head and the pages become incomprehensible to readers.


Contest wins have NO correlation to the spec market. None, Zero, Zip, Zilch. All a contest win says to industry professionals is that your screenplay was better than the works of other unrepresented writers, including the mentally infirm and those who know just enough English to write out a check for the entry fee. I'm joking around here with the comparison. Sort of.

I have never read a contest winner that approaches the quality of the worst specs sent out by ICM, CAA, or William Morris Endeavor. I'm sure there are a few examples of contest winners that sell, but these are rare exceptions. This brings us to the ubiquitous "semi finalists" which many contests seem to give to everyone who entered, kind of like trophies in Little League.

Writers often think being a "semi-finalist" is worth mentioning in query letters. When industry professionals see this, they assume it probably sucks. And guess what: It probably does. If your script can't win a contest where the winner is not good enough to get minor league representation, I guarantee there is a lot you still need to learn about screenwriting. There's nothing wrong with that! Contests never tell people this, which would undermine their ability to sell entry fees, often to the same people submitting the same scripts year after year. I don't think there's anything wrong with contests, I just think its wrong for organizers to mislead writers into thinking they're done the learning process and their material is ready to be seen by professional companies.

This year, I read a script that was a top 5 finalist in a contest where the winner earned $20,000. Ready for the spec market? No. The writer has a lot of raw talent though. Funny thing is, I read another top 5 finalist in the same contest last year. Was it ready for the spec market? Not even close.


This is the amateur's final defense of an unsellable spec. "It might not be great, but Hollywood movies suck!"

Even when a movie is dumped by a studio and butchered to ninety minutes, you're still guaranteed a hero, the hero's character arc, a villain, a romance, and life and death stakes on an adventure as the hero pursues a clear cut goal. That's a movie. Studios have at least a 99% success rate at churning out movies. Unrepresented specs rise to this level less than 1% of the time. Even in 500 unrepresented specs, you're only guaranteed to find one or two scripts that rise to the level of competent but mediocre. And that does not equate to a sale, unless the writer gets lucky.

If you could write a script with half the pizazz of complete failures like CATWOMAN, THE STEPFORD WIVES, or NEXT, you would have agencies fighting over you. Seriously. These might be critically indefensible titles, but they're unquestionably movies.

Just last week, I was channel flipping and came across Uwe Boll's DUNGEON SIEGE. For those of you unfamiliar with Boll's work, consider yourself lucky as he's the Ed Wood of video game adaptations funded through German tax loopholes. But as much as it pains me to say it, for all his incompetence, Boll outpaces the quality of 99% of unrepresented material. That said, the shooting scripts for his movies would not land you an agent if written on spec.

If you think I'm beating up on unrepresented writers and their spec scripts here, or that I'm suggesting that most unrepresented writers lack the abysmal talent of Uwe Boll, you're completely missing the point. I think most four year olds have more creative talent than Uwe Boll. But does Boll understand movies better than your average unrepresented screenwriter? Yes. And so do hundreds of other mediocre talents who have no problem getting represented by big agencies and selling their specs to studios.

Screenwriting is not just about talent. It's about effectively channeling that talent into creating fresh takes on generic situations we've seen a thousand times before. Luckily, if you have talent, you can LEARN how to write a movie and if you work smart, you can improve with each spec.

How do you memorably introduce your hero? What makes your villain so incredibly dangerous, powerful, and scary? What is exciting and new about the action sequences you've written? What are the best five lines of dialogue in your movie? If you've written a comedy, what jokes and situations do you think an agent will laugh so hard at that he'll pick up the phone and read to his friends? If you've written a drama, would the reader to be so devastated that he or she will be unable to sleep that night? And is your screenplay FUN? If it's not, why would anyone want to buy a ticket? These are all elements of VALUE that writers must bring to their screenplays, otherwise you're just trying to sell the generic framework we've already seen.

Unrepresented writers are still in the process of learning HOW to write a movie. More often than not, they exercise creativity by thinking "outside the box" when they create their plots and characters, which is a fundamental misunderstanding of what screenwriting is. Screenwriting is not about designing the framework of a house--there's ninety years of feature length cinema that has the blueprint down cold. Screenwriting is how you decorate, paint, furnish, and landscape that makes your house different than every other one on the block.

Site of the day:

Please visit Chris Lockhart's blog:

One of the foremost experts on loglines/pitches, Chris operates the best board for screenwriters on the net -- And it's free to join.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Confessions of a Film Fest Screener

Screening for film festivals is a job that is filled with hours of devoting your mind and imagination to the would be filmmakers of the world hoping to discover the next hot talent. When that happens, it’s the greatest job on earth. The reality is that for the most part, you kiss a lot of frogs.

When I sit down with a screener, I get a visual of some guy who’s blown his last dime on the Sharpie he used to carefully write the title and his contact info in nearly legible handwriting on the face of the personally burned DVD while he murmurs a little prayer to the universe for this submission to be his lucky break. With that lump in my throat, I feed this representation he so carefully constructed into my all region player and wait for magic to happen. It’s not often that my expectation plays out.

The quality of the product entered into festivals has increased tremendously, both in film quality (thanks to digital) and material. However the number one problem we continue to see is poor writing (poorly conceived characters, lousy dialog, weak plot, and structural breakdown.) This list is in order of commonness of occurrence.

Number two is poor editing. There are some amazingly well-framed shots that will never be seen because the filmmaker didn't get material to put with the eye or didn't know when to change to another well shot frame. Stare at anything for sixty seconds. Now think about looking at that thing for that period of time with no sound in the room.

Budget isn’t the problem. Some of the worst films I’ve watched had a remarkable budget. Shorts with significant special effects, perfect color correction, spot on sound. No viewer will hold it against you if you don’t have the best camera, expert lighting or dazzling CGI. What will lose them in that sixty second introduction is the appearance of nothing. No visual, no character, no sound, and no dialog to pull them into the world they are eager to join.

How to spend your money when making a film:

Hire the best film editor you can afford (hopeful one that is also an amazing sound editor). It's life and death. It would be better if that person isn’t the director or the writer. A craftsman that knows when it’s time to shift off the beautiful sunset you accidently captured and on to the actor.

If you are not a writer, get one. Hopefully you can find a really good starving writer willing to contribute a script for cred and a potential Oscar nod.

Get talent. No, Uncle Nabob cannot play the lead role. I don't care if he was lead Pilgrim in the 5th grade harvest play. Only thing worse than amateurs is bad actors doing bad dialog.
Get a director that can find his ass with both hands. He doesn't have to be perfect; he just has to understand the script.

If you aren’t a cinematographer, hire a camera guy. Students are a great resource. They have learned to work the equipment at school; they can probably turn in part of it to meet some school requirement and will generally work for food. If you must man the camera yourself, at least try to make sure that you don’t film scenes that you can’t frame. It’s harder than you think to keep up with two actors in a staged fight. Buy, rent or steal a tripod and a dolly. A variation on your mother’s advice: Don’t run with cameras!

So what should you concentrate your tiny budget and endless imagination on? Something that will make me care I watched it. A character that will move me, a plot that has a beginning, middle and an end and visuals that convey the story well enough that if they forgot to run the subtitle edit, I still get the story. Certain genres are harder to succeed in than others.

Overdone, by species:

Lots and lots of horror, generally poorly written, crap special effects (tomato soup is NOT a good cheap alternative to makeup blood) bad acting and worse direction. That two minute hold on Angie's navel, in spite of that arts and craft belly button ring while Monster A breathes sinisterly in the background, just lost everyone. The good ones have a promising Act I then start to slide down the slope, dying quietly just before Act 3.. Asian horror is the current indy darling, with the adjectives sick and twisted always included. So the bench marks are original idea, sick, twisted and nothing too extreme: no stir fried babies. Strong second act, decent finish. Let the hero win, or the monster, just give me a reason to care which one.

Agony: I created this category to house the thousands of films where the entire crew thinks that staring at someone with a pained expression for five minutes will garner Oscar nods. This would include the love sick, the suicidal, the damaged by life, generally anyone prone to long periods of staring sadly into a camera in any location. I'm sorry grandma had to go to the nursing home. Seen that 109 times this week, truly I'm sorry but why is THIS grandmother different from the other 108? If you can tell me that, we have something to talk about.

What we'd like to see more of:

Comedy: Good comedy, any variety. A film that keeps you laughing (and not because of the terrible dialog) preferably something that doesn't have to air after 11 p.m. but there's an audience for that too. So if it’s raunchy, go for broke.

Art House: I'm not talking about somebody's rip off of another person's style, I'm talking about a true vision for a narrative approach that isn't what you'd find in a typical Hollywood film. Borrow from the masters, but don't copy them. Visually interesting in every frame, but with at least one character that is well drawn and a story line that at least has a beginning, middle, end and isn't so off the charts that you can't figure out at least what the filmmaker's impression of the story is. I think art house horror would be hot property.

Drama: Real drama. Characters we get into Situations that bring out the character's flaws and strengths. One I saw early on that has always stayed with me was Deep Shaft, a Chinese film that was so well done I quit reading the subtitles because the visuals carried the story. The premise was a couple of miners that would befriend a fellow miner with no family, then push him into a shaft and go collect his death benefit as family members. They didn't do this because they were bad, awful people. They did this to survive. Then they encounter this 16 year old boy working in the mine that fits their profile and there are no other good candidates. When it comes down to the end, there is a division between the two men about killing the boy. The boy is in the mine trying to earn enough money to go to high school because he has the grades. One of the most compelling scenes has a young girl holding up a sign begging for money to go to high school. After a brief exchange about grades, the boy takes his just cashed paycheck, drops some money into her bucket, then eats just bread instead of rice and bread like the other two men. That is universal. No need to translate.

Films that feature a mainstream gay or lesbian character: There is a separate category for G&L films at many festivals and in fact festivals that feature on films in this genre. By and large this category suffers from the same problems as all the others. With one exception; some filmmakers seem to think that this is a call for porn. Sex and nudity is okay, unless, well, that's all there is. Write a good character that happens to be gay orlesbian, back that up with a decent story and you'll be way ahead of the game.

The indy audience is smarter, hipper, looking for edgier material, a fresh voice, a new style. We get so excited when we uncover that gem in the pile of stones that we can't wait to get the other person to look at it to see if they like it too. It makes the hundreds of hours of horrible film worth watching. Which is why we keep coming back year after year to do the job again.

What is most interesting to me is that in the screening process we have a carefully selected demographic, gay, lesbian, male, female, old, young, film lovers, film buffs, film pros, conservatives, liberals, but when a film is good, it almost always gets the same rating be all of us. That speaks volumes. It’s true that personal taste accounts for something, but a well made film accounts for itself.

If you take these words into account and produce a nice little film, find a great festival and then sit back and wait to hear that you film has been accepted.

(Cat Stewart is a freelance writer currently living in Nashville, Tennessee. Her recent focus has been on writing screenplays and teleplays and putting together plans for a non-profit status production company aimed at helping filmmakers that have followed alternate career paths but have a passion for film. She also works with the film festival, screening entries for the festival’s programming needs.

Cat has published a variety of nonfiction articles and short stories through the years. Her work is currently featured in Greg and Roy Magazine and Higher Image.

In addition to freelance journalism, Cat has written ad copy for national corporations, advertising agencies and local businesses. She has written corporate manuals and technical manuals for a number of healthcare companies including Diversicare, GranCare, Inc. and SunHealth.

Cat completed the certificate program in Feature Film and Television writing at UCLA extension and plans to apply to the upcoming Master program.

Screenwriting awards:

Her spec teleplay, JAG -“Tainted Memories” placed tenth in the Writer’s Digest 74th competition, the only teleplay that was a finalist in a combined competition between original screenplays and teleplays.

Her spec short, Ashes to Anthrax, was an official selection of the 2009 GIAA film festival and is currently a semi finalist in the Expo screenplay contest and first round notification for American Gem Literary Short Contest.)