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!
Myth # 1: IT'S HARD TO BREAK INTO HOLLYWOOD!
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.
Myth #2: I'VE CREATED A FRANCHISE!
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.
Myth # 3: I CAN SELL MY OLD SCREENPLAY! JUST LET ME DUST IT OFF FIRST...AND REWRITE IT FOR THE EIGHTH TIME
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.
Myth #4: MY SCRIPT WON A CONTEST. IT'S READY FOR THE SPEC MARKET!
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.
Myth #5: MY SPEC IS AT LEAST AS GOOD AS HOLLYWOOD MOVIES THAT SUCK!
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.
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