From the Archive: I Write Screenplays

Nicolas-Cage-plays-both-Charlie-and-Donald-Kaufman-in-Columbias-Adaptation-2002-3

 

You want to be a screenwriter? You want to have an agent?  A few words of cautionary advice.

 

Part I. I write screenplays

Really? Some kid with an iMac portable. And the portable was paid for by his dad, and you’re sitting next to him. And his mum thinks you are the answer to young Liam’s problems, and her own. And you feel sorry you’re not a dental hygienist, or dead.

And Liam’s a punchy kid of 20 or 30 or 40 who feels you’ve got to listen. And he’s boring you. And you’ve read two scripts that day, and wish it were a movie, so you could stick an ice pick in his head.
Hello Liam – from all us script editors out here.

Screenwriting is not about glamour. It’s not getting paid for your work. Maybe for years. Maybe never. Doing without what you could have paid for if you had had that money. Holidays. Nice clothes. A flat. Self-esteem.
If you know that – this is for You. Before an agent, if you ever get one.

The Reader
If she’s in a production company she probably does a proper job during the day, and reads in her ‘free’ time. And she’s keen.
And keen means you get four hours.
Four hours – max.
That’s for reading, taking notes, and finally writing the report.
You’re judged in two pages. One’s a summary of your story. The second is looking at Plot, Characterisation, Structure, Dialogue, Tone, Style, Genre, Length. If you don’t understand any of these – really understand them – then buy a book. Don’t waste your time – or hers.

The Reader will say what she likes, or doesn’t like – objectively. She’ll make some comparisons, and think about production values, and how it fits in with her boss – the Producer. Then she’ll write: pass – consider – or – recommend. I have never written recommend.

The Script Editor
The Script Editor reads so much she looks like she puts on her mascara with a spray can. Her eyes hurt. They don’t focus very well after midnight.

The Script Editor gets paid for a phase of development.
She works on two or three scripts at a time, reads, and probably writes as well.
She reads ten+ hours a day. She’s read hundreds, maybe thousands of scripts. She’s liked perhaps two dozen.

She gets scripts which have Producers attached. People are staking money on the project. She is getting paid.
Many scripts go into development and don’t go anywhere.
If you are writing, get the Producer to show good faith and pay you.
Buy the PACT guidelines on pay from The Writers’ Guild London (£10), or talk to the Writers’ Centre in Dublin. If the Producer is not willing to hand out some cash, they don’t believe in your project. No matter what they say.
Get some money. No one will respect you less.
Do not start acting the prima donna. Do that, and all these hard working people will smile politely and close the door. And you will be outside.

If you’re working with a Script Editor they’ll write three or four sets of notes for you, and meet you two or three times. Prepare for these meetings.

Know what questions you want to ask. Make sure the Script Editor knows your script almost as well as you do. If they don’t, they’re not doing their job. The Script Editor should genuinely want to help you and be enthusiastic.

The Producer
Judge a Producer by what he’s done. How many people work in the company? Does it have a Head of Development, or some blonde who makes the Producer’s quality of life better?

Look on the Internet Movie Database for his credits. Don’t be afraid to ask about his experience. Find out who he knows. The Irish Producer lives on Co-Productions and soft money. Money from the EC and State. It’s his ability to raise money, and what he can offer in return which matters. Ask the Producer questions. Learn. This could well be where you’ll want to be in 10 years.

Lastly – give the guy a break. He is a shark, and he will screw you as surely as the fact you’re friendless and needy and don’t know the ropes. But, at the end of the day, he might get your film made, and get you a credit, and there are 1000 easier ways of making money than film production.

The Agent
There are no Agents in Ireland who give a toss about screenwriters.
Buy the Artist & Writers Yearbook, and look at London. If you’ve written for TV or theatre they’ll be much more amenable – otherwise it’s production company values. Submit script. Wait four months. Miss Blonde Totty will use it as a coffee mat. I’ve seen scripts lost. Scripts thrown out – unread.

It’s Sunday morning. Ten o’clock. I get up, make a cup of tea. Look at the table – two scripts. If you think I can think of nothing I’d rather do than read your script on my Sunday – Well?
Script 1. Wrong formatting. This fucker doesn’t even bother to format his script right. It’s 135 pages, in 10 font. Am I suddenly blind or stupid? If the first five pages aren’t great – and I mean great – Butch Cassidy – then I’ll have your report finished by 12.

Script 2. Prose. The writer is the main character. Evidently. The cover page has MA Screenwriting. With distinction. And it’s a clueless litany of PC platitudes which simply proves yet again that talent is neither democratic or fair. Here are her problems, sensitively weeped all over the page, not dramatised. The strictly personal, from the universal. And there it sits, on the table, like a big turd, and I put a clothes peg on my nose, and type the report wondering who teaches these courses. And I’m suddenly sorry again that my dog died last year, as I can’t throw it at him.
Work over, and it’s still only two o’clock.

Learn to write
Develop a critical faculty. Look at www.hundland.com – choose a script.
Look for the key scenes – the scenes where the action turns. Choose a scene. How does the story change through the scene? What are the ‘beats’? What’s driving the scene? What’s the relationship between character and action? Is exposition being given? What Act is this? Break the screenplay down. If you know the significant moments in a movie, you’ve got the structure.

II. I want an Agent

Most people who think they can write – can’t.

It is sometimes worth bearing in mind, if most people can’t write, and you are a ‘screenwriter’, what makes you so certain you can?
A good writer has an Agent, but not all writers who have Agents are good writers. Good writers have good Agents.

Most Agents are honest, hardworking, and genuinely interested in writing. They are also smart. Do not treat them as if you’re doing them a favour.
Agents will develop your writing career through their contacts in the business, both in the UK and the US. They will negotiate contracts and deal with Entertainment lawyers. They will give you expert feedback on your script, and make recommendations. They are your best friend. They fight your battles. They help you. They clear the way for a better deal for you. A better tomorrow.

Here are some points to bear in mind:

1. Do some research on Agents who specialise in film screenplays.

Make a polite phone call and ask them what their policy is, and on the type of scripts they are interested in. Certain Agencies are more geared to developing new talent, even people without previous production credits. Some provide a reading service.

2. Write a clear and very simple letter. Simple – not ten pages.
Do not e-mail it, unless you check first that it’s OK.
Do not fax it.
Describe what you’ve written briefly, and explain if you have credible credits previously, and what you realistically hope for your work.
Briefly – not pages. A good Agent will know from this letter whether or not they’re interested in you. They read that many letters, and that many scripts, that they’ll know from experience whether you’re worth investing in or not.
If the Agent is interested, they will ask to read the work – a feature length script is the norm – and if they’re still interested after that, they will probably invite you in for a chat.
Agents will probably receive between 20-40 scripts a week, and will choose to read two.
Work it out yourself.
Bigger agencies can get 3000 scripts a year.
They will look only at those which have been forwarded to them by reliable contacts in Production companies, or screenplays which have been ‘optioned’. An option is in itself no guarantee. Some truly dreadful film scripts have been optioned, others are going nowhere.

Do not: write a zany letter, or a one-liner which tells them nothing about the work.

3. Do your own research, and know the market and as much about the film business as you can.

Read Screen International or Variety. Find out about what companies have what films on their slate. Know where your own film fits in, and what movies it shares themes or other elements with. Better agencies, such as Jill Foster Ltd, produce a guide every few weeks called ‘Who’s looking for what’.
Research extends to knowing what an Agent doesn’t want.
Sci-fi and Period drama is expensive to produce, and will not be picked up by some Agents.
Be realistic.
There is a need for low budget dramas, strong human interest stories with three-dimensional characters who hold the public’s interest and empathy.
Yet again, think of the recent Danish movies and why they work.
It’s doesn’t hurt to know the demographics of who your film’s for.
Don’t be lazy.

4. Good Agencies will want to develop your writing, and your career.
They’ll take the long-term view on you. They like writers, and are actively looking for new talent, people with something original to say, people who’ve found their ‘voice’.
Such Agencies will not be interested in adaptations on your first approach. They will say no to writing partnerships.
They want evidence that You can write.
The Rod Hall Agency, which represents the writers of The Full Monty, Billy Eliot, Mrs Brown, is an example of a specialist agency which is particularly open and writer-friendly (to their clients).

They have the ear of UK film and TV producers and broadcasters, and their US counterparts. They have good relationships with all the people who matter, and will place you with a Hollywood Agent if it’s in your interests.

5. The most important thing for you to concentrate on is your writing.
If you really have nothing to say, if you’re copying the latest gangster fad – then don’t send it to an Agent. They won’t even bother being annoyed. They just won’t read it – and they’ll be right.

Have the guts to say something new – something relevant.
Read screenplays. Watch movies. Be original.

The Agent.
What does he or she want?
Something fresh – something new.
To make contact with your characters, and feel what they feel. To be taken into your story.
The Agent will make you money, and knows how to plan out your career so that you can be ‘a writer’ – really – as your job.

6. Money.
As a cub, a first timer, you will probably be getting paid
£50,000 for your script.
This may sound a lot, or not a lot of money.
For 50K you’ll write the first draft, then revisions. Then a second draft, with revisions.
After that there’s the Writer’s cut off – where the Producer can get someone else in to write it.

Some Producers won’t give you the second bite at the cherry.
Some Agents will insist on it.

Every Agent is different. Every project is different. Every writer is different.
It’s up to you to go out there and prove to a good Agency that they should risk their time, money, and reputation on You.
One last thing: No means NO.

Useful web-sites on who and what Agents are looking for/ aren’t looking for: www.rodhallagency.com & www.bbc.co.uk/blast

 

This article originally appeared in Film Ireland Magazine, Issue 92 in 2003.

Share

2 Replies to “From the Archive: I Write Screenplays”

  1. Do you mind if I quote a couple of your posts as long as I provide credit
    and sources back to your site? My blog is in the exact
    same area of interest as yours and my visitors would genuinely benefit from some
    of the information you provide here. Please let me know if this ok with
    you. Thank you!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *