Awaken The Professional Screenwriter Within

This is the longest post ever (so far). I apologize in advance. It’s worth it.

I just got back from a two day seminar in Hollywood, called “Awaken The Professional Screenwriter Within”, hosted by producer Marvin Acuna (Exec Producer of the new John Malkovich / Colin Hanks film “The Great Buck Howard“).

I first heard about this through Inktip.com‘s newsletter… they recommended the seminar, and I looked into it. Man, am I glad I did.

It cost me to go… nearly $400 for the seminar, plus travel and lodging. I stayed at the Farmer’s Daughter (retro, kitschy, kinda pricey, but nice) right across from the Farmer’s Market (so cool, wish I could go all the time) and The Grove (like Disneyland’s Main Street meets Vegas but with no fat tourists — just beautiful ones) at the corner of Fairfax and 3rd. Even as I was driving down (it’s about a six hour drive, and I like road trips — plus the freedom of having my own ride once I’m there) I kept thinking “what if this is a scam? Who is this Marvin Acuna, and if he’s so successful, why’s he taking the time to take my money? Is this going to be worth it?”

I needn’t have worried. Marvin is the real deal… well connected, successful, and a good guy… not “Hollywood” in the ways we on the outside so fear. He’s got a good film coming out, several done, TV shows in development, and so on. He’s a guy who emigrated here from Guatamala as a kid, came to Hollywood 15 years ago to make it, and has worked his way up the hard way.

And here’s what I like best. He knows that it’s the screenwriters who make things tick… that his success hinges on talented people writing good properties that he and his colleagues can turn into successful films. He also knows that it’s a business… that you have to know how to play the game, you have to know how to behave professionally, you have to know what NOT to do, to have a shot. And he knows that the more screenwriters he can educate about those things, the more GOOD properties being pitched by PREPARED and PROFESSIONAL screenwriters there will be for him to develop.

Good screenwriters alone won’t make it. Good screenwriters who understand the business, know how to behave, know how to partner with producers and agents, who know (as Marvin says) to “Be the CEO of their own careers”, will make it. So creating more of those kind of screenwriters is in his, his colleagues, the writer’s, and the industry’s best interest.

And that’s the point of this seminar, by the way. It’s not “how to write” screenplays, it assumes you know (or think you know) how to do that. It’s about how to be a “professional” — how to act like one, and eventually be one, by navigating the business of Hollywood.

I can’t say enough good things about this weekend. And I won’t try. But here’s a rundown on the guests, the high points, and a few takeaways I got from the experience. To learn the rest, you’ll just have to keep track of Marvin’s blog — he’s got free video tips, interviews with some quality players, and the occasional teleconference with agents, writers, producers and the like. Sign up… he’ll let you know when the next one is.

Oh — it was held at the WGAw headquarters at Fairfax and 3rd. They’ve got a great library of classic scripts you can go in and read. Do it if you get the chance.

DAY ONE:

Jill Cutler — President of Irwin Winkler Films (Rocky, Raging Bull, Goodfellas) gave her insights into what actors, directors and producers are looking for in a script (a meaty story or character – does your script have one?), how to approach them without an agent (query letters via email are acceptable), and what questions she’s asking herself when she’s looking at a script (How am I going to sell it upstream? What execs do I know who would love this? Why would name director X want to direct this? Why would name star Z want to star in this?).

Nadine de Barros — VP International Sales for Dean Devlin’s Voltage Pictures (his distribution arm). She talked about how the funding works (even Hollywood needs angels to close the gap), where she goes to get money for films (loans against presold territories), how she’s using pre-sales of international distribution rights to generate funds, why Judd Apatow films aren’t a good bet for overseas distribution (too culturally specific), which genres are hot for overseas and how long they should be (thrillers, horror, action, prebranded properties at 100 mins or less), and more.

Jon Brown, a partner in Ensemble Entertainment, is primarily a literary agent for novelists and screenwriters, as well as a producer (here’s an article about Jon). Jon explained what kind of spec script will get the attention of the studios (action, horror, thriller, properties based on books, R rated comedies), what he looks for in a script (strong concept, sell it in the first 25 pages, interesting characters, three solid acts, less than 120 pages), how to pitch (10-12 minutes, clear act breaks, highlight the trailer moments), the secrets of networking (don’t sell), the questions a writer should ask a new potential agent, manager or producing partner (do you take newbie writers?), whether you should make a trailer for your script (can’t hurt), and why adapting a book (even one nobody’s heard of) can give you a leg up on the competition — and how to do it. Oh, and he told the story of how (and why) he was able to accidentally sell the rights to his own life story. If only you’d been there.

Tim Swain, a domestic distribution expert and a producer (Dahmer, Gacy) talked about the steps your script will go through with a producer/distributor on the way to their deciding whether to pick it up. And he told us what he’s really looking for in a script himself (quality writing, good concepts that don’t require “stars”).

Mark Lagrimas talked about the dark secret side of studio business… the analysts. Mark worked as an analyst for  Disney, ABC, The Disney Channel, SONY, FOX, Warner and MGM. He explained the role of the analyst (he can tell you at a glance the REAL numbers behind production, promotion, distribution and merchandising for your film, the films like it from the past five years, what the likely TV, DVD and VOD number will be, and more… without breaking a sweat) and gave a power point presentation called “How To Sell Your Movie To The Majors — The Analyst’s Experience”. This is the guy who convinced the suits at Disney that High School Musical was something they had to do (“Singing Teenagers?” they said. “You have to do this… it’s the next Grease” he said, again and again until they finally relented). Mark is now a freelance analyst to the studios, will do an analysis of your property for a fee (how’d you like to have some real numbers in your back pocket when you’re pitching?) and has just launched a production company called Rare Breed Entertainment — so new there’s not even a website yet. This is a good guy to know.

Victoria Wisdom is a partner in the Becsey Wisdom Kalajian literary agency. She’s been involved with the development and production of The Usual Suspects, The Red Violin, G.I. Jane, CRASH, Million Dollar Baby and more. Victoria talked about all aspects of the business — how to act like a professional (don’t swoon – if you sound, talk and think like a pro, you’ll be treated like a pro), what online resources she uses on a daily basis to stay informed (see the film links at the bottom of this page), what the biggest genres are and why (1=Action, 2=Comedy, 3=Thriller, 4=Drama), the average cost to make a film, and what we need to do to be taken seriously in the business (offer value as a business partner).

Why did all these busy pros take time out of their weekend to talk to a room full of unknowns? Because they know what Marvin knows… that if they help build better, more professional screenwriters, everyone wins.

DAY TWO:

We worked on our pitches in teams, helped one another refine our speil, then did some role playing, pitching our scripts to the class (and to Marvin) and getting some honest feedback.

Then we all went to THE LOT, sat in a tiny screening room with a few other select guests, the writer/director Sean McGinly, and got a sneak peek at The Great Buck Howard, Marvin’s latest film that releases this month (March 2009).

OVERALL: Amazing. Educational. Inspiring. Worth every penny. If you get a chance, DO IT.

TAKEAWAYS: Wherein Chip tells what he learned in Hollywood while schmoozing and eating cajun food at The Farmer’s Market.

ONE: This is probably the biggest single meta lesson I took away: Hollywood really works like indie filmmaking, but with lots more money. That is to say, I hear indie filmmakers complain all the time that “Hollywood is rigged! It’s not WHAT you know it’s WHO you know! They’ve got all the money and all they make is crap! They just want to work with their friends in the good ol’ boy network! I’m gonna make a crappy slasher film cuz it’s what I know will get distribution! Nobody will distribute my talky art film! Wah!”

Thing is, then they’ll turn around and talk about how indie filmmakers need to stick together… they need to form alliances, help each other out, do favors for one another. They work with their friends, they like to work with people they know and trust, they ask other filmmakers for references for cast and crew, and they struggle to make deals work. And, irony of ironies, they whine about how hard it is to get a “name” attached (read “Hollywood cache”) so someone will take their film seriously.

Well, Hollywood works the same way. Of course it’s WHO you know… people in Hollywood want to work with people they like, people who deliver, and people who come recommended by someone they trust. They struggle to find funding (Nadine de Barros — VP International Sales for Dean Devlin’s Voltage Pictures – talked at length about the struggles they’ve got to go through to find their funding for new productions… distribution presales, loans at the bank against the presales, loans at the bank to close the gap, and then the ubiquitous “angels” for the last of it.) Just like you, they can get better money for distribution if they’ve got “names” attached, and if they can show a track record of successful projects in the past… which are easier to replicate if you work with people you know, trust and come recommended. Sure, the Studios make a lot of crap, but believe it or not, they all know it’s crap. It’s a BUSINESS. They have to make a lot of crap, the “tent poles”, to support the industry. Those are the films that essentially subsidize the smaller films, the “art” films, the “indie” films (or “mini-majors”, or whatever you want to call them).

And similarly, we screenwriters need to come to grips with the possibility that we’ll have to write a few “tent poles” to subsidize our personal art projects. John August, writer of Big Fish, Go and The Nines, writes a lot of crap he doesn’t want to write (Charlie’s Angels), and that allows him the leverage to write some things he wants to write. (By the way, John’s got one of the best screenwriting blogs going – check it every day at JohnAugust.com.)

In a nutshell, Hollywood by and large works the same way indie film works, but with bigger budgets. You want to make it in Hollywood, think like an indie… think about what you have to offer, how you can help, how you can make yourself an asset, how you can partner with people to make things happen rather than waiting for them to hand you a golden ticket. Inform yourself. Be a professional. Be someone people want and like to work with.

TWO: Treat it like a job. Set aside time to write, every day. Write something aimed at the top most popular, most profitable, easiest to distribute genres.

THREE: Concept is king. Whatever your genre, have a great unique concept. Duh, right? Use the term High Concept if you like (it’s not a dirty word) and be able to pitch it in a few short sentences (One if it’s truly High Concept). But here’s the deal: EXECUTE it well. It’s not enough to have a great concept, you need to execute it well — well crafted plot, clear characters with some kind of arc. You want to write good scripts, not crap, right? So find yourself a good concept, then execute the hell out of it. You’re the writer. Take the challenge. (Now, the studio, director, producer, additional writers may reduce it to less than the sum of its parts… but your job is to get it sold in the first place.)

FOUR: Be informed. Stay up on news in the industry. Know who’s buying what, who got fired/hired/promoted/bought. Read The Hollywood Reporter, Nikki Finke, Done Deal, Variety (see the links on the bottom of every page here). Spend an hour or two every day staying informed. Knowledge is power.

FIVE: Be connected. You don’t have to live in Hollywood to work in Hollywood (thank God!). Not that it wouldn’t help, but online social networking is the key to the kingdom for those of us living in the nether regions… LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter at the top of the list.

  • LinkedIn is good for professional networking… save your connections for real pros whom you’ve worked with and you know… keep the socializing to a minimum. The film industry hasn’t really latched onto LinkedIn yet, but they will… be there first. Join, build your profile, and make some connections.
  • Facebook is more prevelent right now in H’wood, and well worth doing. It’s got a more social angle to it, a MySpace for grown-ups, but still well worth doing. A good way to keep your contacts up to date on what you’re doing now. Join, build your profile, and start schmoozing.
  • Twitter seems silly to me, but it’s the hot thing right now, so get on. Find some real pro’s to “follow”, send some regular “tweets” yourself, see what happens. I’ve joined but haven’t “tweeted” yet. I feel silly just saying it.
  • BLOG! Write a blog, update it regularly, keep information about yourself and your career fresh and interesting. You can use Blogger, WordPress or any one of many others, but do it. I use WORDPRESS.

And lastly, I walked away with a bunch of new contacts… the beginnings of my new professional circle of colleagues.. all the great writers in the class (students, producers, TV writers among them) as well as some extra special contact info for some of the presenters that is privileged “just for attendees” type stuff… sorry.

That’s more than enough. And this is just the tip of the iceberg. If you can attend one of Marvin’s seminars, do it. If you can’t, stay in touch with his blog, watch his videos, listen in on his teleseminars (they’re worth it).

Now go write.

“You are the CEO of your own career.” — Marvin Acuna

Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,

3 thoughts on “Awaken The Professional Screenwriter Within

  1. [...] linkedin Well, according to all the experts at the screenwriting seminar I went to a couple weeks ago, it’s critical to Hollywood networking to be on LinkedIn, [...]

  2. [...] with Sony V.P. Samuel Dickerman (Marvin’s BOSI is an amazing resource… this is my second event with them).  The event was held on the lot at Filmworks/FX [...]

  3. Linda Robbins says:

    Is there a way that I can talk to you directly? I have an unusual screenplay. I know… everyone does. But this one has a twist to it that makes it stand out. One of the principle characters is dead, and famous, and he wants his story told. The real story. I don’t have Hollywood contacts. I’ve been sending out query letters to no avail. I was thinking about giving it to Marvin Acuna to read but there is the caveat — never pay money to get your screenplay read– to think about along with the fact that I am rather poor.

Leave a Reply