I had a hell of a birthday last month… it’s been nearly three weeks, and now I’m finally getting around to writing about it.
Marvin Acuna of The Business of Show Institute (BOSI) invited myself and 9 other screenwriters down to Hollywood to sit in on a discussion 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 studios.
Sam flew in from the set of Battle: Los Angeles to chat with Marvin about the current state of the film business, how it’s affecting screenwriters, and what he looks for in a project. Here are my notes on the conversation.
- 320 screenplays “hit the market” to date in 2009 (spec screenplays repped at the studio level). Of those, 16% were purchased.
- Writers must be prepared to do much more than simply write. They need to be prepared to act like producers, to be proactive about getting attachments, to be creative about their pitches, to go the extra mile. It’s not just about writing any more.
- The director who won the job for Battle: Los Angeles beat out the studio’s short list of 3 preferred directors by holing up in his basement studio, shooting footage, cobbling together some CGI, and presenting exactly what he envisioned the film looking like. Much more than the simple “look book” of old movie stills and sketches provided by the average director.
- The writer who won the job of scribing the new Baywatch movie (Jeremy Garelick – The Breakup and The Hangover [uncredited]) landed the job by volunteering to write fully a third of the script on spec… and this is a guy who’s a working pro who doesn’t have to do that.
- You must have two great samples that demonstrate voice, structure and character.
- You must be prepared to explain how you’re going to help pull the production together… how you are a creative asset to the team beyond simply writing a professional script. Or, have such incredible kick-ass concepts that you can spit on a napkin and have it be brilliant. Guess which one you probably are?
- Know how to read between the feedback lines… producers aren’t writers, and they’re sometimes obtuse about communicating what they’re looking for. When they say “That’s great, but can we add aliens somewhere?” they don’t literally mean “add aliens”… but they mean they’re looking for something spectacular and unexpected, and it’s your job to understand that and to creatively provide it.
- You cannot submit to the studios without representation… agency, management or minimally a connected entertainment attorney.
- The last blacklist – the mythical list of amazing spec scripts making the rounds that all the execs are talking about but will never make because they’re not commercial enough – was largely drama. Which tells you that your drama script might be a good calling card (writing sample), but it ain’t gonna get bought or made.
Above all, you must have these three things:
- A passion for movies
- An ability to take criticism – Listen, Hear, Process
After the talk, we were given a tour of the facility by President/Director Ken Locsmandi. What a great place… a fully functional end-to-end soup-to-nuts facility, that has been providing fx work to the larger studios for years (City of Ember, You Don’t Mess with the Zohan, Juno, Apocalypto). They’re right next door to, and partnered closely with, New Deal Studios (The Dark Knight, X-Men: The Last Stand, Live Free or Die Hard, Spiderman 3), which we also got to tour.
We had to sign NDA’s, so if I say too much I’ll have to kill you, but we did get to see the bad guy’s dump truck from The Dark Knight, the VTOL fighter jet from Live Free or Die Hard (not an actual existing style of jet, we learned, but an amalgam of several different jets), a number of space ships from projects not yet released, and lots of other simply way cool stuff that we all felt very privileged to see. Shelves and shelves of amazing miniatures, recognizable vehicles and creatures and landscapes… like stumbling into Santa’s workshop.
And then lastly, we all retired to a great little ocean side Italian eatery for lunch, where we sat around and talked movies, writing and networking ideas. I got to see some folks I’ve met before and have been staying in touch with online, and some new friends, all of whom are forming the base of my growing community of contacts.
Lots of what I heard at the event is stuff that’s beginning to sound familiar… the bullet points above didn’t come as a big surprise. But what’s valuable about trips like these is that it’s an opportunity to hear these points again, to have it made clear that yes, everyone from the writers to the agents to the producers to the execs are telling a consistent story: Hollywood is knowable, and crackable, if you know what to bring to the table.
That’s the great service Marvin and his crew at BOSI, and all the players that he makes accessible are doing… showing us aspiring writers that Hollywood is a small town, and that although it’s tough to break into, it is knowable. It’s not a mystery. Marvin, Sam, Ken and all the folks at the studios were so friendly, accessible and accommodating… they clearly all love what they do, love to share it, and are truly supportive of newbies like us. You can tell that they want everyone to succeed. It’s just that it’s a very small pond, with room for a very few writers (relatively speaking), and so the ones that make it are going to be those who bring a lot more to the table than just stories. They’ll be bringing a collaborative spirit, a professional demeanor, and a personality that other people are going to want to spend time around for the next 18-24 months – or more.
I know that’s me. Is it you?