Marilyn Horowitz (author of “How to Write a Screenplay in 10 Weeks” and creator of The Horowitz System®, award-winning university professor, producer, screenwriter, script consultant and [stops for breath] successful writing coach) has a Twitter stream dedicated to crafting a group screenplay. Follow the tweets, add a line at a time (140 characters only of course) — just send her your next line of the script as a private message at twitter.com/tweetamovie — and watch it grow.
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.
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.
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
I’ve got my scripts on inktip.com, in the hopes that they’ll be seen and read by producers looking for new properties. Inktip is a legit site, they do a decent job screening the “producers”, vetting their resumes before allowing them access so we can be reasonably assured that whoever is looking at our stuff is not a poser. It costs for writers to post their features, which run for six months.
Producers can go into the system, run a search (for, say, a “family comedy” with a budget under 10M) and with any luck, your entry turns up in their search results as a title and a logline.
Then, they can click through to view your synopsis, and even download your script to read. From there, they contact you to buy it and produce it starring whatever reality-show loser was a guest on Jimmy Kimmel the week before, and pay you loads of money for the privilege. (Don’t tell me that’s not how it works… lalalalala!)
We’ve had a crapload of producers see our logline (it turned up in their results, anyway — whether they read it or not is another matter). We’ve had exactly 14 go on to the synopsis. And exactly ONE actually download the script. It was Cube Vision… Ice Cube’s prodco, responsible for films like Barber Shop, Are We There Yet and Are We Done Yet. I think the script could be perfect for them, with some tweaking. But alas, we heard nothing. Weird thing is (as allowed by the rules) I dropped them a line (snail mail) to the address listed, and it bounced back “No Longer At This Address”. So we’ll never know what happened.
Oh well. Maybe I should pitch something called “Are We Sold Yet”.
The jury’s out on inktip… I’d like to have had more action after nine months, but I’ll let it ride a while longer.
How did we get everyone to show up on a weekday? Don’t these people have jobs? I don’t know… but it’s a Monday shoot and we’ve got a bunch of dedicated volunteers here again.
Today we’re shooting the first and last scenes in the story… funny how that worked out. We’ve got a small white empty room that we’re turning into a doctor’s exam room, and another small empty green room that needs to become a mortuary lab. Both are empty when we arrive… we have to dress them both. Fast.
First scenes first… we’ll shoot the opening in the doctor’s office. It’s a super simple set… intended to look kind of surreal, like a doctor’s office might look in a dream. Not a lot of dressing or equipment, just the icons of a doctor’s office… a padded exam table with paper stretched across it, an eye chart, and a wall clock. One short rolling stool for the doctor to sit on, and we’re done.
Of course, we have no exam table. We have a folding table with a vinyl chaise cushion on it, and a length of paper across it. We frame the shot just at the bottom edge of the pad, so we don’t see the table… Bill (Chad Davies) sits on the table, centered in frame, buttons his shirt and then waits uncomfortably for the doc to show up. It’s what we call our “lonely guy” shot, and I hold it for an uncomfortably long time before signaling the doc to enter scene. Again, it’s all played out in one long take as the doc enters and delivers the bad news to Bill. No cuts, no inserts till the end when the fantasy sequence kicks in (more about those another time).
There’s some medical jargon… “The infection’s responding to the broad-spectrum sulphanimides…” but luckily, our actor (Ken Keonig) who plays the doctor actually is a doctor. Not only is medical jargon familiar to him, but he was able to provide his own lab coat and stethoscope. Sweeeet for a no-budget shoot…
The scene, again, is designed for that long take… so all the dialog, medical jargon and all, has to go off end t0 end without a cut. We go at it several times, we try one alternative setup, and we grab an insert shot of the clock on the wall. I’ve also brought along the Felix the Cat wall clock that I wanted to have in Kayla’s apartment. We used it on that set yesterday, but never got the insert of it. So we hang it on the wall here, and shoot it… of course, the wall color’s all wrong, but we’ll fix that in post. The editor loves to hear that.
Now it’s time to shoot the “fantasy sequence”, one shot of which is Bill in a hospital bed with his wife Cassie (Kimberly Parrish) at his side. We get Bill to lie down on the same “bed”, throw a sheet over him, hang an IV and a shower curtain behind him, and then call Kimberly to come on down from work (a few blocks away). No dialog, MOS. Bing Bang Boom, we got our shots. Outside for one more fantasy shot in a planter in the parking lot (again MOS – Kimberly runs dirt through her hands) and we break for lunch.
After lunch we’ll be shooting the final scene in the movie… Kayla and Bill together in the mortuary lab. It’s the last scene to shoot, and it’s literally the last scene in the film. I’ve been troubled with the last scene (in particular the last lines) from the beginning. It’s a great little script, with a cool hook and good story structure… but I just haven’t been able to wrap myself around those last lines. The writer (Skot Christopherson) is very dedicated to that scene and those lines… I asked for a rewrite, but he really wants it to stay as is. Or at least, if it gets changed, he’d prefer it were someone other than he that makes the changes… I’ve discussed it with a number of people, and I’m getting a lot of support for a change… what to do?
During lunch, I take off to the cafe next door. I’ve got a blank pad and a pen, a copy of the script, and a sandwich.
I stare at the pad for a long time. I re-read the scene. Skot had inserted some changes into earlier scenes that I’d asked for, which conceivably would support the sort of ending I was thinking about. I write a few lines of dialog… I can’t go way off book, since nearly the balance of the film is in the can. But something starts to flow. I think about who the movie is really about (to me anyway) — who’s scene should this final scene be? Kaya? Bill? Kayla and Bill? What about Bill’s wife Cassie? In the context of the film, we won’t have seen her since the third scene… and now, Kimberly is back at work.
Just then Gina drops by the table with her hubby, Greg Camp (of Smashmouth fame) to say hi. He’s a very nice guy, and he ends up hanging around the shoot for a while. In the end, Greg and Gina help us out with some amazing music for the soundtrack… more on that another time.
I finally put something together that I think will work, and I call in the actors… Chad and Gina read it through with me, help me refine it. I think it’s gonna work… we’ll see what happens on set.
The little green room we had has been filled up by our Art folks… a white melamine exam table, a table filled with bottles and jars and stainless steel sharp things, a work lamp. I have no idea what a mortuary exam lab looks like (save the usual Law and Order/CSI insight) but this looks cool. It’s a family mortuary, after all. More like Six Feet Under. I like it, and it looks good on screen.
We shoot out the scene… it’s getting later and later, our DP Matthew has to get home really soon. I keep asking for more takes… again, it’s a long take with lots of dialogue. There’s a pan in it, some business (flipping back the sheet, walking around the table, hopping up on the table) and so a few takes are needed to get it all down in a take. But again, our actors come through, it all looks good, and we’re finally done. Matthew is really ready to go.
BUT – I also want to shoot the original end, the writer’s end. It’s only fair. We need to try both, to give it its fair due. So we run the scene two more times, with the original dialogue. We’ll make a final decision in the edit.
We break down the set and once again (hopefully) leave our location just as we found it… and I think Matthew made it home in time.
The last scenes are outdoor scenes… one, a long conversation walking down the sidewalk. We’ll be steadicamming that one. Another, a long conversation in a moving car (truck, actually) which we’ll be towing behind my pickup. Lastly, a short scene outside the Mortuary… for which we got permission to shoot outside an actual Mortuary. There’s a mini-jib in that one.
We’ll be shooting that all out next weekend, in one day.
That should be fun.