Screenwriters -- Stop Writing Screenplays Now!
by Stephen Kogon
Rated "PG" by the Author.
edited: Thursday, March 24, 2005
Posted: Thursday, March 24, 2005
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Well, not exactly, but now that I have your attention, let me explain further.
Iíve been a screenwriter for 15 years. Iíve had several scripts optioned, including by Jennie Lew Tugend (producer of the ďFree WillyĒ movies) and Roger Paradiso (producer of ďThe Thomas Crown AffairĒ). Iíve had a script in which a director and casting director were hired, sets were being built, and discussions with name actors were taking place, only to have it all collapse at the very last moment. This was even after being told by the producers that they'd never had a project go that far without being made. Mine somehow did. Iíve also had a script make the semifinals of the Nicholl Fellowship in Screenwriting Competition and had another one become a winner the Producers Outreach Program sponsored by the Scriptwriters Network. And yes, Iíve had agents and managers. Iíve had an awful lot, but what I didn't have was an outright sale of a script to a studio.
However, I continued to write screenplays, whether starting new ones or rewriting old ones. One of those was a script Iíd been working on for several years with a producer who has a deal with a production company at Fox. Iíd done at least twenty rewrites of this script and when I finished my latest draft, I gave it to him. He got back to me about a week later and told me he thought the script looked pretty good now, but there was a whole new problem. He said the script read like it was written by a guy who was in his mid-30s. I told him that was probably because I was a guy who was in his mid-30s. However, that bit of logic didnít stop him. He had a remedy for this problem. And here's what it was. Drumroll pleaseÖHe wanted me to rewrite the script as if I were a 22-year-old guy who just graduated from USC Ė because he could sell that guy. He didnít want me to just take on the mindset of a 22-year-old, he wanted me to pretend to be an actual 22-year-old throughout the whole process. And he was dead serious.
Well, after having visions of being checked for ID by studio executives, I told him I wasnít comfortable with that idea. After I hung up with him, I realized he wasnít going to send this script out to anyone unless I did the rewrite his way. I was frustrated. I really liked and believed in this script and I spent an awful lot of time working on it. But I also had finally reached the point where I seriously felt that the business of screenwriting no longer made any sense.
So, I sat down and reevaluated. I knew that the best way to get a script sold was to have one of the "really good" agents represent you. I define ďreally goodĒ by the ones you see in the trades every day (Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, or in scriptsales.com). There are a lot of agents and managers in this business, but letís be honest, most of them never sell spec screenplays. To studios at least. Either that or they purposefully donít like being in the trades. I suppose this is possible. After all, agents are notoriously known for their shyness and modesty. Okay, maybe not.
Anyway, Iím not saying donít get one of these non-spec selling agents, just donít have high expectations of them actually selling your screenplay to a studio. Maybe some can get you occasional rewrite work or get your script optioned by some small production company that probably won't be able to sell it to a studio either, but if youíre solely a features writer, thatís probably the best they can do.
So, knowing that, how do you get one of these ďreally goodĒ agents? Well, If I knew that, I would have done it already. While not impossible, the odds are not even close to being good. Maybe you have to have great connections, which most of us donít. On top of that, you would need to have the perfect script (by their definition) at the perfect time (that magical thing known as timeliness). Again, those odds arenít very good.
So, knowing that, I had to determine if there was another way. And I feel I have. It was something that I, and I imagine many of you, already knew, but never actually thought about. Ask yourself, what scripts are being bought by the studios? If you check the trades, you'll see that the vast majority of them come from a pre-existing source.
Those would be comic books (Spider-Man, X-Men), novels (Lemony Snickets, Mystic River, The Da Vinci Code), video games (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Mortal Kombat), theme park rides (Pirate of the Caribbean, The Haunted Mansion), and old TV shows (Starsky and Hutch, The Dukes of Hazzard.).
So, thereís your answer. Build a theme park ride. Okay, maybe thatís still not the best option. Maybe you could write a TV show, get that made, then wait thirty years when someone will nostalgically want to make it into a film. Okay, still not the best way. Why donít we rule out creating a video game, too, for the purpose of this article. So that leaves us with novels and comic books/graphic novels.
For this article, Iím going to focus on books, since that is the route I chose. I simply decided to start turning my screenplays into novels. If you have a published novel, you then have an actual product that an actual audience can read. And there's something very exhilarating about knowing that your hard work might actually be seen by real people. With a script, you give it to an agent or producer and wait. With a book, there are literally hundreds of ways to market and promote it to reach readers, especially with the advent of the Internet. And not only do you have traditional bookstores, but there's Online bookstores (Amazon.com, barnesandnoble.com, plus hundreds of smaller ones) and thousands of libraries.
The goal, of course, can and should be to still get your screenplays sold and made into movies. We are all well aware that the decision-makers in Hollywood aren't the biggest risk-takers. So go out and get an audience for your book. Then share your sales numbers with producers. Then share with them your positive testimonials and reviews. Then top it off by showing them you already have the screenplay written.
Does all of this guarantee a script sale? Of course not. But, your chances of having a sale are greatly enhanced. And you know what else is greatly enhanced? That your script will actually be filmed. How many original specs are sold, but then waste away forever in development hell? With a book, and its already established audience, the possibility that they'll want to see it when the film comes out is pretty good. Due to that, the development process probably won't be hellish. Sure, some changes might be made, but no one's likely to drastically alter anything for fear of alienating the book audience.
So, you have a choice. Keep trying to sell your screenplays the way you've always been trying, or instead write things that an actual audience can read, which will also increase your odds of seeing your hard work up on that big screen one day. Happy writing!
[For information on Stephen Kogon's novel, "Max MoothóCyber Sleuth and the Case of the Zombie Virus," visit www.MaxMoothCyberSleuth.com -- featuring the first two chapters, plus the weekly comic adventures of Studio Reader Stan.]†
Web Site: Max Mooth -- Cyber Sleuth
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|Reviewed by Paul Curran
|I would like to write for films but since I live in Ireland, LA would be a long way to go. Maybe I could get work in London or Belfast? At the moment I work as a cleaner but write in my free time. Last June I was in Miami and seen a lot of film-making going on! It would be cool to make a movie.|
|Reviewed by ellen george
Thanks for your article on screenwriting -
As a newbie screenwriter, trying to adapt a novel into a screenplay, I have been working to honor the spirit of the novel, and to visualize the the actions/dialog as it would appear onscreen.
As in all writing you do need good representation to pitch your goods.
What seems so frustrating is to give birth to the screenplay and then the control is out of your hands and others can distort your blood sweat and tears into something you don't recognise anymore!
Double edged sword.
Thanks for a lot to think about -
|Reviewed by Dawn Mullan
|True about big business. Try nothing and keep churning out reruns with different names. The publishing houses from what I gather do the same thing. Breaking into the business be it Hollywood or Publishing Houses is more about politics then good writing. Thank you, DL Mullan|
|Reviewed by Kent Koren (Reader)
|Refreshing article. Great. I've been out in LA for 7 years, and I too have had various meetings at Nick, Fox, MTV, and the like. You'r right about the adaptation of preexisting work. Not too innovative out here in LALA-Land. So keep up the good work. I just write ad copy now , mostly but am still coming up with ideas.|
|Reviewed by Lisa Adams
|Thank you for the article. It is good to point out the realities of the business. My parents knew many, many people in this business over the years; and though some tried to get me to write screenplays, I consistently replied, "Hell no," for the very reasons you have stated. Kudos for continuing to live your dream. I hope that your star shines because I would love to see more well-written films make it. Meantime, I will be out struggling over how to transmogrify a book into a theme park ride. I'm thinking square cars, lots of upside-down logic, and bad grammar that pops out of the shadows in a tunnel. Any takers? Thanks again.|