December 18th, 2015
By Danny Manus
I’m sure you’ve heard it said that screenwriting is a marathon, not a sprint. But in truth…it’s both. And sometimes it’s not the first step OR the last step that’s most important, but those treacherous steps in the middle as you make the run from aspiring screenwriter to professional.
As a script consultant and writing coach, many of my clients are at a sensitive juncture in their writing career. They’ve written their first scripts – and perhaps their second, third or fourth as well. They’ve gotten feedback, they’ve rewritten, they’ve polished, they’ve submitted to prestigious contests and they finally get the email they’ve been waiting for… They’re a contest finalist or maybe even the big winner!
They have beaten out thousands of other aspiring writers and have won the grand prize of whatever prestigious contest it might be.
This is the question that so many writers don’t know how to answer and because of that, either they don’t know how to capitalize on it OR they try to capitalize when they’re not actually ready and end up screwing their chance.
First things first. If you were lucky enough to win a major contest with your first script, that’s amazing. But you need to go write your second one before you start contacting agents. Yes, you can start querying and calling production companies with your contest-winning script but while you’re doing that, ride that wave of motivation to write and finish your next script!
Next, look at the contest you won. You should be entering contests that afford you opportunities to get read and make in-roads to industry connections. So, if those contests promise to send your script to X companies, then that’s your next step.
You want to capitalize on whatever buzz or momentum you can muster in this business. So, if there are social media announcements about how you’re the big winner – use that! But don’t just rely on the contest to do the work for you. Start making phone calls and your first sentence is “Hi, I just found out I beat out 4,500 other writers to be this year’s grand prize winner of Script Pipeline (for example), and I am currently looking for representation. I’d love to talk to you about my script.”
But before you start calling every manager, agent and production company out there about that first contest win, you need to know a few things that no one else will tell you…
1. If you won (or were a finalist in) a TV contest with a spec of an existing show, managers and producers don’t care as much because they can’t sell that script. And every single rep you call will say, “Great, do you have an original pilot you can send?” They may want to read your spec ALSO, but they will definitely ask for an original. If your answer is no, then your win doesn’t really mean anything except it should give you a big vote of confidence to start writing your original pilots!
If you won with a spec for an existing series, and you DO have other original pilots that are completed, polished and ready to go, then use your existing spec win as leverage to get reps or producers to read your original pilot. Call about the win, but have the pitch for your original series ready for that call. You should absolutely mention the contest win in your query letter, but your query should be for your original pilot. Leverage the spec win to get the read of your original. It will mean much more.
2. If you won (or were a finalist in) a TV contest with an original pilot, and you have an additional writing sample already completed, polished and ready to go – then start querying, calling, emailing, and try to use any executives who read your script as part of the prize to see if they would recommend you to any of their rep friends. Create a buzz about your win even if the contest doesn’t.
3. If you won a contest or film festival with a SHORT film or Web Series, you need to know what you’re calling places for. Are you calling places to help distribute your short? Are you querying because you shot the first episode of a web series and are looking for funding for the rest? Do you have a vision (or a script) for the full feature based on your short and you’re hoping someone wants to develop that with you? Are you calling because you’re a writer/director and want to find representation as a multi-hyphenate? You need to know why you’re calling and how to pitch yourself and your project, as each of the aforementioned goals would require a different type of pitch or query.
If you’re promoting a short or web series, create a strong social media platform and following to prove that your contest or film festival win isn’t just a lark, but that there is real support brewing for this idea. Use that platform to your advantage as proof of concept. If you were ONLY the writer on the short (as opposed to also directing or producing), chances are that’s not enough to get anyone to read you unless it’s a script for the feature version of the short that won.
4. If you won one of those top contests with a feature script, strike while the iron is hot. Know where you are in your career and what that next goal is for you. If you only have the 1 script and 1 idea, then your best bet is going to be contacting producers because they don’t care (as much) about how many other scripts you have. If they love that one, that’s all you need. If you have more than 1 finished script or at least 1 finished (winning) script and a bunch of other fleshed out ideas, then try querying and contacting managers.
If you have at least 2-3 finished, polished and semi-commercial scripts, then you can also contact agents. Go to pitchfests and use online pitch services if you can’t get to execs or reps any other way.
But again – know where YOU are in the process. And don’t get discouraged if your contest win doesn’t lead to fame and fortune – most don’t. It’s the writers who know how to capitalize on the win and follow-up on a win with their NEXT great script, that usually break out.
Winning a prestigious contest is a great step in your career – but it’s basically step 20 out of the 100 steps you need to take. The upside is that you’re now one giant step ahead of all the other writers who are still trying to win. Be excited and proud for your accomplishment! But then focus on your 21st step. You need to be aggressive, but realistic. Productive, and entrepreneurial. And above all…keep writing!
Because that next step is a doozy.
November 11th, 2015
By Danny Manus
There’s always a sharp adjustment period after I return from Austin Film Fest every year. And not just for my liver. It’s a constant whirlwind event for 5 days – and not just because of the Tornado that almost hit this year! There’s so much to take in – it’s wall to wall panels, parties and people! If you have never been, I highly recommend it!
This year, I was back teaching the Pitch Prep seminar alongside Pixar executive Emily Zulauf, as well as judging the early rounds. And I got to moderate a great panel on pitching as well.
While extreme weather and falling on Halloween certainly affected this year’s events, there was still a huge amount of learning and networking to experience.
My favorite panels that I saw were Phil Rosenthal’s interview with the legendary Norman Lear, who at 93 is every bit as sharp, hilarious and inspirational as he ever has been; the conversation between action heroes Shane Black (Lethal Weapon, Long Kiss Goodnight) and Jeb Stuart (Die Hard, The Fugitive); Michael Arndt’s (Little Miss Sunshine, Toy Story 3) course on Endings; the TV/Film Crossover convo between Justin Marks (Jungle Book) and Amy Berg (DaVinci’s Demons); and my own panel on the art of pitching with Chad and Carey Hayes (The Conjuring, San Andreas).
From all the panels I heard, as well as the pitching competition this year, there were some clear lessons, tips and quotes I want to share with all of you who couldn’t make it that will hopefully help you on your writing journey.
1. The greatest writers in the world all think Structure and Formatting is important. There are a few consultants and writers out there spouting about how structure is killing creativity and how having a beat sheet or using three-act structure isn’t necessary. And maybe it isn’t. But, when I hear writers like Michael Arndt, Brian Helgeland, Jeb Stuart and Terry Rossio touting the importance of specific structure, it’s clear those who don’t believe are in a vast minority. Even those who hate structure – still love structure. They just call it something else. You can look at structure from your character’s POV or thru visual beats or emotional beats – but it’s all structure. And it’s all important.
2. “At the moment of (true) commitment, the universe conspires to ensure your success.” – Norman Lear on becoming successful and what it takes. “We all walk in on the shoulders of others.” – Norman Lear.
3. “The big difference between action and suspense – suspense is cheaper.” (Jeb Stuart) He also said (and I’m paraphrasing): Action is when something exciting happens that the character and audience both experience. Suspense is when the audience knows something the character doesn’t and we’re not sure when or how they will discover it. For example, action is a bomb exploding. Suspense is seeing there’s a ticking bomb under the table and the character doesn’t know. Then finding ways to build the tension of that moment.
4. Humanizing your characters is about laying foundation with those small clues and moments early on that give us insight into them and connect us in some way. (Angela Kang, writer/Exec Producer, The Walking Dead)
5. When Die Hard was being developed, Joel Silver told Shane Black, “You have to blow up the top of the building!” Because if you don’t, you’re teasing the audience too much and audiences don’t want to be teased at the end of an action movie.
6. Insanely great endings are positive, surprising, and most of all – meaningful. There’s an emotional release, a new look on the world, and meaningful emotion… Always ask yourself – what’s at stake? And look at the External, the Internal, and the Philosophical (paraphrasing Michael Arndt in his Endings class).
7. “The connectors kill your script. They are what cause the lulls,” Shane Black said. He is referring to the exposition-filled PLANNING scenes where it’s just characters talking about what they are going to do or how they’re going to do it.
8. Good action scenes advance the plot. Never hit pause on your story to include action – it should be part of the story. (Angela Kang) And if you imbed the story in the action, then it can’t be cut for budgetary reasons later on. (Jeb Stuart)
9. In terms of pitching, TV was king this year. Two years ago, the pitch competition was about 60/40 in favor of film. Last year, it was 50/50. This year, it was about 70% TV pitches! And to that end, the WINNERS the last two years were TV series pitches.
10. When you pitch producers, pitch the External. When you pitch actors, pitch the Internal.
11. Have your pitch down. The winner this year had her pitch down so perfectly, she did not get ONE note in her preliminary judging session OR the finale. Her TV Comedy series pitch had everything one should have; a funny concept, likable characters and a strong entrée into the world, clear conflict, it wasn’t just a great pilot but a strong series, and she had great one-liners with perfect word choice, rhythm and cadence to the pitch. And she was unshakable. She knew her story and pitch so well a room full of drunken peers and three A-List writers judging her couldn’t shake her. That’s how you pitch!
12. “It took every moment of your life to get right here. And every second of mine.” – Norman Lear.
May 21st, 2015
There are so many opinions out there for writers to listen to these days. So many voices trying to tell writers what to do, what not to do, how to do it, how not to do it, who they should hate, who they should respect, how to succeed, how not to succeed, etc. It’s coming from all sides. And some of those voices have begun to take a tone that, for me, seems almost unhealthy to listen to. I’m not sure when social media became the technological equivalent to a Branch Davidian compound, but it needs to stop.
All writers want to do is connect. Especially those still trying to “break in”. But I think some of the recent rhetoric has made it hard for writers who are trying to get noticed, get read, learn, or make that connection with a professional they admire, to figure out when they are actually networking and learning…and when they are unknowingly part of a cult.
To be honest, I don’t even think the professionals themselves are aware of their Jim Jonesy behavior and what type of self-aggrandizing, arrogant dome of cynicism and power they are creating. So, in hopes that there is still time to save others from drinking the Kool-Aid, and as a public service to inform those unknowingly responsible (on both sides), here are some ways to know if you’re leading a cult…
– Your followers or fans have a collective name they are referred to by outsiders.
– You have tried to preclude your followers, fans, friends, or people within your circles from communicating or forming relationships with others who don’t share your way of thinking. You make introductions and arrange “instant friends” for those you want to be part of your group. You make your world seem like a loving, supportive place to be. But if anyone disagrees with you or leaves your circle, they suddenly lose all their new friends. When support = control, it’s not a friendship or mentorship…it’s a cult.
– You suggest your followers and fans not seek out or read outside information that disagrees with yours. Only information you provide is correct and will help your followers. Anyone else providing information is a false guru with a sinister motivation. Only your motivations are true.
– You denounce outside education, classes, advice, feedback or knowledge from anyone other than yourself or those you have personally endorsed and deemed as worthwhile. And you discredit other people’s information or advice not based on how true it might be, but on the basis of how it supports your party line.
– If you are attacked on social media, your followers quickly exact revenge on your behalf in heinous and personal ways without even knowing your attackers personally.
– You cast aspersions on outside computer programs or software your followers may use (…and then launch your own and charge for it).
– You advise your followers that they need to move closer to you, and can only truly be part of your world if they are living nearby in the same town.
– You create your own terminology for words and concepts that don’t require new terminology (or perhaps your own font?).
– You offer FREE information, FREE help, or FREE access to some higher power that can get followers closer to their dreams. All they have to do is believe and be loyal.
– You often emotionally break down those seeking your advice by saying their chances of success is infinitesimal. That if they don’t have an innate talent, they are hopeless, and that the only people who can truly help them are people who won’t – except you.
– Your group is elitist, claiming a special, exalted status for itself, its leader(s) and members (for example, the leader or group is on a special mission to save others from what you deem as making mistakes).
– The group has a polarized us-versus-them mentality, which may cause conflict with the wider society.
– You enjoy being equally feared and revered by your followers. You make it clear you have direct access to a higher authority (like, for example, the Studios). Anyone disagreeing with you might as well be disagreeing with that higher authority. Questioning your authority or opinion is seen as a sign of stupidity, naivety or inexperience.
– You are self-funded and use the fact that you are accountable to no one and have no direct allegiances or corporate ties to convince followers that unlike others out there, you have no agenda other than their well-being.
– You answer logical reasoning or other’s valid points with your own brand of false reasoning, shaming, guilt, peer pressure or character assassination. In terms of character assassination, you may say things like, “Maybe the reason you’re not as successful as me is because you’re not doing it how I did it.” Or something like, “How could you possibly disagree with me? I’ve been doing this longer than you and at a higher level. You are obviously unsatisfied with what you do and are jealous of me and my success, and your rebellion to my opinion is only hurting yourself and others.”
– Your followers display excessively zealous and unquestioning commitment to you and your teachings and regard your beliefs, ideologies, and practices as The Truth.
This list is obviously meant in a humorous way and should be taken as such. But if you take anything else away from it, let it be this… Those who spout off about how THERE ARE NO RULES – but then continue to tell you exactly what to believe and think and how to act and who to do business with – are either wildly hypocritical, or completely oblivious. And you don’t need to listen to either one. If you are worried that you or someone you know has been involved in cult-like behavior, please seek help immediately – and stay off social media.
May 8th, 2015
By Danny Manus
Have you sent out dozens of query letters? Hundreds? Thousands?
And no response? No reads? No meetings? Not even a polite rejection letter telling you why they won’t read your material?
Then let me be clear…It’s YOU. Not THEM.
You’re the problem. Or at least, your query letter is.
There have been some articles lately about how the whole idea of a query letter in today’s Hollywood is a hoax. I don’t believe that. Why? Because while 98% of queries may go straight into the trash and the chances of them paying off are indeed incredibly slim… they’re no less valid than any other way of trying to get read, signed, produced or otherwise noticed. And they’re still the least expensive. Everything’s a long shot. Everything’s a crap shoot. Queries are no different. But that doesn’t mean it’s not worth a try. IF you’re doing it right. The problem is – 98% of you aren’t.
I recently agreed to help a boutique agency sift through their backlog of hundreds and hundreds of queries that were piling up – something I’ve done for other agents and managers in the past. I was asked to keep the ones I thought might be worth reading or contacting the writer about. I read about 550 queries just for this one company over the course of a couple weeks, and it quickly became frighteningly obvious how many ridiculous, unnecessary, sloppy, unprofessional, clueless, amateur mistakes writers were making with their queries.
For the record, of the 550(ish) queries, I gave 35 query letters back to the agent to look at. All the others are now sitting in my recycling bin. Except for the handful that were so ungodly awful, unprofessional or ridiculous, that they are now being kept in my folder of query gems that I use in my classes as examples of what not to do (don’t worry, I don’t use names).
But it doesn’t have to be like that. You CAN get read and noticed and even signed from your query letters. If you’re not committing any of the cardinal sins of queries listed below. A checklist I crudely call…
The 50 Reasons Your Query Letter Sucks. I hope you’ll forgive my foul language.
- TYSPOS. If yuo cant right one paragraf without dozens of tyspos then you’re script is probably illegidable. See how insanely annoying that is. Makes me sound like a fucking 4th grader, doesn’t it? Why would a manager invest their time in someone who writes like that? If you cannot write a half a page without correct grammar, spelling, and punctuation, I will not read your script. Period. Hire someone to edit your letter if you need to. You have no idea how many letters I read where the script’s own TITLE had a typo in it. There is NO excuse for laziness or stupidity.
- You didn’t include your EMAIL ADDRESS in your letter. Do yourself a favor and stop including a SASE with your query. No one is mailing you back. If we want to read your script, we’re going to email you and let you know. If there’s no email address on the letter, then guess what…we can’t contact you and you wasted a stamp. Of the 550 queries in this batch, well over 100 did not have email addresses and went right in the garbage. Also, make sure your Email address is appropriate and professional. If your email is Hottieforyou69@aol.com, do yourself a favor – get a second account.
- You’re writing stories everyone else is writing. Sometimes it’s just your concept or lack of originality. In this batch, there were some CLEAR trends. The most common concepts queried included: War/Soldier Stories (at least 15% of all queries received), Aliens/Robots/Sci-Fi stories (15%), True Stories likely based on the writer’s life (at least 10%), Bank Robbery/Heist stories (10%), Christmas movies (5%), Torture Porn (5%), Rape/Abortion Stories (5%), Sequels to Existing Movies (5%), etc. The other 30% were broken up between comedies, other types of dramas, thrillers, a few ghost stories, and TV pilots. In other words – most of the queries were for stories and genres that can’t sell.
- YOUR QUERY IS WRITTEN IN ALL CAPS OR SOME FUNNY FONT.
- You sent a handwritten serial killer-style manifesto. It’s called a computer. Use it. And stop torturing animals in your shack.
- You don’t tell us your genre and you don’t have a good logline (or ANY logline). The people you’re sending queries to have to pitch your concept to their bosses. That’s why your logline is so important. Plus, if your logline is truly great, the rest of the letter doesn’t need to be that long. But I can count on one hand how many of the 550 queries had a truly GREAT logline that made me excited to read more.
- Your query is written in all Spanish. No hablo, muchacho.
- The first line of your query is “I’m a first time writer…” – well then you’re not ready to be querying and definitely not ready for an agent or manager who don’t want to be your guinea pig.
- You’re querying agents about your first script. Do not bother. You need at least 2 polished and ready scripts for agents to care about you. You can query producers, but honestly, it’s probably not ready for them either.
- You are querying about an IDEA you have and not a script you’ve written. Thanks for the idea. Next time, write the script and register it. This is how ideas get stolen – and it’s YOUR fault. No one is going to sign you based on an idea. They are worthless.
- Your brief story synopsis is really just ONE scene or only covers the first 15 pages of your story and it doesn’t point out the situation your character must do/overcome/achieve or what your hook is.
- You’ve written a sequel to a major franchise, book, or film. STOP WASTING YOUR DAMN TIME AND MINE! No one is buying your Batman or Star Wars movie – CUT IT OUT! It makes you a fan, not a screenwriter. DO NOT write scripts for stories, characters or films you don’t own the rights to. Producers and studios have a prestigious stable of million-dollar screenwriters they want movie ideas from for their franchises and you’re not one of them.
- You’re querying about a spec you’ve written of an existing TV show because you want to sell it to the producers of that show. This is NEVER going to happen. If you want to be a TV writer, you should be querying about your ORIGINAL PILOT and as a 2nd sample, you can mention you also wrote a spec of an existing show. But you should never query an agent because of a spec of a show you want to sell to its producers.
- You included autographed headshots of yourself. Unnecessary. Unless you’re really hot.
- In your letter, you ask for DONATIONS to your Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign! I even got one letter that was a query asking for donations to his college education for film school. No joke.
- You’re sharing TMI or opening with something personal or embarrassing. If you have a legitimate mental illness – DON’T tell us about it in your query. I read at least 3 queries where the writer told me in the first line that they are bipolar. You’re a screenwriter – I already assume you have mental issues.
- You tell me to call your MOTHER. Yes, in one of the greatest/worst queries I’ve ever read, it was a 3 page hand-written letter on yellow legal paper and at the end, the writer – who is 27 YEARS OLD(!!) – says he lives in his mother’s basement and to please call HER cell phone and leave a message and she will pass it along. Seriously, Norman Bates? Would I have to ask your mother if you can come to a meeting too?
- You’re starting your query by telling me your whole life story. I don’t give a shit. And you’re not that interesting. I have only read 2 query letters ever where the life story was so moving and powerful I had to read their script. TWO. Out of tens of thousands.
- Your story is about rape, domestic abuse or abortion. Especially if you’re a male writer. These are NOT the most interesting things about women to write about. Even if you’re a female writer, it’s been done to death (no pun intended) and 90% of the time we know it’s based on your own true story. Not even Lifetime is making movies about rape and abortion anymore.
- Your whole query letter is one huge block of writing without any line spaces or paragraphs. I can only imagine what your script looks like.
- Your query is for a Game Show or (unmade) Short Film. No one represents short film writers or game show writers. Try writing something that can make you MONEY.
- You’re not using both capital and lower case letters like a normal person. The title of your script better start with a Capital Letter. It should also be in quotation marks and can be capitalized (though not necessary).
- You INSULT other movies in your query letter to make yours sound better. You have no idea who’s reading your letter or who they’ve worked with or what movies they worked on or love. Don’t tell us your story is “like X movie but with a good story, more likeable characters and actually funny.” Makes you sound like a jealous dick.
- You promise us your script is the best script we’ll read all year. It’s not. I guarantee it. Don’t set the bar higher than you can reach.
- You tell us to check out your Tumblr blog or website or Twitter feed to find out about your story or download your script. Don’t troll for followers or website hits.
- You close your query with “Kiss, Kiss” or something stupid and immature. End your query with “Warmest” “Warmest Regards” “Sincerely” or “Respectfully” and then your name, email, and phone number. That’s it.
- You are LYING in your query and it’s really fucking obvious and insulting. Do not tell me in your query letter that you’re an award winning writer if that award is some high school competition or 3rd place in Scriptapalooza 2006. You didn’t win shit. Don’t say you have lots of agents begging to represent you or numerous producers clamoring for your story – because I know that’s not true. You know how I know? Because then you wouldn’t be blind querying me, would you!? Do not say studios or actors are interested if you don’t have a Letter of Intent. It takes ONE phone call to confirm you’re a liar. Do not tell us about what your “friends in the industry” said about the script. If you had real friends in the industry, you wouldn’t be querying like this. You’re trying to start a long-term relationship with someone – don’t start on a lie. This isn’t Tinder.
- Connected to that, you try to exaggerate to make yourself sound better by using words you think we can’t decipher. For instance, “My script is currently with X MAJOR STUDIO” – We know that means you randomly emailed your script and haven’t heard back. Or “My script is currently in contention for the Nicholls Fellowship” – which means you paid the entry fee and submitted.
- You say you’ve been inspired by God to write your story. God has nothing to do with it. Unless the God you pray to is Aaron Sorkin.
- You’re a repeat offender. If you have sent the same query letter to the same company 16 times – guess what? IT’S A FUCKING PASS! Take the hint. Stop sending it. You only seem like more of a desperate nut-job (I’m talking to you, Jack!).
- You don’t tell us anything that makes you stand out in a POSITIVE way or makes one think you have a strong enough voice or pleasant and professional enough disposition.
- You start your query with a ridiculous rhetorical question. “Ever wonder what would happen if your dog turned into a beautiful woman?” Umm…NO. No, I haven’t. Better question is – Why have you? We can’t answer you and if we answered NO, then we have dismissed your premise before reading your story. This is an antiquated way of writing queries – stop it!
- You offer to send me pictures of you, and ask me to send you pictures of me. It’s not that kind of agency, you creepy fuck.
- You make it feel like a form letter even though we know it is. Send your letter to a specific person and spell their name right! Don’t address your query to “Dear Sir or Madam” or to the wrong name or wrong company, and don’t address it to “Dear My Next Agent” or “Dear Gatekeeper” or “Dear Development Person.” Do your due diligence and research and know who you are sending it to. It’s called IMDBPRO.
- You’ve included random coverage reports and you didn’t even get a RECOMMEND! A CONSIDER is nothing to brag about. And those coverage/notes reports are private.
- You tell us who should star in your movie or who you wrote the characters for. If it’s well-written, producers will know who should play that role. The way to cheat this is when you describe your character, you can say “A Seth Rogen type” instead of “I wrote this for Seth Rogen” – because what if the agent or producer hates him?
- You tell us in your letter that you demand to produce/direct/star in the movie. I even had one letter where the writer said he would appreciate it if the hypothetical movie would be scheduled around his day job. INSTANT PASS. Unless you’re also financing the film.
- You’re writing your query letter in the third person. Danny Manus has written a wonderful new thriller that Danny Manus would like you to read…. Danny Manus sounds like a douche.
- You’re bragging that you got honorable mention in the Writer’s Digest Contest of 2006. Who the fuck cares? It’s not a major contest, you didn’t even win, and it was like 10 years ago. If you haven’t WON or been a FINALIST in one of the 10-15 major prestigious contests (or semifinalist in the top 3 contests) in the last 5-6 years then it’s not worth mentioning in a letter. It just tells us your script has been around FOREVER and no one has wanted it or signed you off of it.
- You’re not setting up a context for your script. Use “It’s this meets that” or “It’s in the vein of this and that” because it allows execs to see where your project fits in the marketplace. But use the RIGHT template films that show tone, genre and context.
- You’re making it sound like you only have ONE idea and want a quick sale and are only in it for the money. If you’re querying producers, that’s fine. But not if you’re querying reps because they’re in it for the long haul and want someone looking for a career.
- You include copies of your Library of Congress Copyright form, WGA Registration receipt, or anything else that makes it look like you’re expecting us to steal your idea.
- You’re including MULTIPLE loglines when sending to a producer. Your query to a producer should be about ONE project. If querying reps, you can include 1-3 projects in your query but more than that and it looks like a red flag that no one likes your work.
- You’re pitching multiple scripts in multiple genres. This is what I call spaghetti queries because you’re just throwing a bunch of shit at the wall and seeing what sticks. You can include more than 1 logline to a rep, but if it’s 4 projects in 4 genres then you don’t know what kind of writer you are yet and you’re not ready.
- You bad-mouth an agent or manager you USED to have. It’s a small world in Hollywood. Keep that in mind and don’t be that guy.
- Your query letter is longer than ONE page. Some people send treatments, some send packages, some send the first 10 pages of script (not ONE of them were good). All you need to send is a ½ to 1 page query letter. That’s it.
- You tried to be overly clever – and failed. Comedy is subjective. Let the comedy of your story and concept sell us instead of you trying too hard to make me laugh.
- You try to promote or sell your personal agenda, message, political affiliation, or social beliefs instead of telling a story. That’s not what screenwriting is for. Write a blog. Because no one gives a shit.
- You quote box office grosses of movies because you think it means yours will be likewise successful. Just because Saving Private Ryan made half a billion dollars does not mean YOUR war story will. That movie had the biggest movie star in the world and the biggest director in the world. You cannot in any way compare your movie to that one. And you don’t have to tell us how successful other movies were – we know!
- You’re just not a good enough writer. Brutal, but possibly true.
Let’s be realistic – there are upwards of 60,000 scripts registered every year with WGA plus thousands more that are not registered. Agents, managers and producers receive many thousands of queries each year and 90% of them don’t even accept unsolicited queries. The competition is staggering. The window is small. So just having a good idea, good script, or good query simply is not enough. I’m not telling you to stop writing or stop querying – I’m just begging you to be better. Be better than the 550 queries I just read. Be ready. Be professional. Heed the above list and give yourself a shot. Write a query that no one can resist…and no one will. Or, you can just keep writing queries that suck.
***This month, No BullScript Consulting is launching an exciting new Second Reader Service, where you can purchase a one-hour phone/skype consultation with a working Development Executive or Manager who will read your script and discuss their constructive notes and answer your questions! No assistants, no middle-men, no B.S.! Make it a combo and get TWO sets of comprehensive notes at a discounted price! Check out the Second Reader Page for more details!
March 17th, 2014
By Danny Manus
One of the greatest themes explored in film is SIN. One of the tenets of a cinematic story is making it VISUAL and keeping the ACTION going. And one of the greatest things a writer can do to further their career, is continue to LEARN.
What better place in the world to bring these three things together than Las Vegas?
That’s why I will be returning to the Las Vegas Writer’s Conference for my third time on April 24-27th. The conference, given by the Henderson Writers Group, is perfect for book or film writers and allows participants to take seminars, workshops, network, take pitch meetings with literary pros, and of course – enjoy all that Vegas has to offer.
And if there is a town that can inspire excitement, originality, adventure, and interesting characters…it’s Vegas!
I’m delighted to have been asked back and will be teaching two all-new courses; Writing Your Natural Story and Creating Compelling, Castable Characters.
The first course will go through the nature vs. nurture of a script, explore story pitfalls, how to recognize when your story has gone awry, and how to make sure your story goes in the right direction. We’ll go through exercises that will ensure you’re always writing your natural story. And most importantly for book writers, we’ll discuss how the correct way to “write what you know” and the principles of adapting a book or true story to film.
In the characters course, we’ll go through 10 great specific exercises to creating compelling, castable protagonists and antagonists and we’ll examine the 12 elements of strong, three-dimensional characters. We’ll also discuss how to create interesting antagonists and supporting characters.
And perhaps my favorite thing about this conference is the first pages panel, where participants submit the first couple pages of their book (or script) and a panel of executives and agents listen as they are read and raise their hand when they would have passed. And then we critique the pages we’ve heard. It is a great way to get a guttural first reaction from professionals to know if your first pages are going to get past the reader. And it’s usually a good amount of fun too.
I hope to see you all there April 24-27th. For more info and to register, go to http://lasvegaswritersconference.com/.
And in case you haven’t been convinced yet, the last time I went to this conference, at least one best-selling author wound up in the trunk of a car. What happens in Vegas…
November 4th, 2013
By Danny Manus
“I am not in Danger…I am the danger….I am the one who knocks.”
After hearing the powerful, blistering, graveled, cold-hearted speeches of Walter White, you might think the man behind the words would have a twinge of Heisenberg in him. Be some sort of formidable, overpowering, guarded type who could just as easily talk you into an acid bath as he could talk you into getting a beer.
But that’s not the type of man Vince Gilligan is. Or at least seems to be.
This year at the Austin Film Festival, there were many huge name writers, actors, producers and directors, but no name inspired as much discussion and anticipation among amateurs and pros alike, as Vince Gilligan.
The creator of Breaking Bad was the toast of the town. People (including myself) lined up over an hour ahead of time to listen to him speak, and THREE hours ahead of time to hear the stages reading of his unproduced script, “Two-Face.” More on this in a moment.
My goals in coming to Austin Film Festival this year were clear; be an engaging moderator and bring out the best from my panelists, teach people to pitch and judge my ass off, get drunken blackmail stories from A-List screenwriters and producers… and talk to Vince Gilligan.
I was a huge fan of the X-Files, and an even bigger fan of Breaking Bad. The mastery by which that story was told is hard to replicate or even explain. And very few shows build in popularity and plot the way Breaking Bad did. It was somewhat of an anomaly, aided by Netflix and binge-watching, that became a phenomenon among TV whores like me. And so my whole goal for AFF, was to finally meet (and thank) Vince Gilligan.
I figured he’d be guarded at all times from the throngs of people waiting to shake his hand, and at best maybe I’d get a picture of him from 20 feet away and then just tell people that I got to meet him and fabricate some story of how we laughed until the wee hours, drinking and reminiscing about the good old days.
Luckily, none of that came to bear.
On Thursday evening at the first WGA Opening Party, which featured an open bar, great drinks, and the insanely awesome Grilled Cheese Truck, you could imagine my glee when I turned around and saw Vince Gilligan just standing there chatting with people like he was Joe Schmo at the neighborhood watering hole. Of course once people realized he was there, a line formed which quickly became a meet and greet. But I didn’t care. I came to Austin to meet Vince Gilligan, and dammit, that’s what I was going to do.
I waited my turn, I got my camera ready, and I walked up and said hello. For some reason, I was less nervous than I usually am around people I truly admire or “celebrities.” It’s not that I get nervous so much as I feel like anything I’m about to say to them, they’ve already heard a million times. And there’s that constant thought in my head when meeting celebrities that sounds like “Dontsayanythingstupiddontsayanythingstupiddontsayanythingstupid!”
But I didn’t feel that way with Mr. Gilligan. I had my Producer’s badge on, I was on a few panels, and I was a professional. A professional with a creativity boner, but a professional nonetheless.
I introduced myself and what I do, told him how much I loved the show, as well as X-Files and how I really think the writing on Breaking Bad was a master class in how to express great emotion and detail without nailing people over the head and going overboard, a la Homeland. I’m sure I then gushed a little bit like a school girl and thanked him for making a TV whore like me very happy, and then I offered to buy him a drink but he already had one. Quite frankly, my AFF experience could have ended there and I would have been happy.
Vince (yeah, I call him Vince now) could not have been more gracious and kind. He listened to everyone, said hello to everyone, shook hands, chatted and took pictures with everyone. He even came to the smaller events and BBQ parties and never turned anyone away. And listening to him speak during his sessions, was special for me. Not just because I love his work, but because his story ISN’T spectacular.
He won a college screenwriting contest in Virginia and me the one guy who believed in him and made things happen for him and his career. And having heard Mr. Gilligan speak on two different panels over the weekend, his humbleness, his humility, his passion, and his gratitude for the place he’s in right now, really came across. And hearing him speak actually sparked and inspired a new feature idea in my own head that I immediately started outlining and texting to myself in the middle of the panel. I’ll be sure to thank him the next time we meet.
On Sunday, my entire plan (other than a bit of recovery), was to get in line early for the staged reading of Mr. Gilligan’s unproduced script, “Two-Face”. The reading was at the State Theater, which only seats about 300, so I knew I had to get there early. It started at 2pm, and I got to the line about 11:50 – and it was already around the block. I was number 168 out of 300. By 12:15, the line was shut down.
I had never been to a reading like this. Certainly not one where Will Ferrell, Linda Cardellini, Thomas Hayden Church, Billy Burke, Rob Brown and the insanely fantastic Giancarlo Esposito were doing the reading. It was very interesting to watch, and despite a few audio issues, it was very engaging.
I will say that Billy Burke apparently went to the Kiefer Sutherland school of acting, where there are only two ways to say a line – whisper it inaudibly into your chest or scream like a nuclear bomb is about to go off. Will Ferrell brought a voice to the project that only he could, and considering it was a dark comedy about race and mental illness and love, it needed his comedic voice to feel relatable and fun. But the standouts for me were easily Linda Cardellini, who hit every line with pitch perfect accuracy, and Giancarlo Esposito, who is a master class unto himself.
Esposito easily got the largest applause when he walked out – yes, even more than Will Ferrell. This was a Breaking Bad crowd all the way. And the fire with which he delivered his lines, was unmistakable. He’s the ONLY actor that ever got out of his chair and did something physical. You could tell he was totally engaged the whole way through, even in scenes he wasn’t in.
And in the back stood Vince Gilligan, watching his baby that he wrote 20 years ago (but since updated), finally getting read in public for the first time. I occasionally glanced back at him after a line hit particularly well (or didn’t) to gauge his reaction, and he looked like he was enjoying every second but thinking about exactly how the script could still be improved or tightened. It was a joy to watch and I think it’s great that the man who I’m sure is being offered every single writing gig in town, is still trying to get his own non-commercial scripts made.
I saw Vince Gilligan a few times over the course of the weekend at different parties, but didn’t want to seem like a stalker or monopolize his time. So in case I never get to meet him again, I’ll just thank him now for the inspiration, the memory and the creativity boner. You may not be Heisenberg…but you’re Vince Fucking Gilligan.
November 4th, 2013
By Danny Manus
Sometimes all you need to keep going is a little creative rejuvenation. A little brainstorm Botox. A writer’s reset button.
That’s exactly what I found in Texas last week at the Austin Film Festival. It was an enjoyably exhausting vacation from the mind-fuck of monotony that sometimes plagues this business. It was a much-needed respite from the bad scripts and solitude of writing notes and a reminder of all of the best reasons I went into this business. It was, in the most basic of terms, an inspiration.
It was basically non-stop from 8am to 3am for 5 days, with panels, screenings, parties, networking, walking, and lots of drinking. But sometimes that adrenaline, that insanity, that busy-ness, is what can unstick you from your creative rut.
I went into this business to be heard. To be respected. To have a creative outlet and make a difference with my words. Or at least make a splash. I went into this business to work with the best, talk with the best, learn from the best. And find ways to improve my own talents, and help other improve theirs. And that’s what AFF is all about.
I had never been to the AFF, despite a few years of campaigning. So when I got the invite this year to come and be a moderator on a few panels, I was really excited. I had heard so much about the creative energy and spirit of Austin Film Festival, as well as the HUGE A-list names that attend and speak every year, that I jumped at the chance to be a part of it. And then as the event neared, they also asked me to be a judge for their pitching competition and teach the Pitch Prep Panel alongside writer Pamela Ribon (Samantha Who), which was a great experience. In all, I was involved in 5 panels. Moderating two, teaching one, and pitch judging for two others.
I had been to Austin once before, this past June for the Writers League of Texas Conference, which was a wonderful event though it was also 103 degrees in the shade with 140% humidity. I’m pretty sure that’s possible. But even as I sloshed my way through the city, I could feel an air of creativity. From the music to the art to the passion they show for books and films.
But Austin Film Festival harnesses that creativity and produces a conference and festival unlike any other. It’s not as stodgy as Sundance, not as overhyped as Comic Con, not as expensive as Cannes. And AFF offers something you can’t get at any of those events….direct access.
This year, the undisputed star and main-draw was Vince Gilligan, writer/creator/God of Breaking Bad. It didn’t matter who else was speaking, Vince Gilligan was the one person even the other celebrities were hoping to meet. I will speak about my experience with Vince in another article.
In addition to Vince Gilligan, Will Ferrell was there, Susan Sarandon was there, Giancarlo Esposito, Callie Khouri, Barry Josephson, Elaine May, Paul Thomas Anderson, Jonathan Demme (who was perhaps the second biggest draw), plus major A-List screenwriters like Zak Penn, Scott Neustadter, Leslie Dixon, Leigh Wannell, Craig Mazin, John August, Phil Rosenthal, Shane Black, Scott Rosenberg, Terry Rossio, John Swetnam, Justin Marks, Kelly Marcel, Lee Aronsohn, Rian Johnson, John Hamburg, Robert Rodriguez, Roberto Orci, David Shore, etc., plus tons of agents, managers, producers, and industry leaders (if you don’t know those names, you’re not reading enough!).
I don’t list these names to name-drop or make you jealous, I promise. I list them because they were (almost) all accessible and inspirational. If you couldn’t find inspiration in some form from listening to these people speak and meeting them and learning about their journeys, then you just might be dead inside.
Sure, some were more guarded than others. But for the most part, everyone’s wearing the same badge and waiting on the same line and drinking in the same bar. And just being there, having that direct access, being able to go up to Terry Rossio and go “Hey, can I buy you a drink” is the very thing new writers and young producers dream about. Very few of those huge names turned people away. Instead, they engaged in real conversation, answering questions and giving nuggets of encouragement.
I watched Shane Black chat it up with newbies in the bar like they had known each other for years. I watched a socially awkward comic book nerd who (amazingly) didn’t even know who Zak Penn was, out-nerd him on a comic book question (a hilarious story you’ll have to ask me about in person). And I watched myself getting shit-faced with multi-million-dollar screenwriters and forging relationships I hope last a long time.
I also got to finally meet many of my Twitter followers, which was great! And got to chat with some of the people I follow on Twitter and whose articles I read, like Scott Myers of Go Into The Story and Franklin Leonard, creator of The Black List. Was good to put some twitter-warring to bed and forge new relationships.
Sitting in on a few panels, there were a few that truly motivated me and inspired me but for different reasons.
First, listening to Vince Gilligan speak and just watching him interact with the hoard of people who were trying to meet him all weekend (including myself), I was amazed at how sometimes, nice guys do win. If there was a more gracious, humble, kind man at this festival, I didn’t meet him. He was a lesson in how to be successful as a screenwriter, and as a human being.
Best part? While listening to Vince speak about Breaking Bad and Bryan Cranston’s method and if the characters will live on in some way, I came up with a new idea for a script that came so quickly into my head I had to text it to myself right then so I wouldn’t forget any of it. You never know where the kernel of an idea will come from, and this time it came from Vince Gilligan. So I’ll be sure to thank him in MY acceptance speech.
At the panel for those getting an award this year – Gilligan, Sarandon, Khouri, Demme and Josephson – what struck me most was that NONE of their stories of how they became who they are, were spectacular. They were all interesting and fun to listen to, but they all just seemed to take random opportunities when presented with them, no matter what it was. It’s all about capitalizing on opportunity. Jonathan Demme and Susan Sarandon spoke about their journeys to fame, and they both just kept saying ‘Yes’ to things. Sarandon never had any training, but she had innate talent and did shitty movies, soap operas – whatever she could to get that next job and learn. She didn’t wait around for that ONE big starring role to launch her career, she worked her way up.
Demme was a film critic and had no wanting to direct, but he got put on a Roger Corman film to do publicity and eventually was just asked to fly to London, write a movie, and it got made. He was asked, ‘Do you think you can write a movie about motorcycles?’ and he said “Sure.” And that was it.
I see new writers passing up opportunities left and right as they try to break into this business, because it doesn’t pay enough or it’s not a high-profile enough producer, or it’s “only straight to DVD.” Take every opportunity you can to improve your craft and get a foot in the door, because you never know which door will actually open.
Vince Gilligan won a Virginia screenwriting contest over 20 years ago and it just happened to be that one of the judges was producer Mark Johnson (Rain Man), who went to the school and was doing them a favor. He liked the script so much, he contacted Vince months later and made the movie (Home Fries), and has been a mentor to Vince ever since, serving as exec producer on Breaking Bad.
What I learned from these industry giants is that it’s not just about trying hard. It’s about having natural talent – an innate ability – and then having luck, good timing and opportunity. But once those stars align, you have to then be willing to work harder than everyone else and trust your own instincts and never quit.
Another inspiration came from screenwriter Terry Rossio (Pirates of the Caribbean, etc). I have always been a fan of his and this year, he was doing the REWRITE class, and as someone who does a lot of rewriting, I was very interested to hear his technique and see what I could learn (even professionals are always constantly learning).
Unfortunately, while Terry is incredibly likable and engaging on stage, I didn’t find the class to be as informative or on-point as I would’ve liked (and got into numerous arguments about it after). But Terry did do something no one else does – and that is polish a script sight-unseen right there live on stage. It’s an impressive feat that most couldn’t do. And while I didn’t always agree with the changes Terry made, and he admitted they weren’t so much rewrite changes as polishing changes, it inspired a new class for me to teach and a new way to teach it. Now I look forward to teaching my own rewrite/polish class in 2014!
And finally, on one of my panels, The Spec Script, a writer named John Swetnam was one of my panelists. He had written 18 scripts – 18!!! – before he sold his first one. He admits he didn’t think he had that innate ability and had to learn it and work hard. He decided after those 18 scripts that he was going to put his producer hat on and write something he knew could sell and get made quickly according to the marketplace. And 8 months later, he was in production with Stephen Moyer and Radha Mitchell starring in his first film. Now he’s writing Step Up 5 and has completed a couple huge budget studio films that will be out in 2014 and 2015.
It doesn’t always take 18 scripts. Another panelist, screenwriter Matt Cook, who has had 2 scripts appear in the top ten of The BlackList, wrote one script, gave it to the ONE guy he knew who happened to be an agent at WME, he got signed, and the rest is history. By the way, Matt still lives in Austin.
Across the board from all the dozens of panelists and screenwriters and producers and agents at AFF, the one thing that become clear was that there is no ONE way to break in. But let me tell you, attending Austin Film Festival is one hell of a great first step.
Just hearing all the stories from these pros and getting to really talk with them and hang out with them gave me a kick in the ass like I haven’t felt in a long time. It was exactly what I needed because to be honest, I’ve felt like I’ve just been treading water the last few months. And so if you ever feel that way, do yourself a favor, and book yourself a pass for next year’s Austin Film Festival. I’ll see you there!
May 7th, 2013
By Danny Manus
All good things come to an end, as they say.
After just about 4 years and 180 articles, my column at BOSI has officially come to an end. There will be no final article, so I’m posting one here instead.
It’s been a fantastic run, we’ve covered tons of great topics, I’ve made some wonderful friends, gained hundreds of wonderful clients, and launched numerous programs and classes. And I’ve written over 450 pages worth of material all for you, and all for free!
I’m not going to go through all the reasons or details as to why the column is ending. Sometimes, it’s just best to appreciate what it was and move on. Though I get pretty chatty when I’m drunk. Haha!
I want to graciously thank Marvin Acuna and James Lee for inviting me into the BOSI Community and allowing me to post my articles here and for helping to really launch No BullScript four years ago. Their support, friendship and promotion meant so much over the years, and I wish them much success.
For those who don’t know, I became involved with Marvin after we both were part of a panel at the Screenwriting Conference in Santa Fe in 2009. I had met him briefly before that, but it was after the panel we became friends. He liked what I had to say and invited me to get a drink with him a couple weeks after the event. And as we got shitfaced on a Monday at 4pm in the middle of West Hollywood, he offered me a weekly column in this new endeavor he had started. I needed the promotion and the audience and he needed the content…BOOM. Done.
It’s been a long, strange, and mostly fun journey since. Marvin has taught me a great deal about the business of show, perhaps the most important lesson being – ‘business is business.’ And you have to protect your brand, your name and your integrity with everything you have. I tend to take everything personal and internalize and analyze – when in the end, there’s always a bottom line to pay attention to.
Most of all, I want to thank all of YOU! The BOSI Readers and Community. You’ve put No BullScript on the map. You’ve emailed me questions and article topics and great feedback and encouragement when there was an article you loved (or hated). And you’ve made me think much deeper about this business than I ever had before. And I am so thankful to the thousands of you who read what I have to say every week. And I hope to work with each and every one of you!
In these 180 articles, we’ve discussed almost everything I could think of. But I’ve still got a few more tricks up my sleeve, so I invite ALL of my wonderful BOSI readers to follow me to my new column on ScriptMag. The title of my new column is “Notes From the Margins.” And I’ll be going through all the tips and things you need to know to make your story shine. So you can check that out twice a month (starting this week) on www.scriptmag.com.
As you’ll notice, Manny Fonseca has also ended his podcast and column on BOSI but he is still doing his podcast and I hope you follow him too.
It’s unfortunate that things have to end sometimes, but life goes on. And as I always say… Best of Luck and Keep Writing! I know I will.
April 23rd, 2013
By Danny Manus
The next couple of weeks impose some hefty deadlines for screenwriters. Both the Nicholls Fellowship and Page Awards have their final deadlines coming up on May 1, Final Draft Big Break has its early deadline April 30th, and pitchfest season is about to start as well. And every year, about 1-2 weeks from the deadlines of these big contests, I start getting tons of emails saying “I just finished my first draft. Can you get my script ready for Nicholls?”
This is the wrong way to enter contests.
I’ve been a judge for the Page Awards for three years and I’ve had numerous clients win or be finalists in major contests including Page Awards, Austin Film Fest, Scriptapalooza, the Disney/ABC Fellowship, LA Scriptfest, and (the now defunct) CS Expo. So, can I help? Sure. But can we totally fix your script 3 days before the deadline? No.
Especially with contests as big as Nicholls, Page and Big Break, where there are thousands of submissions, you need to take it seriously! And there are certain things you need to think about when entering any contests:
Prestige means – enter those contests that actually mean something. Enter ones that have a great reputation, that get great media exposure, whose winners get into the trades, whose winners get HIRED and REP’D, whose finalists get optioned, ones that are nationally recognized and get more than 500 submissions. Do you know what it means to be a semifinalist in a contest that only has 500 submissions? NOTHING. And enter ones that mean something in a query letter if you win. Enter ones where the judge of all the winners isn’t the ONE guy holding the contest. I’ve said it plenty of times, there are only about 10-15 contests that mean anything to Hollywood, including the ones mentioned above. Do your due diligence before shelling out $30, 40, 50, 60 bucks year after year.
Payoff means the prize is worth it. Now, this may be subjective. Maybe you really need that iPad, or really want that steak dinner and $500 bucks. If so, great. But if I was paying to enter a contest, the payoff better be ACCESS. Yes, a cash prize is awesome and makes you feel like you actually earned money doing what you love – and that’s a great feeling. But the key to a great contest is one that is either going to help you vastly improve your writing or get you access to people and players or meetings that can actually help your career and get you exposure.
Entering a contest just to get feedback from anonymous “readers” who are paid $20 bucks to write a paragraph about your script is just a stupid idea. You enter contests to WIN them. If you want feedback and notes, pay a consultant that you can have a 1-on-1 (and not anonymous) relationship with who can walk you through where your script needs improving. I’m not saying there aren’t contests that give great notes and that it’s not a nice bonus, but it shouldn’t be the reason you enter one.
The third step is Readiness and Preparedness. And this one has nothing to do with the contests – it’s all about YOU! I want to give you just a little glimpse into Nicholls. Last year there were 7,197 screenplays submitted (a new record). There were 368 quarterfinalists (about 5% of all submissions), then 129 semi-finalists (almost all of which got script requests), and then 10 finalists and 5 winners. So, just to get any notice by Hollywood, your script and writing has to be in the top 368 scripts out of over 7,000.
Do you REALLY think your first or second draft is going to be good enough to do that? Do you really think that a script that you RUSHED to rewrite in a week is going to fare well? Let me tell you – it won’t.
If your script isn’t truly ready to compete against THOUSANDS of others, then don’t submit it just because there’s a deadline. Wait until next year, or the next contest. Some contests do allow you to submit a new draft after the first round, but you still have to make it past that first round!
Rewriting is a process that, when done right, should take more than a week for most. Are there exceptions and writers who can totally rewrite a script in a week? Sure. But most of them are trained, professional writers who know the tricks to rewriting or at least have been doing this a while. If you’re a new writer, your rewrite period will probably last months. Most non-professional writers aren’t actually rewriting- they are doing what I call polite polishes. Some consultant told you the characters weren’t developed enough, so you stick 2 lines of backstory on page 21 and suddenly you think you’ve rewritten your script. You haven’t.
Rewriting is a process by which you re-examine everything and often eliminate or rework core parts of your script. Polishing is a process by which you just make the writing and characters and action shine a bit more. Polishing can be done in a week. Rewriting usually cannot be. And if you’re asking for notes from a consultant with 2 or 3 weeks to go before the deadline, that will only leave you a few DAYS to rewrite your script. This is what’s called – a bad strategy. You want to give yourself a solid month to get feedback, rewrite and review your script if you can.
Writing to a deadline is great – it’s usually the only motivation that will get me to write. However, while contests may be a great way to break in as a first timer, they are not for beginners. There’s a big difference between beginners and first timers. If this is your first draft of your first script, do NOT bother entering it into contests. You’re wasting your money. That’s not what these contests are for! Just keep working on it, rewriting it, polishing it, learning from it. Then 10 drafts from now, maybe it will be ready for a contest.
And finally, you need to think about Genre. The TYPE of script you’re writing and the type of contest in which it will succeed. Not every script is a Nicholls script! If you’ve got a raunchy teen sex comedy or a run-of-the-mill woman in jeopardy thriller or torture porn or slasher horror or an epic sci-fi action movie – Nicholls probably isn’t what you should be spending time on. Nicholls is looking for more PRESTIGE projects, stories where character and voice stand out. Over 50 percent of applicants last year entered drama scripts, which interesting enough made for only about 15% of all spec sales.
You should be looking at contests that are either broken up by genre (like Page Awards), or contests that are specific to your genre. There are some great genre contests out there specifically for horror, sci-fi, fantasy, etc. Look at the past winners of the big contests and see what types of projects did well and judge accordingly.
I’m not here to tell you which contests to enter, or which ones I love the most. I’m here to impress upon you that just because there is a contest, it doesn’t mean you need to enter it. And if you’re going to enter it, make sure your script is in its best shape possible to stand out and WIN.
April 10th, 2013
By Danny Manus
This weekend, there are two big screenwriting events – the Screenwriters World East Conference in NY and the Toronto Screenwriting Conference in Canada. And both afford writers the chance to pitch the pros.
So, I figured it was a good time to whip out some quick pitching advice to keep in mind. There is no ONE set way to pitch your script that will guarantee your success, but here are 5 different pitching strategies or focuses you could use to grab, attract and impress the other side of the table. But you better know what your project’s strong suit is before you decide how to pitch it.
1. Focus on Story, Hook and World. If you think you have a very high concept story and the strongest selling point about your project is your amazing, original hook, then focus on that. If you have a truly original idea that hasn’t been done or you have a crazy new twist on a great existing concept that when you hear it, you get the story completely, then all you will really need to do is give them an awesome logline that gets that across and some perfect comparison movies that get your concept across (it’s THIS meets THAT). If you have a truly original – and COMMERCIAL – concept, you will get a visceral reaction to your logline. If you get no reaction, then either your logline sucks or you don’t have an original concept that grabs people’s attention and you will have to go into more depth on the story. Try to go through whatever exemplifies what’s original about your story.
Focus on the elements of your script that will make it stand out – the world of your script, the locations, time periods, twists and turns in the plot, etc. If you have written a futuristic thriller, and your world is so visual and creative that it jumps off the page – then focus on that world and bring the exec into it. Give them the highlights that will help them picture it and then go into the specifics of the story that will bring that world to life. Focus more on the actual plot and the build of the story to tell us why audiences will be hooked all the way through.
However, you should never EVER pitch the structure of your story. It is a major amateur mistake to just go through the Save the Cat structural beat sheet instead of the actual PLOT. Tell them a story like you would describe a movie you just saw to a friend. You’d never say “And then as we broke into three, the character did this…”
Examples of movies that would probably be pitched this way – Olympus Has Fallen, Alien, Shaun of the Dead, Taken, The Departed, The Help, The Hangover, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, Looper, etc.
2. Focus on Character, Arc and Relationships. Sometimes a project is more character-driven than plot driven and the new angle or most interesting aspect of your story will be the characters you create and the journey they embark on. Or perhaps it’s about a special relationship that is forged over the course of the story that will really touch an audience like in Thelma and Louise or Superbad (Side note: It’s often the creation of a great dynamic or relationship and putting that into a high concept story that makes the most sellable projects). In this case, you want to really make us love both your characters and get across their dynamic and backstory.
Sometimes a character is so complex, interesting or relatable that it’s the casting possibilities that hook an executive. Sometimes it’s the specific goals they have to accomplish and the obstacles they face that will make a story stand out. Focus on your character’s life, their struggles, their goals, give a morsel of their backstory, and then tell us what happens that totally turns their life upside down (the inciting incident) and what they have to do now. Build them up, tear them down, and tell us why we will want to watch it.
Very often, it’s the non-high concept or more indie films that might be better pitched this way. Or a film that’s based on a real person and their life story. Example include; Magic Mike, Little Miss Sunshine, Erin Brockovich, Castaway, Rocky, Jerry Maguire, Into the Wild, Lost in Translation, Royal Tenenbaums, etc.
3. Focus on You and your personal story. Sometimes it’s not about making them love your pitch or your project, it’s about making them love YOU. I can’t tell you the number of pitches I’ve taken where I hated the story, but there was something so charming, relatable or likable about the writer that I asked to read a writing sample anyway. If you can come off as comfortable, professional, collaborative, fun to be around (without being an over the top clown who is trying to hard), and someone who truly knows their shit – then they will want to deal with you more. If you mind your manners, have a pleasant disposition, are decently attractive, dressed normally, have done your research, and just have a disarming way about you, that will often get you further than a great logline. It comes down to three things – don’t be combative, don’t be desperate, and don’t be crazy.
If you have real experience in the film industry or with writing in general in other areas, then you want to stress that. If you’ve won MAJOR contests (and I said WON), you want to mention that. If there’s something that is special about you or that you can claim that no one else can, then mention that.
And if there is something about your life or your personal story or experiences that inspired the script you have written that will make us connect with you, you should share that. If you wrote an international action movie and you were a soldier fighting overseas, then that’s great to mention. If you wrote a sci-fi thriller and you’re a scientist or engineer who has been studying the very field you are writing about, then say that. If you were in a bank when it got robbed and it inspired you to write a heist movie, share that story. If you were witness to some huge event in time and you have a specific point of view or new information and your life rights are truly important to the story, then share that. If you are an EXPERT in a certain field, let them know.
However, there are some major exceptions to this rule!! If your script is about a woman who got beaten, raped, divorced, diagnosed as clinically insane, was sold into sex slavery, raised in a cult, got cancer 17 times, etc., and it’s your own personal true story – keep it to yourself. Keep it light, but meaningful. This is not a therapy session, it’s a pitch meeting. You want to share something that will inspire a connection and confidence – not pity.
Especially if you are pitching an agent or manager, you want to pitch YOU much more than a single story. Show them you have a real vision for your career, know what type of writer you want to be, what genres you want to write, whose career you’d like to have in 10 years, and what you’ve been doing to work towards that.
4. Focus on the Trailer Moments. Sometimes the plot and the characters may not insanely original or strong, but you have some awesome moments in your script and story that are sure to get people into the theater. This usually applies more to comedies, action films and horror movies, but if you know you have created some amazing set pieces or huge scares or amazing original action scenes, then that’s what you should highlight in your pitch. Don’t go through a character’s backstory or the beat by beat story – give us a logline, a quick overview of the story and then give us more of the specific, visual, compelling examples of the best parts of your story. Treat your pitch like you were writing a movie trailer. Set up the world in 1 line, set up the protagonist in 2 lines, give us the inciting incident that kicks the story into gear, and then give us the trailer moments and build to the amazing climax.
Examples of movies that would probably be pitched this way include Project X, The Expendables, Evil Dead, Spring Breakers, Fast and the Furious, There’s Something About Mary, etc.
5. Focus on creating a relationship. This is where instead of sitting down to rapid-fire pitch a memorized speech for 4 and a half minutes and hope for the best, you just want to take the time to culture a relationship and create a connection. Get to know the person, learn what they look for, what type of project they’ve always wanted to find, what their pet peeves are, ask for general career advice and try to make yourself seem like someone who isn’t trying to SELL them something, but instead is someone they might want to get a drink with. This especially works if the conference you’re pitching at is NOT in LA, because those execs WILL be going to get drinks later and if you seem cool enough, they may invite you to come with. The best sales jobs are the ones where you’re not actually selling anything…while selling everything. The key to this kind of ballsy pitch is to make it seem natural – and they will know when you’re putting them on. But let them know you’re working on some new projects and that you’d love to contact them at some point in the future, etc.
Whether you’re in NY or Toronto this weekend, or any other pitching situation in the future, know what your strongest selling points are (and your story’s) and let that dictate what kind of pitch will be the best fit.
**On Saturday, April 13th, I will be teaching a LIVE in-store class at The Writers Store in Burbank. “12 Steps to a Screen-Worthy Script.” If you’re in LA area, you should be there! Sign up now and you get a free Logline Critique! We’ll go through different exercises and the 12 steps to getting your script to the next level. For more info and to register, click here – http://www.writersstore.com/12-steps-to-a-screen-worth-script/