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  • Watch That Next Step!

    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.

    AWESOME!

    …..Now what?

    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.

  • Confessons of a Contest Judge: The Differences Between Semifinalists & Winners

    September 9th, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    The last couple weeks I have been judging the semifinal round of the prestigious PAGE Awards in the Horror/Thriller category. It’s my fourth year as one of their judges and I have had a pretty darn good track record in choosing the top scripts, picking the winners 2 out of the last 3 years (this year’s still being decided).

    I know contests can sometimes feel like this vague guessing game to writers. They’re subjective, often inconsistent, some have anonymous readers and judges, and there are SO many out there, each with their own lofty promises and prizes, that it’s hard to know which are worthwhile and which are a waste of $40. And with every year, there are more submissions and increased competition to overcome.

    When I started reading for PAGE just 4 years ago, there were just 4,500 submissions. Now, there are over 6,000. Six thousand writers vying for 31 prizes, including the grand prize of $25,000 and of course all the access and accolades that go along with that. But those are some daunting odds – 31 out of over 6,000. THAT’S how good your script needs to be. And those are better chances than most other contests which only have a couple prize winners and don’t break it down by genre. This is also why submitting to nationally (or worldwide) recognized, prestigious contests have become a launching pad for new talent – because you have to be better than SO many other writers that Hollywood is almost forced to take notice.

    Yes, some good scripts don’t get through that should. And that goes for EVERY contest. I have a couple clients that won or were finalists in one prestigious contest that didn’t get to the quarters of another with the same exact script. It happens. Sometimes it just comes down to the reader and there’s nothing you can do but brush it off and try again next year.

    Contests aren’t a shortcut to getting discovered, but they are one major avenue that didn’t really exist 10 or 15 years ago that writers can use to break in. The prestige and results that winners of the PAGE Awards find, and the level of writing in the semis, is the reason I continue to judge for them (I’ve judged for other smaller contests as well over the years).

    However, the reason I wanted to write this article is to share with you some lessons and trends that I have noticed, especially this year, as well as give you some insight into what judges are looking for when they read and why, perhaps, your script has been a consummate quarterfinalist or semifinalist, instead of a winner.

    A script wins when the right story, writing, character, commerciality, voice, timing, and luck all come together. And you only have control over a few of those, which I know is frustrating. You could write an amazing script, but if it’s exactly like the film that just came out 2 weeks ago, you’re probably not going to win.

    Semifinalists are scripts with really strong writing and story and resonance for a reader. Winning scripts just have that something extra. They don’t read like a contest script – they read like a professionally written Hollywood film that just hasn’t been made yet. There are a LOT of really GOOD scripts out there. Winning scripts feel like films.

    I can’t speak for other categories, but every year in the horror/thriller section, there are clear trends that stand out. This DOES NOT mean that judges or readers are looking for any specific type of story – especially since there are so many different readers involved before the 25 semifinalist scripts make their way to my desk. Some of it may relate to what is commercial in the marketplace, but it really just comes down to the writing and hook on the concept.

    My first year, the trend was clear – zombies, vampires and werewolves. Those 3 types of stories made up for at least 10 of the 25 semifinalists (the winner that year, by the way, was MAGGIE which comes out this November and stars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin).

    The following year, there was an increase in creature features of the non-vampire/werewolf variety and that seemed to be the trend. Last year there were more supernatural projects and found footage stories, as well as a higher number of thrillers than horror.

    This year, the trends were glaring and possibly clearer than ever before…

    By FAR the biggest trend this year…was children. 13 out of the 25 scripts were based around kids being kidnapped, murdered, brutalized, and/or needing to be saved from something. Add three MORE to that list if including the unborn, older teens, or adult children of the protagonist.

    That is a HUGE number. And I think the reason is pretty clear. It’s not because the judges are sadistic or are enjoy reading about murdered children – believe me, that’s NOT the case as some were very hard to read no matter how well-written. The reason is because what could create higher stakes or more fear or emotional resonance than a missing, abused or murdered child? What could make for a stronger and more relatable motivation for a protagonist than trying to rescue their child or seeking vengeance for their death?

    There have always been “evil child” movies and they’ve always done well. But after the success of films like Taken (and its sequels), Prisoners, Gone Baby Gone, Lovely Bones, Insidious, etc., films about children as victims instead of being the evil entity themselves, are also succeeding. And this year, they have clearly succeeded in this category.

    Along the same lines, the second biggest trend this year was REVENGE. It was the guiding motivation, theme or driving force behind 12 of this year’s semifinalists. In thrillers and horror, revenge is always popular, and it was exploited in different ways in this year’s offerings. Revenge by the hero, revenge by the antagonist, revenge by society. It’s an emotion everyone can grasp and get behind. What makes it stand out is HOW it’s used – not why.

    Trend number 3 was a massive increase in the brutality of the action and gore contained in this year’s scripts. In a year where 15 scripts involved children or teen victims, the amount of sheer brutality and detail involved was sometimes a bit shocking.

    Brutality is different than “torture porn”, however, which hasn’t been selling for a few years. The difference between brutality and torture porn is purpose, context and literary quality, which can often bring out one’s voice. Torture porn is about finding new disgusting, extreme ways of torturing or killing people or ripping off their body parts for gruesome shock effect. It’s about resonance on a visual scale.

    Brutality is often about resonance on an emotional scale. It often makes you uncomfortable or makes you cringe – but not scream. It could be the same repeated simple action – a punch to the face – but when done 15 times, the description of the consequences of that punch become increasingly brutal and visceral. That being said, I feel like many writers were trying to get their Tarantino on this year – and for some it paid off, and for others it really didn’t.

    The final two story trends aren’t new, but combined made up for about 6 of the 25 scripts. These are – Military experiments gone wrong; and haunted locations. What’s odd is that the haunted locations were all the same type of location, and the “creatures” were all somewhat similar, which for me, made the scripts harder to stand out despite some very nice writing.

    When it comes to similar concepts, what makes them stand out is the originality in hook and voice. Sometimes the hook is related to the location or time period, sometimes it’s what the characters must accomplish or how or why they must accomplish it, sometimes it’s the characters themselves, and sometimes it’s the combination of two hooks that really elevate a project and make it different than the others. That was definitely the case with some of the stronger scripts this year.

    Another very interesting trend this year wasn’t so much story related, but structure. It felt like some writers hoped that judges would only read the first 20 pages and the last 10, and that is NOT the case. We read every word. There were a large number of scripts that had an AMAZING first 15-20 pages – but just couldn’t keep up that level of skill or consistency in tone, voice or plot throughout the rest of the script. You need to make sure that you’re not just starting strong with a great set-up, but that you have an EQUALLY strong execution and pay-off throughout the script. Keep in mind, writers – EVERY sequence needs to be as strong as your opening and closing sequences.

    At the end of the day, it comes down to the X-Factor. The voice. That THING writers have where you know it when you read it, and it just jumps out at you and grabs you (often) immediately. It’s a gut reaction and connection I get to scripts and the writing, and after doing this for over a decade and reading and evaluating many thousands of scripts, my instincts on voice and story are pretty darn strong.

    Sure, I look for strong complex characters with strong goals, motivations, and deeper needs and flaws. Sure, I look at the originality of the concept and hook on that concept and how that is brought out in the story. Sure, I look at the dialogue and if it flows and feels natural and genuine and tight and powerful and if it’s full of personality and DISTINCT character voices. Sure, I look at transitions and themes and structure and if the script moves well and is an easy, enjoyable read. And sure, I take into consideration if it’s something that could sell or garner attention in the marketplace or by a manager or agent. But then there’s the X-Factor. The question I ask myself is – if you had to stake your name and reputation on a handful of these scripts, which ones would they be? Those are my top choices.

    The past two years have been MUCH harder to judge and pick a winner than the first two years where it was pretty darn obvious (to me) who the winners were. Why? Well, with the increased number of submissions, it really is the cream of the crop rising to the semifinals. My first two years, I was scoring scripts in the 50s and 60s. This year, 73 was the lowest score I gave.

    For the first time, I could probably count on two hands the number of typos I found between ALL 25 scripts! That was NOT the case 3 years ago, believe me! It’s certainly not the MOST important thing, but if you’re not meticulously proofreading your scripts and making sure your formatting is professional, it may be the thing that keeps you from advancing to the later rounds. I’ve got 2600 pages to read – your job as a writer is to make reading them easier and fun.

    This year, it was a hard choice as all of the top scripts were executed well, but I am very content with my picks. I was so pleased with the quality of the writing this year and I look forward to seeing what takes home the big prize.

    In the meantime, good luck and keep writing!

    ***If you are a perennial quarter or semi-finalist, I encourage you to check out my services page and sign up for my 4-Week online course “Create More Compelling, Castable Characters” – guaranteed to help you create stronger, more elevated characters and stories to help get your scripts to the next level. Begins Sept 26th! Click here for more details – www.compellingcharacters.eventbrite.com

  • Were Screenwriters Dissed at This Year’s Oscars?

    March 3rd, 2014

    By Danny Manus

    Since last night’s Oscars ceremony, there has been a lot of chatter by writers (both pro and amateur) on social media that screenwriters were all but forgotten in the telecast and in the winner’s speeches. I even got an email this morning from a client wondering why those responsible for the stories aren’t being appreciated by Hollywood anymore.

    In response to this, I have two answers.

    First – while Robert De Niro’s somewhat insulting and stereotypical introduction to the Best Screenplay Oscar didn’t help, I don’t think writers WERE forgotten from the telecast. They received their Oscars like everyone else in every other category. They weren’t dismissed any more than production designers or editors were. Screenwriters are hardly ever the FOCUS of the Oscars – it’s a night based around the actors, directors and films themselves. If it wasn’t for the WGA, the Screenplay awards would probably be given out at the Creative Arts Ceremony.

    That being said, my second point is that the lack of mention of the writing and writers from the winners last night I think illuminated something painfully obvious in the films nominated…the writing wasn’t THAT great.

    Sometimes it’s the powerful words on the page that elicit fantastic performances from actors. And sometimes, it’s the fantastic and powerful performances from the actors that bring the words on the page to life. And in 2013, I dare say it was the latter that occurred.

    Looking at the projects that won big last night, Gravity and Dallas Buyers Club specifically, these were not movies driven by story or script. These were not films driven by powerful dialogue. These were films driven by powerful performances and technical achievement. In Dallas, let’s be honest – it wasn’t the words McConaughey or Leto said that made that movie special – it was the WAY they said them and their immersion in their roles. And that’s not due to the writer.

    In Gravity’s case, it was a film driven by the DIRECTOR’S vision and technical handling of the material and how that skill created a movie-going experience unlike any other. But no one thought Gravity had a very strong story or script.

    American Hustle went home empty handed (which was fine by me) and its biggest criticism was that while the PERFORMANCES were great, and the world was original, the actual story and plot wasn’t very strong. It had style and voice, but not much substance. It had a few powerful scenes, but it was Amy Adams and Jennifer Lawrence that made those words shine.

    The Wolf of Wall Street was a much loved movie with some great dialogue and memorable scenes and performances. In fact, it probably has the most quotable lines of any nominated film. But with more F-bombs than any other film in history, an often muddy theme, and a story that seemed to end three different times in its 3-hour plus running time, the script was seen as overwritten and could have been tighter.

    In Blue Jasmine, because of all the negative media attention Woody Allen has been receiving, people wanted to play it safe and just focus on Cate Blanchett’s masterful delivery of the words and emotional turns instead of the writing itself.

    Then there’s 12 Years a Slave. It won for Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay but because of the drama behind the scenes, writer John Ridley and Director Steve McQueen didn’t even mention each other in their speeches. There are sometimes a lot of politics in screenwriting. John Ridley has a history of writing scripts that get completely rewritten and then arbitrating for credit, which brings up another major point for why screenwriters perhaps aren’t being as well-respected anymore.

    Every script is rewritten. A lot. Sometimes by many different writers (or producers or executives or directors or actors) to the point where the original script is barely recognizable and the original writer getting credit often isn’t the one who wrote the best lines. And because Hollywood knows this, they have stopped celebrating the writer the way they used to.

    It’s not that ANYONE can just write a great script. But it often takes a village to create one these days. The only projects that get made with only the single original writer working on the script are ones where the writer is also the director, producer or star. So how do you celebrate a screenwriter who only wrote maybe 50% of a script while everyone else gets nothing (but a paycheck) for their efforts?

    In addition to this, the majority of films produced and released these days are based on already existing properties (books, comics, TV shows, etc.) that get adapted by a team of writers. I’m not saying it’s easier to adapt than write an original project – it’s a very different and equally important skill – but when the spine of the story, the characters and even some of the dialogue is already written, which writer do you celebrate?

    Two of the best written scripts of the year (in my opinion) – Her and Philomena – were films that weren’t going to win the big prize and didn’t make as much money as some of the others so they didn’t get the attention they deserved. I’m thrilled that Her won – it deserved to. Of all the scripts, it had perhaps the most insightful dialogue and the most memorable, quotable lines. But for most of the other memorable lines of 2013, you’d have to look outside the 9 nominated films.

    And that’s the litmus test for truly great, memorable writing – how many lines become part of the zeitgeist. How many withstand the test of time. Try to list your 10 favorite lines from films last year. Could you even name 10 quotable lines from the 9 nominated films? I’m willing to bet you can’t. But let’s try…

    “I’m doing this from the feet up.”

    “Falling in love is a socially acceptable form of insanity.”

    “I don’t want to survive. I want to live.”

    “I hate space.”

    “You’re nothing to me until you’re everything.”

    “Sell me this pen.”

    “You have my money taped to your tits. Technically, you do work for me.”

    “I’m the Captain now.”

    “I don’t want to hate people. I don’t want to be like you.”

    “I never knew the son of a bitch even wanted to be a millionaire! He should have thought about that years ago and worked for it!”

    Whew…10.  

    No offense but do ANY of those lines have the resonance of “You can’t handle the truth!” or “I ate his liver with a side of fava beans and a nice chianti” or “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me” or “The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn’t exist” or “They’re called boobs, Ed.” I don’t think so.  The lines from HER are the closest for me to being iconic.

    You want projects with truly deep, powerful writing where the screenwriter is celebrated, then watch the Independent Spirit Awards. Or attend the Nicholls Fellowship Winners Ceremony.

    You want Hollywood to celebrate screenwriters more, then they need to produce more ORIGINAL scripts written by FEWER writers. Until then, we’re all just cogs in the system and cogs don’t get celebrated. They just keep cogging away.

  • Me and Mr. Gilligan (at Austin Film Fest)

    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.

  • The Right and Wrong Way to Enter Contests!

    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:

    1. Prestige
    2. Payoff
    3. Readiness/Preparedness
    4. Genre

    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.

  • The Biggest Threat to Screenwriters in the Digital Age

    March 26th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    It used to be that a screenwriter’s biggest fear was pitching or sending a script to a producer and them stealing their idea and making a billion dollars without them. But in the new digital, social media age where every week there seems to be a new website that writers can post their scripts on in the hopes of being reviewed, loved and discovered, the biggest threat to screenwriters – is other screenwriters.

    Between Amazon, BlackList, Talentville, Virtual Pitchfest, InkTip, Greenlightmymovie, Triggerstreet, SpecScout and many more – there are a ton of websites that promise (or at least intimate) you will gain access, attention, accolades and success from Hollywood heavyweights by using their sites and posting your scripts or pitches or synopses. And many of them do have great success stories. Some of them are even free. But there’s a downside to posting your script in a forum or on a site where ANYONE – not just Hollywood professionals – can see it.

    Let me preface this article by saying that I don’t have anything against any of the aforementioned sites and I have worked with (and continue to work with) a few of them. I believe the people running all of those sites have the best of intentions and are not doing anything wrong.

    However, this past week, one of my clients (who will remain nameless but I’m sure many of you reading this may know who I’m talking about) had an issue on one of these popular script-posting/review sites. She discovered that there was another project with the same title and basic concept, time period and protagonist posted onto the site months after she had posted hers. Now, it was a TV script and hers was a feature, and after reading both it was clear to me there were notable differences in the stories, writing and focus. But, they were definitely similar. And while it wasn’t a wholly original story, it was original enough – especially the title – to draw some ire from numerous writers.

    After much ado, and numerous emails between the parties (some of them contentious), the situation was looked into by the website and resolved as best as possible considering no one had sold their project yet and no one could actually PROVE anything. Though mark my words – if one of their projects sells, there will be a lawsuit. Which means both their projects are now tainted and if a production company hears there might be a registration claim against a script, they will most likely stay away.

    Writers need to know there is basically no recourse through the site when something like this happens (especially if it’s a FREE site), because most have terms and conditions you have to agree to before you post your material, and any smart site will include a big old paragraph that basically says – “Post at your own risk. It ain’t our fault if your story gets jacked.”  At least, that’s the legal terminology I would use.

    In addition, if you’re posting into Facebook groups, screenwriting forums like the notorious Done Deal Pro or others, many people use screen names, fake names or pseudonyms – so you’d never be able to find out who actually took your idea.

    Let me ask you something – why the hell do you care what a fellow amateur screenwriter living 3000 miles away from you thinks about your screenplay? Do you know what their opinion means? Absolutely nothing! Many of these sites and forums are the blind leading the blind. And in the land of the blind, the one-eyed-man is king.

    Situations like the one I mentioned above seem to be happening on a weekly basis now – and it’s not going to improve until these sites take more control over what’s being posted and have a more in-depth system or screening process or algorithm to compare (or search for) projects. Or until writers realize that posting their script for peer reviews is mostly a waste of time and often opens them up to more harm than good. Everyone is so hell bent on getting feedback from EVERYONE and getting their script in front of as many eyes as possible, that they don’t realize some of the pitfalls of posting their projects or loglines or ideas online.

    And some contests aren’t much better. First and second round judges for many contests out there, are writers. Perhaps they’re writers with a couple options under their belt or a manager or agent, or some credits. But for the most part, it’s out of work writers trying to make some extra money. And the rest of the judges are readers, who get 20 bucks a script. It isn’t until the quarter or semifinal rounds where more major Hollywood professionals get involved in the judging.

    So this leaves burgeoning writers with two very important questions – How do you promote yourself, get read and try to break in while ensuring your ideas won’t be stolen? And are you sabotaging your career if you refuse to post your scripts on these websites or enter contests?

    The answer to the first question is just to be smart and protect yourself and always keep a paper trail! Know when you registered the script, know when you copyrighted it, know when you started writing it, know the first time you pitched it to someone. Know what sites, at what times, your script was posted and keep a log of who has seen it or read it or commented on it. And that goes for your writers groups and friends as well. Because if there is one thing I’ve learned after 10 years in this business, it’s that friendships don’t mean dick when there’s money at stake.

    Read ALL terms and conditions before you post. Try to post on sites where there is more DIRECT access to professionals or where it’s only professionals who can access your projects. Or where YOU can control the access. At least with Virtual Pitchfest, for example, your query letter goes directly to the professional and no one else is able to see it.

    The answer to the latter question I posed, is YES. By choosing NOT to put your script out there at all, you are cutting off your nose to spite your face. You can’t be THAT precious with your idea, because chances are it’s already been done anyway. And if you’re not trying to pitch and sell your idea, then what was the point in writing it? You can’t sit there and complain that you’re not being discovered if you’re not being pro-active about getting your script read. But again, you have to protect yourself.

    Do NOT post your brand new, unregistered idea or logline or synopsis in Facebook groups or on twitter or in ANY screenwriting forum asking for feedback. If you want to know if your idea or project sounds commercial and might be worth pursuing, or you want to brainstorm your story concepts (especially before they are written), then for the love of God – go to someone who isn’t a fellow writer! You’re not selling your project to other writers anyway – you’re selling them to execs, producers and reps!

    I realize I’m a bit biased here, but use a professional! Pay the $50 bucks and use a professional who can give you constructive feedback but will also keep your project confidential and won’t be wondering the whole time if your project and idea sounds better than the ones they are trying to write.

    Pitching to an executive or producer or submitting work to a script consultant or even your own personal writing groups is much safer than posting your story all over the internet. Why? Because the former all rely on their reputations staying intact in order to stay in business. And if someone in your writers group stole your idea – you’d know who they are, where to find them, and exactly how they got it. There would be a clear paper trail.

    Now, the law of averages – and the sheer number of writers and scripts out there – dictates that your idea was probably thought of by someone else, somewhere. Every few months, I get two clients that submit a similar story or concept and they live countries apart and have no connection to each other whatsoever. Even the most random of story ideas, has probably been thought of in some form by someone else. It’s just a coincidence and there’s nothing you can do about it. And just FYI, I do inform my clients when that occurs.

    This happens to professional writers and production companies all the time as well. When I was at my old production company, Clifford Werber Productions, I sold an “Oz” movie to United Artists. We were first out of the gate. But within months there were 4 other Oz projects set up and as you can see…ours didn’t win the race. We developed a revamped Jack and the Beanstalk…oh well. We developed a project called “Family Bond” and the very week we sent it out to the town, another script titled “Family Bonds” (with an S) was also sent around by another producer and the story was eerily similar. And just this month, a consulting client of mine submitted a script with the same concept as one I developed years ago at CWP. It happens all the time because as different as we are, humans all share certain experiences and people write what they know.

    And if you suspect that one of your projects, ideas or scripts has been “stolen” in some way, the best way to handle it – is calmly. Don’t go threatening lawsuits or demanding anything – especially of the sites on which the projects were posted. First, read the other writer’s project to make sure it’s not just a similar title or same broad generic idea. Make sure there are REAL similarities throughout the script. Investigate, do your due diligence, go back thru your paper trail, and contact the writer or the site and try to come up with a resolution that benefits you all. And worst comes to worst, take down your project and just move on to the next one. Because if your script has been posted on a site for 9 months and NO ONE has read it or contacted you about it – it’s not doing you any favors anyway.

    In the 90s, it was snail mail query letters. In the 2000s, it was email queries and pitchfests. In the 2010s, the new norm of breaking in for writers without connections is thru social media and self-promotion thru certain types of websites. And the fact that new writers can more easily connect to big Hollywood players is a great thing. But with these new rules and opportunities, come new threats and problems that writers need to be aware of, and protect themselves. And hopefully now, you’ll be a bit better prepared.

  • What You Can Learn from the 2012 Black List Scripts

    December 21st, 2012

    By Danny Manus

    This past week, the heavily publicized 2012 Black List was released. 78 scripts made the list this year, and what an eclectic bunch. Much like the last two years where I’ve analyzed the Black List scripts, this year’s crop raises a number of points, questions and lessons for writers…but perhaps the largest lesson this year’s list can teach us is — Hollywood’s just a popularity contest and no one really knows what the fuck they want.

    And just because something’s well-written does not mean it’s sellable.

    For the last 8 years, the Black List has not just been a barometer of talent, but of trends. It’s been a launching pad for careers – of both writers and reps – and it’s been a great way to discover new voices and praise the voices Hollywood already loved. It’s often been a predictor of what projects would be put into production the following year. And sometimes, it’s been a great way for producers to find awesome commercial projects that didn’t sell on the spec market and give them a second chance.

    I still think reading the Black List scripts is a great way to learn how a great voice can make a project stand out and jump off the page – even if it’s not commercial or original. And it may be a strong indicator of what types of projects agents and managers are attracted to.

    If you’d like to see the full list of scripts, click here – http://www.deadline.com/2012/12/black-list-2012-winners/

    This year, however, it feels much more like a popularity contest than ever before because most of the projects on this list would never get made (even if they did sell), and are simply not commercial in any way. And surprisingly, quite a few feel very cliché – though this may be due to their not-so-great loglines (which are created by The Black List).

    A disgraced cop goes after the serial killer who killed his partner; A teen tries to lose his virginity to the girl of his dreams; A man goes to the wedding of his ex-girlfriend to stop her from getting married; Geeky female high school outcasts decide to get revenge on the bully Queen Bee; After being dumped, a guy’s best friend devises a plan to get him laid by as many women as possible.

    These are the cream of the crop? Really? I’m not saying the concepts aren’t brought out in new ways or with great voices – but these concepts have been done a million times before.

    While it is executives and assistants who vote on these scripts, my guess is that these same execs PASSED on the script when it crossed their desk. Sure, they loved the writing and wished they could have gotten them made – but they couldn’t. They couldn’t sell them.  How do I know? Because if they could’ve….they’d be sold.

    Only about 50 of the 78 scripts listed have a producer attached, which is a lower number than previous years. And keep in mind, having a producer attached does not mean the producer will be able to get the project made. It just means it’s in development. Only about 25 of the scripts actually have financing (or companies that finance) behind them.

    The reason this year’s Black List scripts are such a paradox and hard to learn from is because they break all the rules. From formatting to voiceovers to genre to period to types of characters to page counts to rights issues…this year’s scripts broke all the rules.

    But keep in mind, ALL of the writers who made the Black List already have great agents and/or managers behind them and many of the writers have been produced, sold or optioned before.  The writer of the #1 (“Draft Day”) has even won a Pulitzer. So for the most part, these aren’t novice writers. But sometimes, the key to having a voice that screams from the page…is breaking some of the rules.

    The biggest rule broken, however, was subject matter and genre. For the last few years, anyone will tell you that the number one genre that is impossible to sell – is drama! And period dramas? Fuhgedaboutit.

    Yet of the 78 scripts on the list, well over 20 are straight dramas (not including dramedies) and almost 25 are period pieces (not including scripts set in the future).

    Also interesting to note – there are way more male protagonist stories than female on the list, and almost all of the female protagonists are either slutty or total basket-cases or overwhelmed mothers dealing with death. The only two real exceptions are the Hilary Rodham Clinton story “Rodham,” and “The Keeping Room” which is about 3 southern women who defend their home from the Union Army while their husbands are fighting in the Civil War.

    Here’s my full breakdown for those interested –

    –          23 period pieces (non-future)

    –          19 titles that start with ‘THE’

    –          11 True Stories

    –          9 Sci-fi scripts

    –          8 Small-town stories with large personal/emotional stakes

    –          6 Straight comedy or Romcom scripts (not including dramedies or mix-genres)

    –          6 Stories based on well-known real life people

    –          5 Projects based on already existing intellectual property

    –          5 Projects with veterans or soldiers as protagonists

    –          3 Political stories

    –          3 Projects with characters dying of cancer

    –          2 Sports stories (including the #1 script on the list)

    –          2 Handicapped main characters (mentally or physically)

    –          …And a partridge in a pear tree.

    While the Black List has always been – and still is – a great deal about “voice,” it used to ALSO be about scripts that COULD sell and get made, but just haven’t yet. Much of this year’s crop, however, lacks the high concept, pitchable quality of projects of yore.

    If you still don’t believe that The Black List has become a popularity contest that agents, managers and their assistants lobby (heavily) for, think about this –

    72 of the 78 scripts are rep’d by the 6 Major Agencies.

    40 of the scripts (that’s more than half) come from the same 9 management companies.

    Luckily, The Black List is no longer the only barometer of great unmade specs. The last couple years, there has also been The Blood List (for genre films), The Brit List, The Spec Scout Top 10 List and The Hit List, which comes from TheTrackingBoard.com.

    Despite both Spec Scout and Hit List predicting that their top scripts would also land at the top of the Black List…that wasn’t the case. Only 30 of the 84 scripts on the Hit List made the Black List as well, and only 3 of the Top 10 matched. Only 4 of the scripts on the Blood List made the Black List (the only 4 genre scripts that made it). And only 3 of the Spec Scout’s Top 10 scripts even made the Black List at all.

    This would indicate that the voters for Black List are a bit more snobby about their favorite material than those voting for other lists. It’s like the difference between the Nicholls judges and the Page Award judges.  Reading through the other scripts on The Hit List, voters clearly preferred more commercial and genre projects. And there are TWICE as many industry voters for the Hit List as the Black List.

    No matter what list you’re reading, the important part is that you’re reading tons of scripts. Whether they teach you what to do – or what not to do – reading scripts that are getting attention and praise in Hollywood can help improve your story skills and instincts and help you develop your own voice that perhaps will land you at the top of one of these lists next year.

  • Stop Querying the Wrong Way

    December 19th, 2011

    I don’t like to bad mouth other companies or services too much – at least not in a public forum – but there is a not-so-new type of service out there that has grown in popularity and I’d like to stop all of your from being duped into wasting your money on it.

    It’s the automated query letter services that promise to help you “BREAK IN” by sending your query letter to THOUSANDS of execs, agents and managers and getting your script read. They want to open up their Hollywood rolodex to YOU… 

    What a load of complete and utter bullshit!!  These services – who are usually anonymous and do not tell you who even RUNS the company – are complete RIPOFFS! All they have done is re-typed the Hollywood Creative Directory or IMDB Pro into an email database full of email addresses that look like INFO@RANDOMCOMPANY.COM and they charge you anywhere from $50-$300 to “fix” your query letter and blanket the town with it.

    And even for those companies who have their own more specific list of email addresses of real execs, I promise you – those companies and execs and agents are not waiting by the fax machine for the newest random query letter from these companies. You know why – because no one uses a fucking fax machine anymore. 

    The letters they send are not personalized (to your project or to the specific company), they are not referrals, they are not recommendations, and they generally DO NOT GET READ! They are a constant annoyance to executives who go through hundreds of REAL query letters sent by referrals, reputable companies and writers every month.

    These companies – and there are plenty out there including Scriptblaster, Sellingyourscreenplay.com, Equerydirect, Screenplay Writers Connection, etc – are based solely on the fact that you’re a lazy fucking idiot and incredibly desperate.

    They are betting on the fact that you’re too clueless and stupid to figure out how to get in contact with anyone in Hollywood and they have convinced you that they have connections. They don’t. And if they did, they no longer do because those contacts are pissed that they have to deal with a constant onslaught of UNSOLICITED queries from these companies. That’s right, the letters they send out – are UNSOLICITED.

    I was talking about this with my friend Zac Sanford from Suntaur Entertainment (and Scriptchat) the other day and he told me he had “unsubscribed” from at least two of these services, yet he keeps getting these query letters – which go right in the trash! That’s $50 you’re literally throwing out.

    There are so many problems with using these services, the biggest of which may be that there is no quality control. They will send ANYONE’S letter out no matter how stupid, shitty, poorly written or just plain retarded your idea, story, writing, or letter is. Which means even if your query letter and project is FANTASTIC, the execs won’t read it because they’ve gotten SO much shit from that e-blast company already that they know the odds of it being good are slim to none. 

    These services are NOT referrals. They are just leaches trying to take your desperate-writer money and making a promise to you that is impossible to keep. Now, is it possible that out of the 500 companies they send your query letter to, that 1 or 2 will actually request the script? Sure. Perhaps an intern got bored or an assistant was in a good mood that day. But the other 498 companies now think you’re a stupid, desperate amateur.

    Now, there are sites that are different than these query letter blast sites that actually can be worthwhile. Sites like InkTip and Virtual Pitchfest for example are not query letter BLAST sites. These are sites that execs have actually signed up for and have agreed to read your query letter on (or synopsis on InkTip). They are not unsolicited or random query emails or faxes.

    Through my No Bull Hollywood Connection Program, any script that gets a “recommend” from me has its logline and query letter sent out to over 40 companies (not 4,000) that have AGREED to read them. And it’s a personalized email from ME to one of my actual contacts that I know personally. And, I can count on two hands how many recommends I’ve given, so execs are not being bombarded every week with dozens of emails. Oh right – and it’s FREE!!

    There are other consultants and companies out there that do similar services, some charge and some don’t, but at least they are making personalized direct contact with someone they actually know. Someone that might actually do something with your script. These query blast sites – are not.

    You know what using these bullshit query letter services tell executives – that you’re lazy and you don’t know anything about Hollywood. It says you’re so far removed from Hollywood, that you don’t even know when you’re getting screwed by Hollywood. 

    Breaking in and getting read isn’t easy and it’s not free either. But there’s no shortcut to getting read by 1,000 companies. These e-blast script marketing companies are just taking advantage of you, your project, and your wallet. Don’t be fooled by any company that says they can market your screenplay and get it in the hands of 500 companies at once. They can’t. They can only get their emails deleted by 500 companies at once – and then cash your check.

  • How I Judged the PageAwards: Trends and Tips from a Contest Judge

    August 11th, 2011

    By Danny Manus

    For the last 2 weeks, I have been judging the semi-finalists of the PageAwards in the horror/thriller category. It’s my second year doing so and last year my 1st place choice ended up winning and 2 more of my top 5 scripts landed in the top 3. So…I have a legacy of taste to uphold.

    This year, there were some very interesting scripts and some very solid writing. Here’s an interesting break down for you…If all 27 of this year’s semi-finalist scripts had come to me through No BullScript for notes, there would have been 4 that got “Recommends,”  another 5 would have gotten “Strong Considers,” 7 that would have gotten a “Consider,” and 11 “Passes.”  And keep in mind this is the top 27 out of over 700 submissions in this category! So out of 700, only about 10-15 scripts were truly strong enough to stand out.

    What’s really interesting to me are the different (or similar) trends I discovered between the two years. Last year, out of 24 scripts, about 8 were horror, the rest thriller. Of those 8, they were all a mixture of torture porn, vampire, werewolf, zombie, or creature scripts (including 2 horror-comedies). This year, out of 27 scripts, there were 7 true horror projects but only 1 vampire and 3 creature movies.  No werewolves, no zombies, no torture porn.

    Why? Well, maybe writers realized that many of those trends are over in Hollywood and they have been done to death (pun intended). 

    Now, since these are the semi-finals, all the people who don’t know proper structure and format and can’t spell have already been weeded out. So here are the top things I looked for while reading these scripts (in no particular order):

    1. Does it grab me immediately, set the right tone, and make me keep reading?
    2. Is there an interesting and engaging voice from the writer?
    3. Do I care about the character(s) and do I want to know what happens to them?
    4. Is there something original and commercial about the story – is it sellable?
    5. Does the story exploit the concept and setup in the best way – did it go in the right direction?

    There’s plenty more elements – but those are the Big 5 for me.

    And do you know where MOST scripts fell flat for me? Number 5. Let me tell you – having a great first 15 pages is really important, but making sure your story stays at that level and goes in the best, most natural and commercial direction – is even more important!

    There’s nothing worse than falling in love with a script on page one, and falling out of love by page 30. It’s like breaking up with a girlfriend before you even get to sleep with her. Waste of time and energy. And it hurts a little bit…right…there. Because you saw the potential of that relationship, but it was never fully realized.

    And far too many really good scripts lost steam after the first act or half way through and just went in really wrong directions that were not natural to the story or characters’ set up.  There was one script that had the best first 10 pages I’ve read in a long time – but by page 25, the story had already lost its fire.  

    All of my top 5 scripts had good openings and grabbed me from the start, however 4 of them did not have the BEST openings. In fact the scripts that had my favorite openings, sadly, finished in the middle of the pack. They opened super strong, set up awesome characters and a great tone and story – and then went off-track. I was really disappointed.

    This is why plotting and outlining is so important, why knowing your characters and what they would (and wouldn’t do) is so important, why creating a fully fleshed-out antagonist in a horror/thriller is so important, and why keeping your story on its natural track is the key to a satisfying read.

    Here’s the other interesting trend – there were very few truly original concepts. There were many scripts that were well-written, but were exactly like other stuff out there and therefore, not really sellable. The ones that seemed to take two great concepts and blend them together really well to create this new, more original concept and hook – those were the ones I think I scored the highest.

    So, who will win? Your guess is as good as mine. Reading scripts is subjective and depends on 100 things including the mood and mindset of the reader. But I hope my top choices do well in the finals and I hope this helps you all with your next contest-winning script!

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