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  • 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.

  • Writing Yourself Out of a Hole

    March 26th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    There’s an old story I’m tweaking slightly for our purposes that goes…

    A screenwriter is walking down the street and falls into a deep hole and can’t get out.

    A Director comes by and the screenwriter yells, “Hey, I’ve fallen into this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?”

    The Director throws a camera down the hole and says, “I can’t get you out, but if you film your journey, I can make it into a movie.” And he moves on.

    Then an Executive Producer comes by and the screenwriter yells, “Hey, I’ve fallen into this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?”

    The Exec Producer takes out his wallet and throws a bunch of money down the hole and says “I can’t get you out, but if you figure out the way, I’ll pay for it.” And he moves on.

    Finally, a fellow screenwriter passes by and the writer in the hole yells out, “Hey, I’ve fallen into this hole and I can’t get out. Can you help me?”

    The second screenwriter immediately jumps down into the hole with him. The first writer turns to him and says, “Well that was stupid, now we’re both trapped in this hole.”

    And the second screenwriter says, “Yeah, but I’ve been down in this hole before and I know the way out.”

    Writers write themselves into holes all the time. But the sign of a truly great writer is being able to write yourself out of it. And let me tell you, more than 80% of writers – can’t.

    Writing yourself into a hole usually happens if you haven’t planned, plotted, outlined or completed character exercises before starting to write. If you get stuck and you’re not sure what should come next, or after you’ve started rewriting and you (or someone else) find tons of plot holes and unanswered questions – you’ve written yourself into a hole.

    And I’m guilty of this myself. On the conspiracy thriller script I was hired to write, I had a rough treatment going in, but the person who hired me and had written the treatment forgot one major part…the conspiracy. So, we knew where the story started and we knew where it ended and we knew a few of the major moments and action in the middle. But I started writing before I really nailed down how the conspiracy was going to come together or how everyone was exactly connected and what the pieces of evidence were that would ultimately expose said conspiracy… And guess what…I wrote myself into a hole. I had killed a character that I realized could have been the key. I had created a conflict that caused a major plot hole before I had thought of a solution. And I didn’t know exactly how to pace the conspiracy so it would make sense but not reveal too much, too soon. And the hole began to get deeper.

    So when you find that a question is unanswered or a plot hole has formed, instead of continuing on the same road hoping the hole disappears, here are some of the major things to think about and examine to go back and cement that hole and keep your story moving.

    –          Set Ups – I dare say that 60% of all plot holes and story issues exist because the writer has failed to set up something earlier on that would help explain it all. A set up doesn’t always have to be a big extravagant moment – it can be a quick line or quick shot of off-color comment, but that we will connect later on to what’s happening. If your character has to know how to climb a mountain in order to escape her situation in the climax and you’ve never set this up that she knows how – you’ve written yourself into a hole. But instead of going back and inserting many scenes of her climbing, you could just show us pictures of her doing this in the first act or show us mountain climbing ropes and gear in her car, etc. It’s all about set ups, but it doesn’t always means retooling your whole story.

    –          Motivations – Look at why you’re characters are there, doing what they’re doing, and why (and if) it’s important to them, what they have to accomplish and why (what happens if they don’t accomplish it?). You may find that your hole has been created because your characters are doing something unnecessary or not set up as being important to them. If your characters are only doing something because YOU need them to in order for other things to make sense, then you may be writing yourself deeper into a hole.

    –          Locations – Look at where the action (and the hole) is taking place. Do your characters have to be here or is there an easier way? Is it a location that makes sense to the story and action taking place? If it feels like your characters are just pinging back and forth between different locations, is there a way to condense them so your story won’t feel confusing or scenes won’t seem unnecessary? But also, do your locations give you enough opportunities for action or scares or comedy and afford you the visuals you need to make your scenes work without forcing it? If not, you may want to think about changing your locations.

    –          Coincidences – If big moments in your script (more than 1 or 2) only occur because of coincidences taking place, then your plot is not strong enough and you will be writing yourself into a hole. If “coincidence” is the only explanation for your action, you’re not outlining enough. Go back and think of other ways or reasons why that “thing” could occur or bring your characters to where “it” occurs.

    –          Brainstorming – It’s all about thinking about different ways to obtain the same result. If your character has to get into a house without being heard, think of 5 ways for him to do so. Always give yourself options and see which one makes the most sense for your set ups, your characters and your purpose. Ask other people if you need to.

    –          Streamlining – Very often holes are created because you’re trying to do too much with your plot or action or you’re working too many characters into the plot because you think it will keep things interesting. Streamlining your story and only including plot points, subplots and characters that advance the important storylines and arcs of your protagonist will ensure that you don’t write yourself into unnecessary holes.

    –          Common Sense – When all else fails, follow an old adage that always holds true – KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUPID. If you find that your characters are trapped in a situation or have to do something and they don’t know how to, just use common sense. Think about what YOU would do to get out of that situation – then make it visual.

    So many writers try to get all complex and intricate with their conspiracies or their action or even small innocuous things – like getting through a front door for example.  But sometimes you don’t have to wire a tree to break a window to signal the dog to chase the cat to jump on a bookshelf to knock over a lamp to ignite a fire to burn the door down…Sometimes you can just turn the fucking doorknob and walk inside.

    There are so many holes that writers can find themselves trapped in – don’t let it be one you’ve created for yourself. And if you do find yourself looking up from that position, don’t be afraid to ask others who have been there for help.

  • Everything’s Bigger in Texas…

    September 25th, 2009

    Last weekend I had the pleasure of travelling down to Dallas, TX to speak to the Dallas Screenwriters Association. I had never been to Dallas before – or even Texas for that matter – and I didn’t quite know what to expect, but what I got was a whole lot of hometown hospitality. I have to say that the DSA really went out of their way to make me feel at home and they couldn’t have taken better care of me if they were my Mama. Now that I’ve been to Dallas, I have to say Mama. I think it’s a rule.

     

    Anyway, after an impossibly early flight (executives don’t know what 530am looks like – we’re spoiled and roll out of bed around 830), Carolyn Hodge, the President of the DSA and the person who had taken a class of mine in Santa Fe and thought I’d be a great speaker for her group, took me to lunch and then I had a short while to prepare before being whisked away to Downtown Dallas to teach.

     

    I gave my seminar “Becoming Your Own Development Executive – How to Look at Your Script from the Executive Perspective,” complete with  a power point I had completed about 16 hours prior to the class. Shhhhhh….But we had a great turn out and the class went very well! Whew! Before the class, I had a few people ask me when the speaker was going to get there – I think they were a bit surprised that someone with such dashing young good looks could be their speaker (just kidding). But everyone was great and seemed to really enjoy the class.

     

    It was the first time I had ever taught in a theater-type setting, which was nice – it felt like I was performing my own one-man show.  Afterwards, we went to Denny’s – that’s right Denny’s. And I’ll be damned if their super cheese burger fries weren’t rootin’-tootin’ fantastic. Ha! But I was exhausted.  I was being housed by DSA Board member Steve and his wife Lisa, whose house I could have sworn was an actual Bed and Breakfast or at least should be! Their three adorable dogs including Truman, who I’m still pretty sure was part dinosaur, made me feel right at home. And after getting back to their house at about 1130pm, and being up since 530 on 3 hours sleep, I promptly hit the sack like a ton of bricks.

     

    On Saturday morning, I had private No Bull Consultations and met with some lovely writers. Some more eccentric than others, but it’s personality and variety that make this job fun. And I realized something – in every city I go to other than Los Angeles, people pitch me spiritual projects. It’s an odd phenomenon that us Godless Infidels of LA don’t quite grasp. And one that I will be blogging about in the very near future both on this site and on BOSI.

     

    After the consults, Carolyn was gracious enough to take me to lunch and then to the JFK Museum at the Book Depository. Despite it being quite warm in there and the tour taking about 2 hours longer than I had thought it would take, it was quite enlightening and emotional. And to see the grassy knoll – which by the way is JUST a grassy knoll – was pretty cool. I don’t know why I expected something different. But a good time was had and then it was back to Steve’s for a Texas Style BBQ in my honor. I’m pretty sure it’s the first time a Texas BBQ was ever thrown for a Jew, and I appreciate that!

     

    Good food, nice people, interesting conversation, and somewhere around 10pm, I found myself drunk. And if that’s not the sign of a good BBQ, I don’t know what is. Ha! But the next morning, I boarded a plane and came back to LA. Silly City Boy I am, I expected cowboy hats, cacti,  big hair, cows being roped in the street, and at least one really funny accent, but I was surprised to learn that Dallas is actually a whole lot like Los Angeles, just a bit more humid. And they like the Cowboys, but no city’s perfect.

     

    I want to sincerely thank Carolyn, Steve and Lisa for their incredible hospitality, and everyone else at the DSA, everyone who came out to see the seminar, have private consults or just shared a pork sandwich with me. You definitely know how to make your special guest feel special and I look forward to coming back real soon…Yee haw!

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