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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.


    …..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.

  • The Virtues of a Short Film

    February 27th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    A couple weeks ago, Dov Simens – that guy who teaches a very popular 2-day filmmaking course and cites Tarantino as one of his students – said that “the only thing that making a short film demonstrates is that you’re a 12 year old”. That there’s no point in making a 5-12 minute short film because they don’t sell and everyone these days seem to have one.

    Is he wrong? Sort of.

    Shorts don’t make money, that’s true. Even if your short film is nominated for an Academy Award – you’re still not quitting your day job from the money it brings in, especially if you financed it independently.

    And yes, the boom of handheld technology, iPhone apps, webcams and social media has lead everyone and their mother to think they are the next Chris Nolan. And many of the people creating and posting their “short films” are, in fact, 12 year olds.

    That being said, creating a high quality and well-produced short film is still a strong way to break in. It just takes much more than it used to because of the gluttony of product being created. I have produced two short films with talented directors, consulted on dozens more for clients, and have had a couple of those clients win major short film contests. But were any of their careers suddenly launched by these shorts? Nope.

    Yes, if you are lucky enough to have your short premiere (and win) at Sundance or Toronto, you will score meetings with managers and maybe even producers for your next project. And winning the 48-hour short film contests that are held around the country is great and will teach you all about guerilla filmmaking. But will it pay your rent? Nope.

    Are there people being paid on YouTube for their short content? Sure. In fact, YouTube has 1 million monetization partners. But with nearly 48 hours of content uploaded every MINUTE and 8 YEARS worth of content uploaded every day, that’s 1 million videos making money out of TENS of BILLIONS.  You have a better chance of winning a major screenwriting contest while getting bitten by a rabid squirrel that can dance like Justin Bieber than you do going viral.

    So while I do think that making a short film can be a great calling card and can help you garner some attention, I agree with Mr. Simens that making a career out of making short films is a waste of time. Make one to learn and perfect the process, make a second to show off your talents. If you make more than that, you’re probably wasting your time.

    There is a difference, however, between making short films and making webisodes, which are sought out more often. What could be more lucrative and garner more of a payoff for you and your project might be to create a great webisode series (especially if you’re looking at writing/directing for TV) or a trailer for your feature project as a selling tool. A trailer has to get across a full and complete story just like a short film, but it’s an even better test on whether you know how to bring the most commercial and visual elements of your story out while forcing viewers to connect with a character in 30 seconds. This trailer can also help you raise money on crowd funding websites much more than a short film can.

    Even just looking at the professionally made shorts, there are usually only about 5-10 stand-outs every year that break thru, get major industry attention and land the filmmaker into some impressive offices and meetings with big agencies and producers. But that’s 10 shorts…out of thousands.

    Three years ago, shorts like The Raven, Pixels and Marcell the Shell were all the rage. In 2011, it was the short film Portal and the Dead Island video game commercial. And last year, Ruin and Archetype (both now set up at Fox) broke out huge.  And in case you’re wondering where you can find these tops shorts, there’s a website for that. Much like The Black List surveys the executive’s favorite unproduced scripts of the year, the View Finder List surveys exec’s favorite short films, videos and commercials of the year. The 2012 list can be found here –

    All that aside, if you do decide to make a short film, there are three important things it needs to accomplish:

    The first is that it must prove you can tell a complete story – beginning, middle and end – in a visual way in a very short period of time.

    The second is that it needs to convey your visual style and that you have a voice as a filmmaker. What is it about your way of storytelling, developing characters, creating a world, visuals, effects, shot selection, writing, editing, transitioning, etc., that makes you stand out and defines why you’re someone people should pay attention to.

    And the third, and sometimes most important, is that however much money you make the short for, it needs to look like it was made for 10 times as much. If your budget is $5,000, it needs to look like a $50,000 short film. If your budget is $50,000, it needs to look like a half million dollar low budget feature film. Producers who look at your short want to see what you can do with the money you are given and they don’t just want to see every cent on the screen – they want to see tons more than that! They want to see what you can make ten grand look like before they will be willing to give you a million.

    So in order to make your sure you’re giving your short its best chances, here are some specific tips to keep in mind –

    Start with a truly tight and complete script and story. It’s not three-act structure per se, but there is a big difference between writing a complete stand-alone story and writing what feels like one random scene taken from a larger story no one can figure out.  It can feel like it could be expanded and explored into a much larger story, but it should be able to stand alone.

    It’s great to be a multi-hyphenate and do everything yourself, but if writing isn’t your strong suit and isn’t what you’re trying to do – then find a real writer (or consultant) to help you.

    Unlike a feature, where you have 5-10 pages to create a world and a tone and genre and character, in a short, you have ONE page. One. That’s it.

    Find a talented crew you trust and who won’t complain about long days and shitty conditions. Stock the craft service tables like you’re at a bar mitzvah. And if you can only hire 3 awesome people, make it your First AD, a Lighting Designer and a Sound Guy. Good lighting and sound designers are worth their weight in gold and a great First AD will keep everyone else in line.

    Don’t hire actors just because they are your neighbors and friends. If they can’t bring the words to life, it doesn’t matter how good the shot is – it will be painful to watch.

    Keep your shorts under 8 minutes – that’s as long as any executive is going to give your project. And keep in mind that it takes a solid minute to roll credits. Don’t waste time with credits at the beginning of your short.

    Write a story with very few locations and very few changes in time of day. If your whole short film can be shot at night, it will be much easier to schedule and keep consistent and you won’t need to have a skip day for your crew to adjust to day shoots.

    Your story should have as few characters as necessary to tell your story and preferably use as few extras as possible, if any.

    If you are shooting outdoors, always check weather reports from multiple sources. Then check them again.

    Always, always, always have a plan and a schedule and a shot list. Know which shots you want, but always, always, always get enough coverage just in case. One of the biggest problems we had on one of the shorts I produced was that the director knew exactly what shots she wanted, but if I didn’t suggest alternatives, she never would have had the coverage we needed.

    Despite what some filmmaking teachers might say, I think everyone should be involved in making a short film at least once. It’s great experience and usually a great deal of fun. But if you’re relying on your short film being the thing that gets you signed by CAA and pays your bills, I hope you have a Plan B.

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