Thursday, July 26, 2012

If you can make it here, you can make it.... anywhere?

Only three and a half weeks to go til I embark on a 17 hour journey in a tin can, watching straight to DVD movies and eating trays of plastic food! Sold the house last week and I’ve moved back into my folks’ place for the next month. I still can’t believe the house is finally gone, and with it a MASSIVE, building-shaped weight off my shoulders.

So there’s only the small matter of getting three scripts into shape and putting together a list of agents and managers to contact.

With the 3 scripts, I know what I have to do to fix them and make them gorgeous. But time to do the plastic surgery was low what with the house move and all. Now that that’s over, I need to get off my ass and do the work.

What I have noticed is that the more scripts I write, the more I seem to know a. when stuff needs fixing and b. in a general way, what needs to be changed. This is a shock – could it be that I’ve learned something, totally without realising it? Time was when I used to write something and then have literally no clue what to do to it unless I got feedback. Now, the feedback is often just confirming what I already know. I’m no screenwriting genius, but at least my writing Spidey senses seem to be kicking in.

Anyway, I’ve been thinking about what I’m doing in moving to the States for a while and about the Irish film industry versus the U.S. one.

I’m going to confirm what I’ve already hinted at – I haven’t given the Irish industry a proper go. Apart from some half-hearted query letters, I haven’t knocked on producers’ doors. I haven’t applied to the Film Board for a First Draft Loan. I have networked a good bit and gotten stuff read that way, plus I’ve produced and/or written three Irish short films. But I haven’t had any kind of game plan for getting a feature film made here.

So what makes me think I can do it in the States? I’m going from a small industry where I have at least some useful contacts to a massive one where I know hardly anyone. Here’s what I’ve come up with when someone asked me that (very valid) question:

I haven’t got one decent Irish feature script. Not one. No script that I’d stand over and say “This is an ace idea and I’d be delighted to see it made”. Whereas I have 2 already decent American-based scripts that I’m about to make even better, as well as solid ideas for 2-3 more. My American scripts have won prizes, whereas my Irish scripts are furry with dust and lying in a drawer.

I don’t really know why this is, except to say that a lot of my ideas tend to be “big”. Bigger than could be made in Ireland, maybe. But also, I’m still waiting for that great idea for a film set in Ireland.

My gold standard for an excellent movie made outside Hollywood is currently District 9, in that it looks like 50 million dollars (but didn’t cost anything like that), is perfectly in keeping with its South African setting (in fact it’s impossible to imagine it being made anywhere else) and boasts a fantastic premise with a well-executed script. Basically, until I have an idea for a film as fab as that, I can’t really say that I have a script worth shouting about.

So my main goal for the rest of 2012 is this: to come up with an idea – not even write a script, just get a concept going – for a great Irish-based script that won’t cost the earth to produce.

Apart from that, my other answer to the valid question is that I don’t know whether it’s going to work out in the States. I may arrive in L.A. and think “Nope, I can’t stand to live here”. I may realise after three months that I hate the Hollywood film industry and am longing to come home. But the only way to guarantee that I won’t make it is if I don’t give it a chance.

I’d like to hear what anyone else thinks about the Irish versus the U.S. industries. If you walk into the Irish Film Institute bar and throw a rock, you’ll hit a writer who’s talking about going to Hollywood “one day”. But is that the be all and end all of being a writer - to end up emigrating and live dolefully abroad like Joyce, thinking longingly of home (yet knowing that you'll never write anything as amazing as Dubliners)?

And what is it that’s holding them back from going? Is it family responsibilities? The visa issues (which are admittedly a pain)? Lack of information about the U.S. industry? Or a hope that if you wait long enough, the Irish film industry will suddenly be awash with cash for making movies?

Answers on a postcard…..

Monday, July 16, 2012

Sell, sell, sell! Why your script deserves to be on screen...

Scripts that don't get sold or optioned ultimately get filed in the waste paper basket. That's a cold, hard fact. Terry Rossio calls these sad bundles of paper Shelf Puppes: like puppies at the pound that don't get adopted, they are doomed to end up on the scrap heap.

And no one wants to see their script meet this awful fate - so how do you ensure that they get sold and go on to happy lives in the movie theatre, or even in the DVD store bargain bin?

Now, I have to admit that selling scripts (or approaching) reps is not something I've done enough of so far. This is due to three (pretty daft) reasons:

1. I'm a perfectionist and it's rare that I've had a script that I've been willing to send to a company or to an agent/manager as a sample piece. I'm just never sure they're quite good enough.

That's not to say I haven't done this, but it's mainly been through query websites such as Inktip (I've optioned a script through this site), and in response to a request for scripts. For example, I've never put a script in for a First Draft Loan from the Film Board, unlike almost every other Irish writer I know, because I've never had an Irish-based feature script that I was remotely happy with.

2. Reason Two - I'm much better at selling in person in an informal way than over the phone or using a query letter.

3. I guess the third reason can be categorised as "where the hell do I start?!" There's no roadmap out there telling us where to go to sell scripts. It's kind of a case of figuring things out for yourself, and this lack of clarity on my part has led to inertia and fear setting in.

Well, I now realise that it's time to get over myself and beat this fear of selling. First of all, I now have two scripts that I'm pretty happy with and another that I'm working on which I reckon has potential. So it's time to get them out there and see what people think.

Secondly, I'm going to bloody L.A., which means it's time to drop the Irish reserve and work on selling scripts and getting representation!

I'm going to deal with reps in the next post, but for now, based on a load of articles I've read recently, here is what I'm gleaned about selling scripts to production companies:

Ask EVERYONE you know if they know any producers who will read your script. If they do, contact the producer and ask them if you can send over a one-pager or short synopsis.

Then, make a list of all the recent and not-so-recent movies that are like yours. For example, I have a script called The Heartstoppers, which is sort of a cross between Ghostbusters and Hocus Pocus. So movies like it would include those two, as well as The Haunting, Night at the Museum, Enchanted, the Harry Potter movies, Monster Squad, Inkheart, The Spiderwick Chronicles and Sleepy Hollow. Plus many more.

Go to IMDBPro and make a list of the producers names/companies who worked on all these other movies. Go through the Hollywood Directory (I still have my big paper version) and get yet more names (sometimes they list movies producers have worked on in there). Note down their addresses, phone number and email addresses. Keep going until you've got a list of about 100-150 names and their contact details. I know some people just say to blanket bomb any producers in the Directory you can find, but my opinion is surely a little targeting can't hurt?

Then, do up a decent query letter - Ashley Scott Meyers has a few articles on this on his website, and start bunging it out. Ashley SM suggests doing this in batches to gauge the success of the letter - if you're not getting at least some positive responses, tweak it before sending it out to more.

Like I say, I've never done any of this. So I'll be trying this out over the next month and seeing how it goes - and no doubt making a lot of mistakes along the way! To be honest, this is my least favourite part of the screenwriting process. But I love my scripts too much to let them sit on a shelf...

Friday, July 6, 2012

Four steps to writing and pitching your screenplay....

A lady called Mary Haarmeyer has started writing for the Business of Show on her journey to Hollywood as a fairly new screenwriter. As I'm about to do the same, I'm following her experiences with interest! Also, major congrats to Mary for doing this despite having a husband, teenage kids and a business to run. I don't know how she does it!

Here's a link to her latest post: http://www.thebusinessofshowinstitute.com/newsletter-06-29-12.html#06-29-12-01

I liked her idea for sort of "doing-it-yourself" in terms of a screenwriting education. Far too often, writers think they can't make a career writing scripts because they don't have any qualifications. Actually, writing is the same as any other area - you learn by doing, not by listening. If you can make it to a writing seminar, by all means do. Read a screenwriting book or listen to an experienced writer talk about their craft. Attend a film festival.

But if you can't do any of those things, don't worry, because the two biggest things we all need to do are: read lots of screenplays, and write lots of scripts ourselves. You learn so much just from seeing how other writers phrase or format things, while writing is a muscle that needs to be exercised regularly if you want to excel.  If a wannabe screenwriter did just those two things diligently, they'd be a better writer in no time.

That brings me to the next two pieces of the puzzle: once you've read loads of scripts and written at least two yourself, it's time to get feedback. You can go to a writing group meeting and discuss your scripts in person. I recommend this as I'm in a group that meets every two weeks and it's helped my own work no end. Getting objective comments from others is essential and you can help each other out by passing on information about upcoming competitions and events. I'll definitely try and attend a screenwriters group when I go to Los Angeles (a group like this is like A.A. for writers!). You can also post in an online forum or even get a professional reader to read your work for a fee.

Once you've gotten feedback and done plenty of rewrites, to the point where you're happy with your work, it's time to learn to pitch. The funny thing about pitching is that I can spin a pitch no problem in a coffee shop or a bar, but when it comes to formal, in-front-of-an-audience pitching, I get tongue-tied. I don't know that there is a cure for this, but preparation and lots of practice does help. Write out your pitch and rehearse it until it comes naturally. Craig Mazin has already written the best article ever written on pitching - you can find it here.

So that's it, the four-step process to writing and (hopefully successfully) pitching a script. Now to work - if I'm not going to be a hypocrite, I have to follow my own advice and get writing...