Debunking Hollywood myths for uncredited screenwriters
An Article Written by James Jordan
(Reprinted from the Scriptwriters Network Online Newsletter – March 2010 edition)
In Hollywood, you are either a credited screenwriter or you aren’t. For the uncredited screenwriter, this distinction is critically important to understand. Unfortunately Hollywood itself too often clouds this distinction. As a result, many myths have developed in and around the entertainment industry that have substantially diminished the aspiring screenwriter’s chances at attaining that first screenplay sale.
A myth is a traditional story accepted as history that serves to explain the world view of a people. In this case, the “people” are uncredited screenwriters. Such aspiring writers toil for years, spending thousands of dollars and thousands of hours in pursuit of their first screenplay sale. Yet, tragically, 99 percent of writers NEVER sell a screenplay. Why do so many fail? Let’s examine some of the most common myths faced by uncredited screenwriters for the answers.
Myth: “It took years to sell screenplays like Forrest Gump. It’s only a matter of time before my screenplay sells if enough people see it.”
This myth rationalizes failure. Indeed, it can take years for professional writers to sell a project. But writers must challenge any belief that affects their career progress.
Eric Roth, the incredibly talented writer of Forrest Gump, managed to get paid for at least eleven projects before Forrest Gump was released. Eric Roth was working hard and writing while he was waiting. Mr. Roth was very dedicated and he had skill and talent. Trust me, if Tom Hanks and Robert Zemeckis are considering your screenplay, then you have tremendous talent.
But if no one has ever paid you for your writing, you shouldn’t assume your material is worthy of consideration by major Hollywood literary agents, managers, and producers. Unfortunately, every day, writers send tired screenplays out over and over — material that isn’t at a professional standard — and forever burn bridges with contacts based on this myth.
Myth: “Plenty of aspiring screenwriters sell their first screenplay to major Hollywood players. I can do it, too.”
I understand how many new to Hollywood get tripped up on this myth. The industry trades are notorious for perpetuating such a perception. But, this one is pretty easy to shoot down.
Just do a Google search of everyone’s background before that first screenplay sale. What you’ll find are seasoned professionals who spent many years learning about the entertainment industry from many aspects before becoming screenwriters. Then, there was time spent developing their writing craft, which doesn’t just happen by sleeping with screenplays under pillows. Finally, when knowledge and dedication intersect with opportunity, the giant first script sale happens. But such success almost never happens “overnight.”
Let’s take an example. I’m sure you’re familiar with Oscar-winner Diablo Cody.
She is a brilliant (maybe one-in-a-million brilliant) writer, and nobody had even heard of her before Juno. But before she proved to Hollywood that she had a unique talent for storytelling, she already had a successful blog, a published book, and was writing columns for Entertainment Weekly while Juno was filming. Her combined successes and her extensive writing experience — not a single spec sale — led to her Oscar. She’s now creating (and writing) the Steven Spielberg-produced series, The United States of Tara.
Another example is Peter Mehlman, who got his first television staffing job on Seinfeld. He certainly wasn’t new to writing — he had been a successful writer of national magazine articles for years before. And please don’t think that you’ll be able to star in your first feature script. Yes, Sylvester Stallone did it in Rocky. But that was in 1979! Hollywood changes right along with the times. I don’t see that happening much lately.
Myth: “If I had a big agent, then my success would be assured.”
I’ve had the opportunity to interview countless writers at various Sherwood Oaks College events and elsewhere. I was surprised to learn just how often writers had changed representation. The most typical reason cited for the change was the general belief that the literary agent had failed to achieve any tangible results desired by the writer.
Now don’t get me wrong, a dedicated agent and/or management team in your corner can be a powerful asset. But no agent in town can sell material before it’s ready — and once it is ready, it’s not just the agent’s job to sell it. Writers can and do get doors open all by themselves. They can arrange their own deals with producers and studios via networking — as the writer, that’s your job! It’s your responsibility to network, sell yourself, and continue writing specs even after you have representation.
Worse is the perception that one needs to be repped by a large agency. Unfortunately, bigger is not always better. Large agencies specialize in packaging proven talent to maximize the agency commission on each deal. Uncredited writers need not apply, because they can’t possibly generate the commission of a writer with substantial credits. On occasion, a big agent will sign a new writer who wins a major screenplay contest. But if that writer’s scripts fail to sell immediately, the writer will find phone calls from their new high-powered agent are not returned. To be blunt, big agencies care about deals, not people. Your success will ultimately depend more on writing talent and networking than any agent. If you want proof of this, ask any writer with credits!
Myth: “I will sell my screenplay at a pitching event.”
Aspiring writers want access to Hollywood decision-makers, who in turn are seeking quality material to buy. Understandably, pitching events appear to be the ideal place for buyers and sellers to meet. But the uncredited writer’s excitement to pitch clouds the truth about the limitations of most pitching events.
The typical person hearing pitches from writers on a weekend is rarely a high-level decision-maker. Writers are often not truly pitching to buyers; hence there is no practical expectation of selling a screenplay. The person hearing pitches is often a junior development executive, an assistant, or sometimes even the company receptionist! The chance to hear pitches and get paid (usually $100 plus lunch) is enough incentive for someone seeking career advancement. On occasion the person will be a senior executive, so there will be an opportunity to make an impression. But it’s hard to stand out when limited to five minute pitches, sandwiched between thousands of mediocre pitches. The people hearing pitches are numb and have migraines by the end of the day. I have been one of those people before, and I remember how I felt.
Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t wonderful benefits to attending pitching events. Writers meet industry people — a critical first meeting. Writers are not required to pitch during their five minute meetings. I strongly recommend NOT pitching, but instead use the five minutes to get to know the contact better, what types of projects do they personally seek, etc. Then, the writer can have an eye out for themselves and for others, knowing they have a contact passionate to read that material. It isn’t bad to get experience pitching, however. There have been rare cases when material was sold via pitching (although I can’t recall any of those movies being produced to date). Some projects have been optioned. Some writers have ended up getting representation from literary agents and managers. So, there are positive benefits to be gained.
But don’t assume that just because someone requests your script that big things will happen. Based on hundreds of thousands of unsuccessful pitches from writers, pitching events frequently promise more than they deliver. Be smart, polished, and realistic before you attend these events. Naturally, you better have a script that lives up to your pitch or you will learn the meaning of rejection fast.
Myth: “Everyone in Hollywood is looking for great, original stories”
If more writers did research, fewer writers would fall for this myth. Examine the membership of the Writers Guild of America West, and you’ll discover that close to two-thirds make their money from working in television. Of that remaining one-third, you’ll find the overwhelming majority sold screenplays that were adaptations from previously existing material — a play, book, short story, comic book or graphic novel, or a sequel or prequel from another movie. Of the remaining writers who sold spec original material in Hollywood, most of them are household names like Shane Black. Hollywood is so risk averse, decision-makers always prefer to greenlight a project that has a proven audience in another medium.
So even when a writer does have a wonderful original writing sample, it will usually prove to be a very difficult sale. It’s hardly a slam-dunk.
Since getting rights to existing material can be more challenging, there is certainly an appeal to writing something original. That’s fine, but just realize your chances of selling that original screenplay to a studio or major player are microscopic.
Myth: “Any story can be commercial if the studio markets it right.”
This myth is probably the biggest and most dangerous of all for uncredited screenwriters to believe. If one is William Goldman, Steven Zaillian, or Scott Frank, then yes, any story can be commercial, because brilliant writers have a track record of executing difficult material brilliantly. But if you aren’t among the top fifty writers on the planet earth, then I ask you to recall the last WGA strike. Didn’t that strike prove that studios, now owned by multinational corporations, care exclusively about money? Your screenplay must be able to convince the studio financiers that there is a pot of gold awaiting everyone if the movie is made. Otherwise, it will be a very tough sell, indeed.
The percentages of selling go up if you have an action-adventure or a broad comedy. Thrillers and horror scripts are fine, too. But dramas, period pieces, and character studies are not going to appeal to executives unless you have major talent attached.
It’s easy to market a film that’s highly commercial. Wedding Crashers and Liar, Liar were high concept and commercial. Animal House and Top Gun were not especially high concept, but they were well written and designed to get butts into theater seats.
If you have a great idea (high concept), then you are halfway there. But at least focus your primary efforts on genres that maximize your chances for a script sale.
Myth: “I have a BIG story, so I need a big star and a big producer.”
Research will shatter this myth, as well. Visit www.IMDB.com, then research the last twenty films of any well-known star or production company. You’ll likely discover the credited screenwriter on every one of those films had a proven track record of previous credits, often major credits. So, it’s a safe bet that stars and major production companies will not deviate from the business practices they have used for twenty previous films. That means that new writers are wasting time pitching screenplays to these giant companies. The great news is there are producers who will consider new writers, but those producers are not household names. Writers must pull their heads out of the clouds if they ever expect to spot real opportunities for that first screenplay sale.
Myth: “It only takes one executive/ one agent/ one manager to love my screenplay.”
Actually, it takes hundreds of people to make a movie. If you haven’t watched all the end credits of a movie lately, then you really should. Every professional person’s name scrolling by in the credits believed in the movie. Before the movie was made, financiers believed in the movie enough to gamble over $100 million US dollars. People at the studio risked their jobs in championing the movie. Stars risked their reputations. Finally, if your agent LOVED your screenplay, that agent must still convince a superior at the agency to push it through the halls to construct a packaging deal. Others in the agency might not share your agent’s passion for the script, ending your celebration fast.
If EVERYONE who reads your script loves it, then you have a reason to celebrate.
But if only a few are excited, consider another draft. Remember, you ultimately need about 15 million moviegoers to love your story enough to dig into their pockets for a $10 bill. Otherwise, you will have many folks cursing your name.
Myth: “If I could just get my script through Hollywood’s gatekeepers…”
The very best way to guarantee your script will be read from cover-to-cover is by having people read it who know you. Networking is about much more than getting by gatekeepers. One must develop strong relationships to have a sustained Hollywood career. Think of it this way: Is anyone logically going to make a $100 million movie with someone based on a resume or writing sample? No, people make movies with people they know and trust, based on time. If your existing reputation is powerful enough, people will be open to taking limited chances. But all things being equal, people prefer to work with friends and colleagues who collaborated well together on past projects. If you want to read an outstanding article on this subject, please follow this link (http://bit.ly/aBkMf8) to managing editor Susan Bridges’ article, “Are You a Standout?” Access is rarely the real problem in Hollywood. Having credibility is.
Myth: “I don’t need feedback on my screenplay; everyone says it’s great.”
If your agent is sending your script to the studio’s Business Affairs office for a deal memo, then your script is great. If multiple studios and production companies are bidding on your script, then it’s great. If you win every screenwriting contest with the same script, then it might be great. But if no one is asking to read your screenplay, then you need to consider getting professional feedback. I’ve interviewed more credited screenwriters than I can remember. All of these professionals get feedback on their material. In fact, it’s not uncommon to hear the phrase “brutally honest” feedback from the pros, because they know the truth. It’s better to hear a script isn’t working from a colleague than a potential buyer. Screenwriting is rewriting. It’s a process and everyone must do it. Steven Barnes, who has seventeen published novels, explains the problem suffered by most non-professional writers. “They don’t appreciate the difficulty in learning the craft of writing. It takes years of dedicated discipline, reading, writing, and rewriting.”
There are no shortcuts to the path of becoming a good writer. Ray Bradbury explained he felt like a complete fake during his first years as a writer. At some point, Bradbury realized he had become a professional. But he estimated he had banged out over one million words by the time he reached that level of confidence. Since credited writers understand the need for objective screenplay feedback, then don’t hesitate to get it. Uncredited writers should follow the same logic and get feedback on their material. In fact, there are strong arguments to be made in getting coverage on the first ten pages of your screenplay to determine if you are even on a viable commercial track.
Read Sylvia Cary’s write-up of my talk, “Avoiding the ‘Page 10’ Rejection," following this article.
Myth: “If I work hard enough, I’ll have a Hollywood career.”
Regrettably, effort alone will not guarantee results in Hollywood. But if you work smart enough, you might achieve that screenwriting career. Remember William Goldman’s great scene in Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid where Harvey challenges Butch to a knife fight? Harvey is ready, knife in hand. Butch is unarmed and is offered a knife by one of the gang. “Not yet,” says Butch, moving up to Harvey. “Not til Harvey and me get all the rules straight.” Harvey is astonished, “Rules? In a knife fight? No rules!” As he finishes speaking Butch delivers a kick to the crotch that could be felt in the back row of the theater.
There really are no carved-in-stone rules for the credited screenwriter, but here are some rules of thumb for the uncredited scribe to strongly consider.
Always remain humble, courteous, and curious
Volunteer, to increase the number of Hollywood people who know you
Become an intern doing anything at any entertainment industry company
Become a script reader anywhere reading unproduced scripts
Read four produced screenplays per month
Keep your eyes open for potential material to option.
Remember those percentages of adapted material
James Jordan worked as a story analyst for Fred Roos Productions, producer for Francis and Sofia Coppola. He has also provided screenplay coverage for the Scriptwriters Network and produced many events for them. He is now passing along his acquired knowledge as creator and owner of Candid Coverage, a coverage service for writers. He offers in-depth analysis of entire scripts as well as a unique service — analyzing only the first ten pages for $25. He can be contacted at
firstname.lastname@example.org or (714) 402-6308; visit his blog at http://candidcoverage.blogspot.com
Read my seminar summary for “Avoiding the ‘Page 10’ Rejection,” written by Sylvia Cary, following this article.
(The following article is reprinted from the May/June 2009 edition of the Scriptwriters Network's online newsletter, used with permission. Thanks to Susan Bridges, the Scriptwriters Network's wonderful newsletter editor. The article was authored by Sylvia Cary, a talented writer and a wonderful human being, as well.)
"Avoid the 'Page 10' Rejection"
A James Jordan Seminar Summary Written by Sylvia Cary
“In order to receive favorable script coverage, you must learn to consider things from the reader’s point of view,” explained script consultant James Jordan to members and guests of the Scriptwriters Network on January 17, 2009, at CBS Studios on Radford in Studio City. They’d gathered to hear Jordan talk about the crucial “First Ten Pages” of a screenplay. “Industry readers typically decide if a script has potential within the first ten pages,” he said. “Yet most writers seem unaware of what is required in those pages. So their screenplays continue to get rejected at literary agencies, production companies, and in contests. We’re going to talk about what to put in -- and what not to put in -- those first ten pages to increase your chances of making the cut.”
Networking, Not Luck
Jordan started off his presentation by debunking the notion that “Hollywood is a lottery. It’s really all just about luck.” He stressed that it is actually about professionals in high levels of responsibility choosing to work with others they know personally. It is not about luck; it’s all about relationships.
To illustrate this point, Jordan asked the Scriptwriters Network Program Director, David Mulligan, to pick out somebody he knows personally from the crowd, which Dave did. . Then, Jordan asked the woman that Dave had picked to select someone she knows in the crowd, somebody she can vouch for. “Guess what,” Jordan explained, “You have just witnessed how Hollywood operates in action. This exercise is meant to show you that in Hollywood, it’s partially about who you know; and all about who knows YOU. It’s about being able to vouch for people. Naturally, people feel more comfortable making referrals on behalf of people they know rather than strangers they can’t vouch for.
To be the screenwriter that somebody else picks to work with, you have to be known. How do you get known? By networking and interacting with other people. The very best way to guarantee your script will be read from cover-to-cover is by having people read it who know you. Networking will get you known and help you to avoid the “Page 10 Rejection.”
The Resume Analogy
Jordan then offered the “Resume Analogy,” explaining this was the key to getting better coverage. “Think of your screenplay like a resume. You e-mail your resume for a job, but there are 1,000 others with resumes ahead of you. The poor Human Resources guy who must review 1,000 resumes will certainly not spend much time considering each applicant’s resume. Maybe each piece of paper will get several seconds of scanning … until the HR guy spots something he doesn’t like, and then your resume is in the pass pile.
Hollywood works the same way as that HR department. A story department of a major production company or literary agency is dealing with hundreds of scripts. Readers are not encouraged by their bosses to spend time reading scripts that don’t meet professional standards. This is not screenwriting class; this is multi-million dollar business. So, unless you blow a reader’s socks off by page ten, your script will probably hit the “pass pile.” Even if the reader keeps reading the script to completion, they rarely change their opinion after page ten. Let’s look at it logically: A weak script on page ten is not likely to improve beyond page ten. So keep this resume analogy in mind the next time you reach the page ten-mark in your script. Ask yourself the most important question of all: “Based on my logline, would any reader keep reading beyond page ten of my script? Have I hooked the reader with a compelling story that begins to explain my logline?”
Hollywood has “gatekeepers” (story analysts) whose jobs are to keep unprofessional scripts from reaching busy executives’ desks, so first you need to get past them. Then, your script must be recommended by senior personnel who have anxiety saying yes to any script; there is always a risk to championing a project, but not nearly as risky to pass on projects. They are concerned about the “what ifs” – for example, what if a movie they "greenlit" doesn’t “open” well? .So, as a writer, your job is to overcome every possible objection.
Here are James Jordan’s 20 basic tips to help you:
1. Marketability: Consider the commercial appeal of your script. You may want to avoid writing an expensive period piece until you have at least one major screenwriting credit. This is actually the most important decision that you must resolve before you proceed any further with a screenplay.
2. Title Page: Include only the script title, your name, and the contact information (your name, phone and email) in the lower right-hand corner. Don’t bother with addresses, faxes, etc. If someone likes the script, they will call or email you.
3. WGA Registration Number: Don’t include this. It is a red-flag that screams “amateur.”
4. Scene numbers: Never put them in your script. Scene numbers are for a production draft. You are submitting a writer’s draft.
5. Page Numbers: Always include these. Brads get removed to copy script pages. People need to be able to see those page numbers to make sure pages don’t accidentally get put back out of sequence.
6. Avoid Being the Director: Don’t use “CUT TO” or other camera references. Best to also avoid “we see” and other wording that reminds readers that it is a script they are reading. Standard screenplay format is already intrusive enough. Don’t frustrate the reader even more by including anything that will take the reader away from engaging in the story on an emotional level. Avoid “Continued” on top and bottom of pages; it is unnecessary. However, always keep the Character’s name with blocks of dialogue. Do not allow formatting software to separate names from dialogue.
7. Length: Keep script length under 120 pages. Keep comedies under 110 pages. Long scripts from unproduced writers get passed on very quickly.
8. Typos: Proofread carefully, including the dialogue. A typo on page 3 can hurt you. Most readers hate typos.
9. Protagonist: Establish your main character by page 3. Your description of this character and the first words out of your main character’s mouth can set the tone for the whole script. Actors will also pay attention to this and ask themselves, ‘Is this a character I’d be interested in playing.’ Your protagonist is your movie. If you expect to cast a major actor in your story’s lead role, then that actor needs to appear very early in the screenplay or they will find a script where they do.
10. Rooting Interest: If the reader doesn’t care about your protagonist, then the reader will have no reason to recommend the script. You must show the reader why this particular protagonist and his/her story is worth the attention of even the most jaded reader.
11. Get to the Point Quickly: By approximately page ten, the script should have begun to illustrate the story as explained in the logline. If not, then expect many readers, agents, and producers to pass on the script. If busy people liked your logline and agreed to read the script, you had better provide a script that gets to the issues fast and hooks the reader. Unless you have previous major film credits, you do not have the luxury of time on your side. Time will be your enemy.
12. Minor Characters: Don’t introduce, give names to, and develop characters that will soon be dropped from the storyline. The first ten pages is where your characters will forge their emotional bond with the story analyst.
13. Character Names: Avoid giving characters similar sounding names, or even names beginning with the same letter, or containing the same number of letters (JOHN, JANE, DICK, FRED). It can be confusing and trip readers up. Let the individual nature of each character also be reflected by their name selection.
14. Experiment with Breaking Gender Stereotypes: Have a male nurse and a female construction worker. Your characters will stand out more.
15. Descriptions: Avoid large blocks of narrative descriptions. At the very least, attempt to divide the larger blocks of text into smaller blocks of no more than four lines of type. Be concise. Few in Hollywood will read long descriptions.
16. Dialogue: Follow the 4-line dialogue rule of thumb. Save longer blocks of dialogue for the most dramatic emotional moments. These longer blocks should be few and far apart.
17. Subtext: Even more important than what you choose to have your characters say is what you choose to leave out – the subtext. Great dialogue speaks volumes with just a few words. Study your favorite film. Study the dialogue carefully. Why did the dialogue appeal to you so much? The answer most likely will be found in the subtext.
18. Voiceovers and Flashbacks: Avoid these if you can, or use sparingly. Do what you need to do to tell the story, but keep these techniques to a minimum. They pull the reader out of feeling the emotional connection of the moment.
19. Tone: Establishing the tone is a must during your first ten pages, but you better start on page one! Comedy has to be funny and make you laugh. A thriller has to scare you. If you can’t get the story analyst to respond emotionally to your script, you won’t get favorable coverage, period.
20. Rewrites: Professional level screenwriting is one of the most difficult occupations on the planet, and doing rewrites goes with the territory. That’s why Hollywood pays so much for those relatively few who have mastered the craft so well. If you aren’t finding it difficult to write well, then you probably aren’t doing it right. If Bruce Joel Rubin, Tom Schulman, William Goldman, and other brilliant writers must constantly rewrite their scripts, then you must be prepared to endure the same struggles. But since you don’t have their track records, your writing must sparkle even brighter to get buyers’ attention (or they will simply keep buying scripts from big credited writers). Rewriting is about improving the script. It is part of the process. So don’t be concerned if your script needs lots of work. Everyone’s does. If it was easy, then everyone would be selling scripts!
After answering numerous questions from the audience, James Jordan concluded: “You have to figure that today it costs basically a million dollars per page of your words to make a studio movie, so you’d better choose those words very carefully.”
Sylvia Cary, MFT, licensed psychotherapist and writer, is Director of Marketing for the Scriptwriters Network and a long-time member. She has published four books; has two scripts under option, and has a “book-doctor” called Therapists Who Write Editorial which focuses on helping healing professionals get published. Contact at: SCary@scriptwritersnetwork.org or http://www.therapistswhowrite.com/