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Free Articles on Screenwriting Craft and Business

On this page and the pages at right, you'll find plenty of valuable information to help advance your film and television screenwriting career. 

Below is James Jordan's first article published for Script Magazine's online newsletter with writing advice from an Oscar-winner.  Following that are some important articles regarding how Hollywood really operates as a no-nonsense business.

At right, there is an article for those interested in television writing; an excellent article written by Lou Hirsh covers James Jordan's interview with veteran television showrunner Tom Hertz.

Also to the right, you'll find other articles authored by James Jordan, as well as articles that cover his classes and interviews.

Click the link to your right marked "Free Screenplays." You'll find a page containing links to hundreds of FREE screenplays online.  Locate the scripts that best match your writing genre.  Then download and STUDY the best scripts available in that genre.  You can learn so much from working professional screenwriters if you are willing to put in the effort.

Finally, the last link to the right will include recommended books as well as E-books available for purchase in the future.  So, check this section periodically for updates.

Oscar-winner offers advice in article

In Jordan's first article posted on, he offers practical writing advice from Oscar-winning screenwriter Steven Zaillian on how to make your screenplays more compelling and therefore more sellable. It turns out, it's all in the details. Here's the link: Please add a comment following the article if you found the material helpful or want to suggest topics for future articles.

Don’t End Up on the WRONG List
An Article by James Jordan
Before you worry about HOW to market your completed screenplay, you really must first determine IF your script is truly ready to market. What is your objective evidence that your screenplay is written to Hollywood’s professional standards?

Perhaps your screenplay was a finalist in a script competition. That’s something. Becoming a finalist is good. Winning a script competition is better. But unless it is the Nichols Fellowship or Sundance Lab or MAYBE Scriptapolooza, script competitions generally haven't yielded many actual screenplay sales based on hundreds of THOUSANDS of entries. Why so few?

Because, today's
Hollywood studio feature film is going to cost in excess of $100 Million to produce. Mind you, that is actual money, someone ELSE's money. So, are these money people likely to risk so much on a first time writer or instead bet the farm on someone who has delivered time and time again, like Scott Frank, Steve Zaillian, or William Goldman in film ... or someone like David Milch, John Wells, or Dick Wolf in television.

I found it fascinating to hear Jeff Nathanson speak at an event last year. After all, the guy has written THREE movies for Steven Spielberg! He must have some good advice. Actually, he was incredibly insightful. He did something different than almost every other writer on the planet. Jeff finished writing
FIVE original screenplays and then decided to put all five scripts in a drawer and NOT SHOW THEM TO ANYONE!!! His gut said none of those screenplays was probably good enough to meet the standards demanded by Hollywood's gatekeepers. But his sixth script he showed to people he knew, and it got him an agent and was eventually optioned, if memory serves. Years later, Jeff happened to pull out that drawer and discovered those five early scripts. To his horror, they were all MUCH WORSE than he had imagined. Jeff believes he would have never had a career in Hollywood if he had sent out those early scripts to anyone. Jeff's conclusion is quite reasonable. Here is why.

No one in
Hollywood has enough time to read. Therefore, when someone does take valuable time to read your material, only TWO possible outcomes will occur. First, they will decide that you have talent and they will gladly read anything you submit. Your name will go on the GOLDEN LIST. Second, and most common, you are deemed to NOT be ready for the professional ranks; yet you didn't mind wasting the time of extremely busy people. So, your name will go on the OTHER list. That list means they will NEVER read you again unless, of course, you manage to get some produced writing credits in the meantime.

Don’t believe it?  I have interviewed PLENTY of development people at Sherwood Oaks
College events and I believe it when they tell me such lists exist. These days, there are script databases that story analysts, assistants, and execs at studios and production companies can access. Some of these story analysts have been known to "swap" script coverages with each other because they don't have the time or desire to read every script submission. So, a script that got bad coverage at one studio might end up receiving bad coverage at another studio without even being read there. Although the actual risk of this is probably minor, it does speak to the bigger question, which is, "What's the hurry to submit my material?" Everyone will appreciate you submitting quality material when the time is right, however long that takes. They will also deeply resent writers who waste their valuable time by submitting material that is not yet ready.

So before you even think about submitting your script to potential buyers, you must first get brutally HONEST, objective feedback about your material. If your screenplay is regarded as meeting Hollywood’s professional standards, then you can start the marketing process. If the feedback says wait and rewrite the material, then you are in the same boat as every other writer. But at least you haven’t ended up on the wrong list!

Therefore, you must find a good writers group and/or script consultant. You certainly don't need to use me, but make damn sure you get the complete TRUTH about your material before submitting it to gatekeepers. Remember, Hollywood is a relatively small community where people increasingly share information. So, you can't afford to burn too many bridges if you expect to have much of a future.

Thoughts and Advice for Screenwriters
An Article by James Jordan
When I interviewed Larry Kaplow, Executive Producer of House, I was curious how his expectations of the Writers Room differed from its reality. His answer was insightful. “Everything changed for me when I got in that room. From the outside, one can’t really understand. But when I was finally looking at a show from the inside, I realized that everything I previously thought about the Industry was different.” For example, Larry and his writing partner currently do their own medical research for House episodes. It is not uncommon for them to spend approximately one hundred hours on the research and writing of each 44-minute episode that airs (without commercials). 
Steve Zaillian explained his writing process to me during an interview at the ArcLight Cinema. Since he mostly does adaptations, he usually researches his projects quite extensively. The research can take months. Although Zaillian only writes a couple of drafts, it generally takes Zaillian approximately 6 months to 18 months to complete the script before he turns in the work to producers, studios, or directors. All “A-List” Hollywood writers have their own writing process, but generally they work from extensive outlines, they usually know the script’s ending in advance, and they often do many, many drafts of the script before the final product is circulated. Zaillian, like so many other professional writers, works an eight hour day, five days per week. It is his job, and he is completely committed to it. Anyone wanting to work in the Industry needs to be equally committed in order to succeed. 
I asked Ronnie Shusett how many drafts he did for Paul Verhoven on “Total Recall.” Ronnie’s answer shocked a crowded audience of writers. “I did 32 rewrites, varying from complete drafts to polishes. I believe I was paid for 28 of them, but that is rare. Usually, I do many drafts for free during a project.” Ronnie’s answer didn’t surprise me. Bruce Joel Rubin mentioned that he did over 20 drafts of “Ghost” for director Jerry Zucker. These were wonderful experiences for the writers, because they enjoyed enormous respect from their directors. Usually, writers are removed from their own projects after turning in the first rewrite, replaced by more experienced writers (or writers who work frequently with certain directors or actors).
In fact, almost every writer in Hollywood has been replaced and rewritten at some point, including Steven Zaillian, Robert Towne, and William Goldman.  Why does this happen? Because, to use Goldman’s famous quote: “No one knows anything.” But that statement requires explanation. No one is actually sure what movie will open to a profitable box office run at the Cineplex. So, studio executives and producers who fear losing their high paying jobs will often buy an “insurance policy.” Namely, they will hire an A-list writer to rewrite the script before shooting begins. That way, if the movie tanks, then the executive can cover his/her ass by saying, “I got an Oscar-winning writer to doctor the script. What else could I have done?” 
But where there is often no consensus on what constitutes a commercially successful film at the box office, there is generally consensus among industry professionals of what is an example of superior writing. Pick up any random television script of West Wing written by Aaron Sorkin, or a Picket Fences script by David Kelley, or one of the many award-winning NYPD Blue scripts of David Milch, the superiority is self-evident. Why? Because great writing isn’t really subjective. Sure, whether something gets high ratings is uncertain. But generally, one can tell brilliant writing by the bottom of the first page. 
Equally, industry professionals can tell terrible writing on the first page as well. They rarely are rewarded as they continue reading a bad script. They never improve if they are awful on page one. Interpreting what is in between brilliant and awful is more difficult to do. That means reading more of the script. But the problem with most writers is they are not tough enough on their own material. Steven Cannell, speaking on a panel explained it this way: “Usually when I speak with published and produced writers, they believe their current material is horrendous. They are really hacks with no talent at all. But writers who have never sold anything in their lives, for some reason, believe they are naturally gifted talents. Of course, in truth they are universally terrible. But they won’t see it. I find that fascinating.” The rest of the successful panelists agreed.
Steven Barnes, who has seventeen published novels, explained the problem suffered by most non-professional writers.   “New writers don’t appreciate the difficulty in learning the craft of writing. It takes years of dedicated discipline, reading, writing, and re-writing.” There are no shortcuts to the path of becoming a great writer. One needs to learn the craft one step at a time. Ray Bradbury felt the same way, adding “I felt like a complete fake for several years as a writer. At some point, I realized I had become a professional at the craft. But I estimate I had likely banged out over one million words from my typewriter by the time I reached that level of confidence.”
Writing as a profession is unlike most other professions. Certainly, if one needs a plumber, one would steer clear of any plumber who only completes 33% of his jobs successfully. Yet, in the ranks of professional baseball, any batter who can manage one hit out of three times at the plate is considered a fantastic hitter with a .333 batting average. In reality, there are far more athletes who can hit a major league fastball than there are writers who can produce a professionally written Hollywood screenplay. If you question this, then consider how many novels that Stephen King has cranked out over the years. Yet, when one examines the most successful of King’s movie adaptations, they were not the ones written by King himself. Those successful ones were penned by the brilliant Frank Darabont. 
Writing is hard enough to begin with, but now throw in the costs of Hollywood productions. According to ex-agent, now literary manager Victoria Wisdom, the average cost of a studio financed motion picture is nearly $100 Million. That includes the routine $20 Million to the film’s star. Do you imagine the studio and producers will be excited at the idea of risking that much money on hiring a writer with no big credits? 
Television is no different. Networks and producers are striving to get a show on the air that can run for five years, so it can sell as a full syndicated package for big bucks. When each one-hour episode can cost between $1 - $2 Million, that adds up to over $200 Million on the line. What showrunner will be entrusted with that amount of financial responsibility? The answer in today’s corporate environment is usually someone who has successfully done it before. That is why one sees the same producer’s names on television over and over… John Wells, Darren Starr, Aaron Sorkin, David Kelley, Dick Wolf, Mark Burnett, etc. 
So, considering that the writers mentioned above are your competition, are you ready to go head to head with them at this point in your career? Agent Bruce Bartlett would strongly suggest you wait until your talent has matured significantly. “I have a mortgage payment and other bills. I am trying to make a living as an agent selling decent material. But what do I spend most of my week doing? I spend it reading total crap from writers would aren’t yet ready. But they don’t mind wasting my time. Well, they will only waste my time once. I’ll never read those bad writers again. My time is too valuable.” 
Writer-Producer Bo Zenga agrees. “If you want to tell everyone in Hollywood that you totally suck, then just waste people’s time by submitting terrible material. You are guaranteed to never be read again.” At a recent coverage panel at the Alameda Writers Group, readers from ICM explained “Studio readers now have online Industry reference databases that the studio readers review. They post coverage summaries on them. Executives and others in the Industry can consult these databases.” So, guess what – if you have a terribly reviewed script at one studio, other production companies, studios, and literary agents around town might decide the script wasn’t worth a read either. 
When I read for FR (Fred Roos) Productions, producer for Francis and Sofia Coppola, I was shocked at how mediocre most of the scripts were, even the ones submitted by large agencies like ICM, William Morris, and CAA. My honest coverage was sufficiently descriptive to inform the development executive that these scripts were not worth her time to read. In fact, future submissions from those same agents and writers would not likely be read as quickly, because time is too precious to have it wasted more than once. 
So how do writers improve their craft? Patrick Shane Duncan would frequently work on four to five different scripts at once. Over a two-year period, he would realize that perhaps four of the scripts didn’t work as commercially viable. He would chalk them up as writing experiments that didn’t come together, but made him a better writer all the same. However, he did complete “Mr. Holland’s Opus” and “Nick of Time” using this technique. Certainly those scripts worked out wonderfully. Paul Attanasio suggests taking an acting class. “It will teach you how professional actors approach scenes. You’ll need to truly understand this if you ever expect to write for professional actors. James Cameron told me to write something short, get a camera, and shoot it. One can learn so much from the process, and it costs almost nothing to shoot digital these days. 
At a panel of new staff writers that I moderated at the 2007 Sherwood Oaks All Access Weekend, all the panelists suggested doing stand-up comedy as a way to test one’s comedic abilities. Can you make a live audience laugh? Doing short videos for distribution on the Internet is another way to gain exposure and solicit feedback from strangers, especially for comedy. I’m writing some short political satire scripts for the Internet now as well. But most important of all, one needs to continuously write and rewrite scripts with what David Milch calls “an open mind and a humble heart.” 
I present these anecdotal quotes to support my belief that you need to be patient as you develop your craft as a writer. You will accomplish more by slowly cultivating your talent, building valuable long-term Hollywood relationships, and preparing yourself for what will be a psychologically challenging career path as a professional writer. 
Good luck and keep writing! 

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