Tag Archives: screenwriter

Do You Even Want To Be a Screenwriter? (part 2/2)

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y professional life has gotten a bit complex over the past year.

Over a year ago I actually gave up trying to make a go of screenwriting. For a couple years prior, it was all I did however. That and querying the scripts I’d written. But by the end of 2013 I’d vowed to end my effort at screenwriting for Hollywood.

(Continued from part 1 of 2)

This wasn’t the same as giving up on a dream. My dream was never to be a Hollywood screenwriter. My dream – to call it that – is to make movies for a living. I’ve gone about doing that many different ways. Making short films. Making no-budget feature films. Animated films. Live action films. Films for myself. Films for other people. But making a bona fide, long lasting career of this endeavour has eluded me.

When I set my sight on Hollywood – to call it that – I believed screenwriting was my way in. Mostly for the low overhead in relation to building a portfolio and a network of contacts.

By the end of 2013 however, I simply couldn’t keep trying at it full time. So I gave it up.

Then lo and behold, few months later, a call from a Hollywood manager and we’re off to the races.

During those few months of moving on however, I’d begun a new career. Freelancing another completely different skill set while still within the domain of screen production:

Illustration.

From an early age I’ve honed a natural ability to sketch. I always knew that if all else failed I could fall back on this talent.

And all else had finally failed.

So I sharpened some pencils and started turning my writing contacts into illustration contacts. From storyboards to concept design, illustration is still used a lot in film – and as I soon found out – advertising.

I’m not a gambler. I live by logic and rationale. Even though I had a Hollywood manager and was developing new scripts, I quietly kept building my illustration career. I soon saw that not only was this talent my fall back plan but it was also opening a lot of doors. Door so interesting and unexpected places. Doors toward my original goal of making movies for a living. And faster than the writing ever did… Not to mention it was paying the bills.

So when Co-Manager asked when I’d have an outline ready for this massive rebirthing of Script #1 I told him: I’m not sure I want to do that.

He didn’t see any way around it. Explained (again) that this kind of thing happens all the time. Page-one rewrites. You just gotta do what they ask.

Yeah, I don’t think I’m gonna do that. And (I reminded him) please stop calling this brand new script request a rewrite.

Still a lack of comprehension on the line. A re-explaining. A re-lamenting that things could have gone better…

What happens exactly if I just walk away at this point?

There was a chortle of disbelief. Then came a near guffaw of sarcasm:

Do you even want to be a screenwriter?

I wish I could be as composed in the moment as I am in retrospect. I wish the words do you even want to continue to be my manager? could have made their way to my lips. Instead I just chuckled nervously. Reassure Co-Manager that I did in fact want to be a screenwriter.

I explained to him that the problem is this: I’ve got a really good illustration career building here. I mean really good. And though I can work on an actual rewrite between contracts, I can’t honestly promise Producer a brand new 90 pages in the alloted timeframe. It’s too much work for less than a fifth of what a writer should get paid for a commissioned script – which is what this actually is.

In other words, I can’t turn down real work at the moment for this producer’s wildly exploitative renege.

Co-Manager was not pleased.

After our meeting that snarky question kept bouncing around in my head. Not because it clearly betrayed that Co-Manager was placing his own best interest over my own. But because it was a question I’d asked myself more than once over the past year.

Do I even want to be a screenwriter? Is this the best path I could have selected to reach my goal?

And the answer – the answer I couldn’t give Co-Manager – is no. No, not if it means being treated like this… Not when – by my own efforts – I’ve worked with some of the most friendly, talented and ambitious people in the past year as an illustrator. Not when that illustration work has led to work writing and directing projects for people with just as impressive a resumé as Manager and Producer–

And where is Manager these days by the way? Even though it’s clear I’ve been punted to Co-Manager, it’s gotta say something that as his client is about to bail on the multi-million dollar project that he’s co-producing he hasn’t so much as sent me an email…

It’s also gotta say something that I don’t really care anymore that he hasn’t…

Do I even want to be a screenwriter?

I already am a screenwriter. But that’s not all I am.

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Going To War

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ew years back I teamed up with another writer on a screenplay. (My policy is try anything once). Together we wrote a treatment. We submitted it to one of the Canadian government film financing agencies.

Per the bleak and ineffectual bureaucratic mandate of the agency, what came next was a conference call. On the call were; me and my buddy (the writers), an evaluator working for the agency and our would-be producer.

It should be said at this point that this evaluator is there to (you guessed it) evaluate our project then bring it before a panel of other evaluators. In this closed door meeting these evaluators are supposed to “fight” for the projects they’ve been given to fight for.

It’s worth noting that these evaluators are also usually out of work filmmakers on contract with the agency. In fact Canadian film agencies are generally populated with failed filmmakers. Arguably failed filmmaker smart enough to give up while still young in favour of real jobs.

So, the conference call. The conference call comes after our evaluator has read the treatment and before he’s due to fight for our project. An opportunity for him to ask questions. Make sure we’re on point. The objective being to strengthen the project.

My writing partner, our producer and I have a pre-meeting before the call. Ducks in a row. And the first thing this producer says to me is Are you ready to go to war!?

… Huh?

Isn’t this guy our guy? Isn’t he the guy going in to fight for our project?

So… Why exactly are we going to war against him?

If it was just this one crackpot producer I probably would’ve forgotten about it. But I’d seen this attitude before and since. It’s a systemic attitude of adversarialism. The filmmakers still in the trenches resent those who quit and got jobs in the bureaucracy and the bureaucrats resent the filmmakers who are still out there in the trenches.

That was years ago now.

And these days I’m frolicking in the harmonious world of Hollywood. Where things are obviously much different.

As you’ll recall, last week I got new notes from the producers who’ve optioned my script. Their notes took the project to the worst place that it could have gone.

So at Manager’s instructions I was told to prepare my thoughts on their notes. On this new (impossible) direction for the story. That we’d conference and I would be given a chance to explain why this is the worst idea anyone’s ever come up with in the history of the universe.

I made a list. In fact, I wrote comments for each of their notes. Many of those comments, I should say, were to agree with the note. To built on that particular idea. As I’ve said before, I’ll gladly sell out over the stuff that makes sense. I’m not hear to write my story, I’m here to write the one that facilitates the making of a film.

What I had to argue against was this one fundamental change that they seem hellbent on implementing that completely destroys the story itself. A wildly bizarre request that seems to have come out of nowhere.

As I told Wife, I’m amassing my arsenal. Storing up arguments like ammunition. And then, before I knew I’d said it, there it was:

I’m preparing to go to war.

The same adversarial words as that idiot producer years back.

I want to do the right thing. I’m trying really hard. But man, show business is like a sociopath who knows just what buttons to push.

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Are You Sure You’re Talking About Me?

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 attended university for some reason. While there I had a very strange experience. First semester, first week, a professor was doing attendance. That was strange enough at the university level, but what happened next was statistically nothing short of incredible.

I could feel the kid next to me turn and stare as my name was called. Then his name was called. And it was my turn to twist my neck and stare. We stared at each other in amazement. Wonder. Even the professor scratched his head.

But for a three letter suffix at the end of this complete stranger’s surname our names were identical. First and last.

Until that day we’d never met. Never uttered a word to one another. Seating in the classroom was at our discretion. Random. Somehow two people of the same age, enrolled in the same program, who shared 85% of the same name had plunked down next to one another.

I supposed having the exact same name would have been quite something. But my name isn’t Michael Smith or Mohamed Ahmed. It’s a bit off the beaten track. So the odds on an 85% match was remarkable.

Memorable to say the least.

The other day I got a call from a Hollywood producer. And not to abuse a term, this is a bona fide Hollywood money man who’s movies I did not have to dig up from the annals of the internet to watch. I’d seen them all. And liked them very much.

He’d come across some of my work. Not my screenwriting but my directing work. And that’s a pretty small body of work, I have to tell you. He was calling to tell me that he liked what he’d seen.

Now, when a guy who spends millions of dollars on motion pictures tells you he likes your motion pictures… Time sort of stops.

Often I mentally step out of a conversation. Sometimes even during very important conversations. I mentally step out and start analyzing the conversation itself. The interaction. Sometimes I just contemplate things like how telephones work. I try to control this habit as much as possible.

When bona fide Hollywood players call me up, however, I usually only mentally step out to wonder one thing: Are you sure you’ve got the right guy? I only think it. Bite my lip. Are you sure you’re talking about me?

I attended university for three years. At the end of that period I had a one on one pre-graduation interview with one of my professors. He began by telling me that I was a bit of an enigma to him. My work was often very good but then other times it was not very good at all. And my lack of attendance, he said, was rather unacceptable–

Hang on. You can bash my work. That’s fine. But my attendance is solid. He checks his notes. Furrows his brow. Wait– Aren’t you “Michael Smithson”?

No, damn it! I’m “Michael Smith”!

He’d confused me with my phonetic doppelgänger. And for how long, who knows. The entire three years? Had other professors done the same? I know that to the other students I’d become known as the other guy. So that wasn’t great. And who’s work was good vs who’s work was not very good at all is one for the ages. But I did graduate, that much I know.

Even after we hang up, the feeling stays with me. Every time. Every time I get off the phone after an incredible call. A call from someone who can truly help me realize what often times feel like impossible dreams. All I can do is wonder. Am I really the person they think I am? Did someone read the credits wrong? Is my doppelgänger still out there? Am I ever living off his thunder? Is he ever living off mine?

It’s not til the follow up email that I know for sure.

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I’m Still My Own Best Manager

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een almost a year now. A year since I first got the call that set me on this course. When Script #1 landed in Manager’s hands and he called me up. I haven’t sent another query letter since.

It’s been almost a year and a lot’s happened. Slightly less than Manager optimistically forecast would happen. But still quite a lot. In theory.

Until the option agreement for Script #1 is signed, this is all still just theory as far as I’m concerned. All of it.

What remains fact is that bit about me not having sent a query letter in almost a year.

We’ll handle that from now on, is what Manager told me.

At the time, I didn’t think to explore that process in more detail with him. I was just excited at the prospect.

A few weeks ago I found myself talking to a production company exec. Nothing to do with my writing. Until the subject came up. The subject of what kind of scripts they were looking for. Like reflex, I pitched her a script from my arsenal (Script #3).

She loved the pitch. Wanted to read it right away. Had an A-list actor she wanted to take it to.

Hm. Here’s a situation… I just a got read request from a prod co without Manager’s help. Yet, in theory, he is my Manager. Though in practice – in nearly a year – he has yet to have fulfilled much of this role. So… Do I notify him of the read request?

I decided I should. It seemed like the good-faith move. Not to say I didn’t weigh the pros and cons.

Operating under the assumption that the exec would love the script as much as the pitch, the reasoning was, Manager’s guidance would be of value to me if I was presented with an option deal on Script #3. Whereas all I had to gain by cutting him out was his 10% commission and a potentially touchy phone call to explain myself.

So before sending the script, I sent Manager an email about my exciting pitch to the production exec. Manager hadn’t even read Script #3 yet. Maybe there was a chance he could fit in a read over the weekend. Give me some quick feedback.

Waited a week.

Heard nothing.

Nothing. He acknowledged another portion of my email, so I know he got it, but nothing about my exciting read request.

Finally I couldn’t hold out on the exec any longer so I sent the script.

Same thing just happened again the other day. Different production company. Brand new script. Script #4. Excited production exec requesting a read.

Ask me if I even bothered letting Manager know.

Not this time.

It’s been almost a year since I first got the call. And a lot’s happened. Sort of. In theory.

What’s fact is that in that year I’ve written three new scripts. Manager’s done nothing to disseminate any of them. Has, in fact, only even read one.

And I get why. I hope that I get why. It’s because I’m still a nobody in this industry. Manager isn’t a mass emailing service. He’s not gonna just turn everything I write out to his Rolodex of Hollywood buddies. He’s gotta wait til I’m starting to look like a somebody. He’s gotta wait til Script #1 becomes Movie #1.

I get that.

That and that I’m barely even a blip on his radar. He’s got a dozen irons in the fire. I’ve just got this one.

Which is why it’s hard to put aside what I’ve spent years doing. Being my own manager. Seizing every opportunity.

I shouldn’t hold it against Manager. He’s playing the game he’s been taught. But if either of those execs comes back excited about either Script #3 or Script #4… Then that 10% commission is staying right with me for just a little bit longer.

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Querying – Don’t Query Until Your Script is Ready

Don’t query until your script is ready. Sounds logical. But how do you know when it’s ready. Hold on– Things might get real patronizing real quick around here.

But really, who am I to talk? I’ve gotten read, yes. I’ve gotten repped. I’ve written probably two dozen screenplays but I’m no pro. I learn from trial and error. Maybe you do too.

So here are some questions that have come to form the rough checklist I used on my own spec scripts before pitching them in query letters:

  • Does your script adhere to industry formatting standards?
  • Is your script 90 to 95 pages long?
  • Does it read like other professional scripts widely available to download on the internet?
  • Does it have a three act structure?
  • Will I be able to put it down after the first ten pages?
  • Have a defining moment around page 20 where the protagonist makes a decision to either accept or to reject his journey?
  • Does your writing have a consistent and distinct voice?
  • Have you read your dialogue out loud?
  • Have you re-read the entire script word for word at least two or three times just to check for typos?
  • Have you had your script read by everybody you know?
  • By the people who are able to tell you the truth without you getting all testy?
  • Have you had it read by the closest thing you can find to an accomplished screenwriter?
  • Is this literally your first screenplay? Like literally, literally?
  • If so have you considered putting it aside of at least six months working on tons of other things, forgetting about it entirely then re-reading it with the fresh eyes of a newborn child?
  • Is this your first draft? Have you considered throwing that away and starting over?

I’m certain there are more questions. It’s a long checklist. And always evolving. I guess my point is, there’s writing your script and then there’s making sure it’s ready to be read.

And that goes well beyond the realm of querying tips.

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Querying – Re-Querying

The executives you’re querying get a lot of emails every day. So many, that if your logline fails to impress you’ll likely be quickly forgotten. This is a good thing. It means you have a second chance to make a first impression. Several, if that’s what it takes.

I always waited at least three months before querying the same project to the same exec. Often this second query would include a whole new logline and/or title. Sending out a bunch of queries and not getting any responses can be a clue that something’s not working with your pitch. Sometime however, I would re-query an exec with the exact same letter a second time and receive a read request. Could be an email is dismissed because you caught someone at lunch. Could be a query was passed on because it wasn’t right for an exec at that time. As long as you don’t abuse an exec’s inbox there’s nothing wrong with giving your script another shot.

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No Further Behind

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rust. It’s no big deal without stakes.

I trusted my manager enough to turn down an option on my screenplay. To turn down meetings with top agencies. Things I would would never have dreamed of passing on even six months ago. But I trusted in his plan. I still do.

Which is uncharacteristic of me. I don’t normally trust anybody. I visually scan people for hidden weapons in convenience stores. I’m a skeptic. Not a gambler. I take the bird in the hand every time. So why is it– How is it I’m not agonizing every night over whether I made the right decision to go along with this guy’s plan? To the sacrifice of the offers of my dreams.

I think it’s because I really have given up. I don’t care like I once did. I really have lost hope.

These all sound like really, really bad things– Even writing them now, I’m second guessing how this will be perceived. But they’re kind of not.

At the top of this year I resolved to give up the dream. At least as far as making it a full time pursuit. I’ll always write, I suspect, but doing it day in day out, scraping by on freelance gigs here and there– It was enough. It was time to shift gears. Leave the writing to the nights and weekends. Focus on a new career.

I had given up. Made my peace with it.

It’s the only reason I can come up with for why I trust Manager. Because there are no stakes anymore. If he fails to deliver. If he drops off the face. If we can’t manage to raise the 20 million and I never see my script realized… I’ll be no further behind than I am right now.

It would be disappointing. I’m not gonna pretend it wouldn’t be disappointing– But I’ve been down these roads before. I’ve heard the promises. Spend the money; made the acceptance speeches  in my head. And now – finally – I’ve given all that up too.

It’s odd how good it feels. I’ll record that here, right now. Because the next time I hit a creative rut or the phone stops ringing on the freelance jobs I’ll probably be writhing in self pity– So I’ll say it right here. Now. It feels good to be at peace. To trust.

As it stands, we’re in a waiting period at the moment. Waiting on money. That’s all anybody waits on. Next week has turned into next month a couple times already. That used to be cause for insomnia. Now it’s if it happens it happens. A phone call here and there while bringing in the harvest. Chopping wood. Writing. On nights and weekends.

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