I get paid to write screenplays. It's a deeply satisfying job, with absurdly high pay and lots of vacation time. You get to hang out with people who are talented, and people who are famous. Some are even both. There's the opportunity to travel. Heck, there's even the opportunity -- in some small way -- to Make a Difference. To promote the Forces of Good. To maybe leave a few muddy footprints in the cinematic Sands of Time.
In short, heck, it's a dream job, the best job in the world. A job any Fool would want.
I'm here to tell you how to get it.
That's the purpose of this column. If you've got a cousin who's a creative executive at TriStar and can get you onto an open assignment, this column is not for you. If you're an independent filmmaker with the resources to shoot your own script, this column is not for you. If you want to write high art that nobody can understand, this column is not for you.
But if you write screenplays and want to sell one to Hollywood, I'm your man. I want to help you make a sale, get an assignment, get into the game. I'll try to mark off some of the common pitfalls of the business so you won't fall in and don't have to waste time climbing out. My writing partner, Ted Elliott, and I struggled for five years trying to get our first paycheck and that elusive Writer's Guild card. I'd like to think that, by reading this column, a writer could cut that time at least in half.
Along the way I'll throw in information not commonly available from other sources. Like how to write for animation. Like how much money you can expect to make on your first deal -- and after your first hit. Like who the best agents are, and the worst executives. Like the many ways to cheat your script's page count. Every little trick of the trade and theory I've collected over the past ten years, provided here to help you get a foot in the door.
Okay. Let's get to work.
Here's a little scenario I want you to visualize. I call it "The Warner Bros. Hallway Test." Fix these following scenes in your mind -- because if you're going to be a successful screenwriter, you must pass this test:
Burbank, California. The Warner Bros. film studio. Big trees, old Hollywood-style buildings. Stifling valley heat and throat-tightening smog. Porsches and Jaguars parked in the circular drive. The lawn is very green.
Inside, a guard sits in the foyer, greeting visitors as they step in from the bright sunlight. It is cooler in here. Behind the guard station is a stairway you're not allowed to climb. To your left is a hallway.
Now, this hallway is very important.
Lining the walls are huge photographs from classic motion pictures, blown up from the original 35mm frame to life-size. In the first one, Humphrey Bogart holds a gun on Peter Lorre. Also lining the walls are doorways, most of the doors open, most with secretaries inside.
Only they're not called secretaries -- they're called 'assistants' or 'managers of development;' sometimes they're just called 'readers.' In fact, if you slip by the guard, and go down to the third door on the right, and peek inside, there's a woman there, reading a screenplay.
Her name is Francine, and right now she's on about page 42... which is pretty good, considering that her phone rings about every 30 seconds... and she's in the middle of revising her bosses' upcoming New York itinerary, tracking down agents and juggling about a billion other important details. But right now, the important thing to you is that Francine is also reading your script.
Quick, back out to the hallway. Coming this way is your typical development executive, or 'vice-president in charge of creative affairs.' We'll call this one Larry. Larry's an affable guy, dresses well, and knows the value of a good screenplay. His career was made when he plucked a spec script out of the slush pile, attached a big star to it, and the film got made and become a major hit.
Larry needs another screenplay.
At his side is a bearded, bespectacled guy, wearing loose clothes, carrying a leather backpack. He's a 'hot' director -- we'll call him Tim -- fresh out of film school. Tim is known to be 'visually very creative' which is another way of saying he can film but he can't write.
Tim, too, needs a screenplay.
So Larry and Tim reach Francine's doorway, stick their heads in, maybe ask for a Diet Coke. Larry -- his producer radar ever on alert -- notices that she's reading a screenplay. "So what's it about?" he asks.
Now I relate this scene in such elaborate detail because it is precisely at this moment that your screenwriting career will be made or broken. Also because the scene is so typical, it could be played out literally a hundred times with your script, in a hundred similar situations.
Here's what's going to happen. Francine is going to relate your screenplay's premise in one or two sentences. And Larry and Tim are going to be either interested, or not. And, depending on which reaction they have, that's how your career will go.
What you would really like Francine to say next is something like:
"It's cool. Medical students induce near-death experiences to investigate the afterlife."
"It's funny. Psychic investigators open a ghost extermination business in New York City."
"It's called COOTIES. A boy gets cooties, starts to turn into a girl. He has to kiss a certain girl in order to cure himself."
Any of these and Larry will then ask "Is there a producer attached to it yet?" and Tim will say "Who's directing it? Put me on the list, will you? And send me a copy." And then Larry will say "Who wrote it? Let's meet them. Let's get them in and see if they have any other ideas. Have their agent call me."
Now, keep in mind that neither one has even read the script. They may never read the script. All this happens on the basis of just hearing the premise.
Oh. And this is what you don't want Francine to say when she describes your screenplay: "I'm not quite sure. Seems to be a murder mystery, but the lead character hasn't done very much yet."
Because now Larry and Tim are wandering back down the hall with their Diet Cokes, the script will get covered, the coverage will go into the file, and that's that.
The Warner Bros. Hallway Test. It's brutal, and it illustrates a simple point:
As a screenwriter, your choice of film premise is your calling card. Not your witty dialog, not your clever descriptions. Not your knowledge of structure and subplot and subtext.
The very first decision you make as a writer -- 'what is my film about?' -- will define your creative instincts in the eyes of the industry. Like actors and directors, you will always be known by the projects you pick (or in this case, by the projects you initiate).
You must -- you MUST -- choose well.
Most aspiring screenwriters simply don't spend enough time choosing their concept. It's by far the most common mistake I see in spec scripts. The writer has lost the race right from the gate. Months -- sometimes years -- are lost trying to elevate a film idea that by its nature probably had no hope of ever becoming a movie.
Next column, I'll describe how Ted and I analyze film ideas. I'll introduce the phrase 'strange attractor' -- a useful little conceit of ours.
Trust me, you need to know what a strange attractor is.