Archive for July 2010

Nicholl Contest Notes

July 23, 2010

Some of you might be wondering why I’ve posted so much on screenwriting contests. The simple answer: my blog stats show more hits when I write about that topic. I’m guessing there are a lot of newer writers who are looking for validation from the various script competitions, or seeking solace when their works of art don’t make the cut.

Believe me, I’ve been there and done some stupid things in response to contest results… which I’ll get to in a bit. I also admit that I cried the first time I got my notification from the Nicholl Fellowships Academy Foundation with the gold Oscar emblem on the envelope, which said I was one of the quarterfinalists a few years ago. To make the grade, my script had to score well with three different readers, putting it in the top 5 percent of over 5,ooo scripts.

I thought that this was going to be my big break, and it would not be long before I signed with one of the top agencies or at least a well-known manager. But my script didn’t make the semifinals, and I didn’t get as many script requests as I expected. About a dozen people contacted me. Mostly small production companies and fledgling managers. It did help me get more reads though when I added that accolade to my queries.

The second time I made the Nicholl quarterfinals (different script), I was happy but under no illusions. During the years between placing, I had seen other writers sell scripts that would NOT have done well in any contest, and I knew of Nicholl Fellowship winners who got agents and meetings — but no sales or assignments. (I think writers that were also directing their own small indie projects probably fared better, since they had actual film to show people when the contest opened doors for them. Scripts don’t have the same impact.)

I’ve also had two other scripts get the “P.S.” note from Nicholl contest director Greg Beal, which is something of a mixed blessing. Twice, I was told my scripts were in the “next hundred” that just missed the QF cut. Sigh. This year, my New Improved drafts of those two screenplays got downgraded to a “top 20 percent” note. And my last quarterfinal script? Didn’t even get a P.S. this time around.

I’m sharing this because it just goes to show how subjective these contests can be. I don’t think my scripts got worse, and yet the judges scored them lower this year. Two of the three scripts that were “dinked” from the Nicholls are presently still in contention in other comps that drew thousands of entries.

Naturally, I was disappointed with the Nicholl news that my stuff was out of the running. But I got over it pretty quickly. That wasn’t always the case. In fact, I put too much stock in the Nicholls early in my screenwriting career. When I made the QFs the first time, I took it to mean that it was proof positive I had written a professional level script. Of course, it means nothing of the sort. But when that same script didn’t advance in a smaller contest a month later, I used the Nicholl results as an excuse to question the legitimacy of that contest…

I sent the contest coordinator an email, mentioning my script had just beaten out thousands of other entries in the mother of all screenwriting comps (and was a finalist in the Austin Film Festival contest too!). So I was “wondering” how many readers this little contest used in their first round judging. Although the tone of my email wasn’t nasty, it did imply something wasn’t quite right since my script didn’t advance. In hindsight, it was pretty arrogant of me to do that (but a valid question since the judging procedures weren’t spelled out anywhere by the contest organizers).

Anyhow, I got a sarcastic reply that said, “Congratulations on your masterpiece! We’re so honored you chose to enter our little contest, and apologize that we didn’t recognize your greatness as a writer!” And so on. I suspect she was drunk when she wrote it, and had probably gotten similar emails from other disgruntled writers.

Although I realized my email sounded like a bad case of sour grapes, I didn’t feel I deserved that kind of response. So I forwarded her email to the person who ran the contest, and that coordinator was let go. Looking back, I feel like an asshole for doing that. But I imagine there are a few writers who are smiling at the prospect of seeing a contest judge get the ax.

It’s a cold-hearted business. Either develop a tougher skin, or screw the contests and find a way to make your own film. That’s what I’m going to do.

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How NOT to Succeed in Screenwriting

July 20, 2010

First, spend hours each day lurking on screenwriting message boards or engaging in pointless arguments in those forums about stuff that no legitimate producer, agent or manager cares about.

Second, become obsessed with who’s selling what and analyzing box office numbers — as if it has any bearing on what you’re writing (or more likely, not writing since you are reading things like this blog).

Third, burn bridges by treating Hollywood assistants, fellow writers, and ordinary people with disrespect. I personally have dealt with interns and assistants who wound up being high level execs and produced writers. I’ve also been introduced to movie actors through friends of friends, who had nothing to do with the business. It pays to be nice.

I was prompted to dash off these obvious reminders after witnessing an ugly lynching on a screenwriting site that I actually like quite a bit. Someone re-posted a blog entry by Margaux Froley, who has been on staff of a CW television series — no small accomplishment — and who has also been a screenwriting consultant and contest reader. I know her because when my INUGAMI screenplay was a finalist in last year’s Silver Contest, which is run by Julie Gray, it was Margaux who tried to get my script to agents and producers that were part of their network of contacts.

What set off a firestorm in the screenwriting forums was MF’s casual explanation of how she went through 70-some scripts in a couple of hours, and rejected many after reading just a few pages. Even a writer’s address on the title page was enough for her to pass, given the realities of the TV biz she’s in. And that was the problem: she was honest to a fault. Any screenwriter who’s been around knows what she said is basically true: professional gatekeepers often make snap judgments on scripts or pitches because they have to sort through so much crap.

However, I understood why people were upset. If you pay to enter a contest, you expect that your script will be read — not just skimmed or tossed aside after a couple of pages, based on the whims of one person. In fact, that is NOT what happened with Margaux. She was going through scripts that had already been read and scored in the Silver Contest. Julie Gray asked her to take another look at a batch that had very low scores, because readers are human. They have bad days too or personal biases when it comes to genres they like/dislike.

Compounding the problem was that Margaux and Julie didn’t want to directly answer questions and complaints in those forums, which I think made matters worse. People who tried to defend them just wound up arguing in circles. What was lost in all this though, is that there was nothing to gain by ganging up on Margaux or Julie!

You know what? Margaux will continue to work in the TV biz because she’s a pro who has broken through and gotten paid to write for a network television series, unlike 99 percent of the wannabes on the message boards. And Julie is starting her own production company, so why in the world would you publicly diss her, even if it’s under a fake name? She has legit connections because she’s been a professional reader who has written coverage for studios and A-list talent. People like Margaux and Julie WANT to discover the next big writer or project! (Heck, so do I, since producers usually make a lot more than writers.)

Contest update: As previously mentioned in this blog, my DOLL thriller/suspense made the Top 50 quarterfinals cut of Julie’s Silver Contest (about a thousand entries). Last week, the Page Awards announced their second round quarter-finalists (top 10 percent of over 5,000 scripts). DOLL didn’t even make the first cut in that one. But my LEGENDS OF THE MENEHUNE family/adventure spec advanced into the Page quarter-finals.

Quick Netflix recs: MARY AND MAX, kind of a weird, dark animated film from Australia that I liked because it was so un-Disney-like. Not for kids!

Also liked A SINGLE MAN very much. In Hawaii, our governor who is a twice-divorced Jewish Republican woman — oh, the ironies! — vetoed a bill that would have allowed civil unions for gay couples. I wish she would watch this movie. Love is love… and discrimination is discrimination. Shame on Gov. Lingle for denying equal rights to gay people.

TAKING WOODSTOCK is a low-key charmer based on the memoirs of the guy who helped make Woodstock a reality. Critics weren’t kind to Ang Lee’s film, but I think it plays better on a smaller screen. Oh, and the protag is a quiet, thoughtful, caring gay man who is still in the closet at that time. Hello, Gov. Lingle? Some people like her are still living in the past.

For an old school sports-as-inspiration story, see INVICTUS. Completely conventional, predictable, and yet, ultimately still moving because of one scene I’ll remember: when the rugby team visits Mandela’s cell, and you realize he spent over 20 years in prison… but his spirit couldn’t be broken. Talk about courage — another movie Gov. Lingle should see.

Oldie but goodie: SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON. Reminded me of WHO’S AFRAID OF VIRGINIA WOOLF, combined with a botched kidnapping and a touch of the supernatural. This would be a good movie to remake and update!

Working for free – stop emailing me!

July 12, 2010

For over 30 years, I have been paid to write. Newspapers, PR stuff, ad copy, a couple of TV commercials. I’ve also won thousands of dollars in cash and prizes from screenwriting contests. During that time, I’ve written thousands of script pages for which I received nothing, but I considered it part of the dues one must pay to learn their craft. Yet it never ceases to amaze me how undervalued writing skills are in the business world.

Any writer worth their salt has probably heard this one before: “You’re a writer. Can you take a quick look at my (insert business letter, proposal, report) and tell me what you think?”

It’s like someone asking a doctor at a social function if he can take a quick look at a mole or rash, and offer a free diagnosis. (Most people intuitively sense that approaching a lawyer for legal advice anywhere/anytime starts the billing clock ticking, and frame their questions in more “theoretical” terms.)

The assumption seems to be that if you’re not a best-selling author or produced screenwriter, you must have loads of free time. It’s really not that hard to do a little editing for a friend or colleague, right? Just fix a few words here and there, put in commas where they should be. No biggie… “Oh, and could you do it like, now? I have to turn it in today.”

But that’s nothing compared to being asked to rewrite entire screenplays or book manuscripts by agents,managers or producers. For free. And until you either get published, produced or land an agent with clout, that’s something every writer must come to terms with. Of course, you could choose NOT to do free rewrites for an interested party, or stick to your artistic guns and say no. Unfortunately, the reality for new screenwriters is you’ll probably have to compromise your vision — and your pay standards — if you’re lucky enough to sell a script.

Stephen Rivelle, who cowrote NIXON for Oliver Stone, had been writing for 15 years (books, plays, scripts) before his first movie deal. In a screenwriting workshop I took at the University of Hawaii, he said writers basically “give away” their first script, and it’s not until the second or third one that they begin to make significant money. Provided the first one was a hit with critics or audiences, that is.

Anyhow, what prompted this topic was a thread on Done Deal about the perils of doing “free” script rewrites for interested producers and managers. Someone provided a link to this humerous, profane exchange between a writer and a business associate who wanted him to do free graphics work: click here. (Warning: some NSFW stuff on that page and offensive language as well.)

In a similar vein, here is another funny Done Deal thread started by a screenwriter, who got an unusually blunt response to his queries. Most agents and managers ignore the query if they aren’t grabbed by it, or simply reply, “No thanks.” This agent took it a step further: “Please Stop Emailing Me” (goes on for pages, but the writer’s response to comments is priceless!).

Bonus link: In case you never saw the hilarious exchange between a customer and company service rep over a disputed bill, here’s the classic spider email thread. I believe the spider drawing eventually sold on eBay for several thousand dollars… but the buyer then refused to pay for it (read the exchange and you’ll see the delicious irony).

More Contest Results…

July 1, 2010

Quick update on my last post about Screenwriting Contest Results, in which I told you two out of three scripts I entered in the Page Awards comp made the first cut (top 25 percent of over 4,000 entries). Not making the grade was THE DOLL, a script that had done well in other contests — my point being early round judging can be VERY subjective.

So today I learn that Julie Gray’s well-regarded Silver Screenwriting contest announced their quarter-finalists, except they only chose 50 out of over a thousand entries (top 5 percent). THE DOLL was one of them, but STUNT MEN, which made the Page quarter-finals list, bombed out. So go figure!

Last year, my supernatural/psychological thriller INUGAMI, made the Silver Contest Top 10 Finalist list, but did not place in the money. Still, Julie’s team tried to get some of their professional contacts to read my script, even though I wasn’t among the prize winners. Although none of those producers or managers liked INUGAMI as much as the Silver Contest judges did, I really appreciate the effort Julie and her associates make to help writers like myself get read by top-notch industry people.

Congrats to everyone else who advanced in the Silver contest! And to those who didn’t, don’t give up. Took me awhile before my scripts starting advancing in contests — but even now, it’s still a crapshoot!