Being A New Screenwriter...

… is about embracing what you can & can’t control as a wannabe professional.

One important point to remember about becoming a professional screenwriter: control over your work is fleeting. Most artistic mediums are required to be collaborative if they are ever to be considered professional. No one can enjoy art in isolation except the artist (and is usually defined as therapeutic rather than artistic). For now, let’s assume we’re going to write for entertainment. You’ll be relieved to know that the most important parts of the screenwriting process can be controlled by you even if the response to it cannot.

For instance, you can control whether you sit at your computer staring at that blank page, or not. You can control the initial conception of your worlds, plots and characters. You can control what media outlets you choose to research on & write for; TV, iPhone streaming, iPad, Laptop, Google Glass! You can control your love of horror, thrillers, psychological thrillers, possession horror, supernatural thrillers, comedy, Biopics etc. inspiring your own work. Of course, that doesn’t mean imitation is the key. It isn’t. How many times have you been into a Barnes & Noble YA section only find The Hunger Games or Harry Potter being ripped off again & again. Truth is, no one will ever make those projects again. They’ve been done. There is no ‘next Harry Potter’. You can control whether you wish to be original or not though; based on the genre you love most.

Me? I love to be scared. Even a cheap scare if that’s all I can get. Although I do prefer elevated, well-drawn original plots & characters (while acknowledging most plots have already been written). Ones that are fresh & free of mimicry (Not a five-college-kids-in-the-woods kind of guy). God, I wish I could go back to watching The Exorcist with fresh eyes every time! Feel that same terror-laden rush when Father Merrin steps into Regan O’Neill’s room to face the demon for the first time. I want that again & again. It’s the same feeling that got writing in the first place. A desire to see & feel that terror. It’s what I know I want most in a film or TV series.

So, write what you wanna see! Horror or not. This is about screenwriting & storytelling first and foremost. You can control that! In the beginning, anyway; before the studio executives are released all over your work.

You can control whether you choose to listen & learn from those doyens of screenwriting who’ve come before you as well (can’t go passed Scriptnotes, The Nerdist Writer’s Panel or the WGA’s 3rd & Fairfax podcasts). And you should as a new screenwriter because there really is no other path into professional screenwriting other than to embrace the well-worn path of those who’ve trudged before you. Without them we’re simply loose pages flapping in a careless breeze; out of order & lost. Listen to them closely because when you’re talking, you learn very little. Listening is a much better skill to own; even if what you’re listening too resembles audible garbage. It can still be valuable in all its mediocrity. So, don’t silence that hack spilling rubbish in your ears. Just nod. Thank him for the lesson. Listening to credible feedback & advice will always help your writing shine. You can control whether you do that, or not; whether you will be an informed practitioner or not.

Be specific about the industry resources you choose to use for research & instruction remembering everything is edited! Be a wide-eyed eagle when it comes to swooping on what you think may or may not be gospel. You’ll be judged for what you bring to the table, so make sure you’re informed about who’s doing what in the industry & genre you’ve chosen (Deadline, IMDB Pro, Studio System, Box Office Mojo, Script Mag, or Done Deal – just a few of industry resources I use). Not only can you control this, you should. And you can control who sees your work when starting out. Find a couple of trusted colleagues whose development skills are sharp. Let ‘em tear your work to pieces (within reason) leaving your ego a crumpled mess on the floor writhing in pain. You’ll thank ‘em later (although it never feels great). But very big note to self here: You cannot control what anyone will say or divulge about your work once they’ve read or seen it (no matter what you think of the advice). Your perspective, imagination and a detailed knowledge of screenwriting craft are the only elements you get to bring to the table – along with the skill of wading through those rubbish comments a finding a gem or two that can change your work for the better. When you set that piece of writing free after centuries of toil, you’re not in control of how changed it will become when it returns (if it ever does). Swallow that pride, and just know that you can control your response to criticism; you can control whether you enter a room as a team player willing to work with others, or not. And if you can’t then don’t walk into that room in the first place. Do something else knowing that…

You can control your storytelling. It’s tone. Genre. Character development & plot trajectory, but once you release into necessarily collaborative environs, there is no ‘you’ anymore.

The feeling of being out of control when it comes to ‘those babies’ we created can be a scary thing. We love those characters. They’re perfect! The world is our creation. It’s perfect! Those stunts are awesome! Those scares are the best! I don’t want ‘em changed! Yeah. I get it, but that’s not gonna fly in the production world. Out there, the industry will twist it into whatever they need in order to get it sold. You want in on some of those decisions, right? Of course, you do! It may not always align with the story of success you’ve idealized in your head, but it’s necessary. Major movie studios know the industry. They ARE the industry for a lot of platforms even if the Amazons & Netflix of the world are bashing down the doors. Studios keep abreast of all the changes going on, and are instrumental in most of them. And while their desire is bottom line first, the way they go about it is tried & true… whether your vision fits it, or not. My advice? Bend a little. Whole divisions are devoted to marketing, distributing and developing brand identity for your film… and you should let them do their job if you wanna work professionally. It’s a natural part of the process. Now, this doesn’t mean you have to drop all rights to that centuries-old creative vision for your piece, but you do need to get passed your own ego before you can ably defend what you created from an informed, professional perspective. That means knowing each and every punctuation mark like the back of your hand; every word and its function. There are unspoked rules observed in most genres, so you should also know those, and be willing to implement (or break) them where you can. Never forget that decades & decades of projects that came before yours did exactly that.  

You can control the genre you choose to love; the one you should be writing in… like I had to.

Horror films. That’s me. Now, I’m no Shock Waves geek (the Blumhouse podcast. It’s awesome! Give it a listen. Those guys are crazy for horror. Know their stuff. It’s how I found Shudder.com), but as a screenwriter I love a good horror script. Scares that pop of the page says a great deal about those writing them. But! Always, always story craft first & foremost. The telling. The feeling. The terror. The sadness. The tears. Stories with heart no matter what genre. Stories that touch us in emotional ways. Three-dimensions over two-dimensions.

Story has been a part of my emotional make up since I was a kid. My love of being terrified began with René Cardona Jr.’s 1978 film The Bermuda Triangle (one scene forcing me to banish the plastic Santa Clause doll in my window for fear it’d attack me during the night). It was a pivotal moment. I suddenly found the type of stories I needed in order to safely lose control! Basically… I got to control my loss of control! Being terrified thrilled me; left me cold, yet elated. The perfect state for a young wannabe writer looking to one day inspire their own audience. It was freeing. I didn’t need control inside the experience of the film because someone else had major control of what I was seeing. I could let go as a consumer. Lose myself. Feel caught off-guard. Surprised. Disoriented. All the above shading the kind of screenwriter I wanted to become. Of course, over time, learning the craft of story also tempered my ability to lose control as an audience member. Innocence lost. But that newfound passion & drive for writing was like a drug. I wanted to harness it. Needed to. And then came that funky word…  

Collaborating! But I hate it! My vision’s my own! I’m a lone wolf! I create better that way…

Okay. Sure. Maybe you can control that, but please do us all the favor of writing the book first. It’s more of a ‘lone wolf’ territory Keeping in mind that eventually, even successful authors have editors & publishers sweating all over their work before it goes to press; even they understand the importance of objectivity when it comes to creativity. Even prominent playwrights rarely act, direct, produce, stage manage, & design their own work! One-woman (or one-man) shows require more than one eye on the work. Creating in a vacuum doesn’t work. Art is an experience meant to be felt and consumed by humans – a human experience. Tunnel vision in a creative process will only lead to total darkness. Look to control that initial spark then let the flames run wild. As a writer, learn where your power is & all your anxiety about writing for production will subside. Collaboration & your desire to participate in it (or not) can be controlled.

A great production designer elevates tone; elevates visual emotion & the semiotic value of fictional worlds. A great cinematographer captures that visual truth and directs our emotions using the lens. A great director will steer the ship through rocky, violent waters unifying all visions into one. Then that exceptional editor will re-write you again! But don’t sweat that. It’s necessary channel Alfred Hitchcock’s belief that ‘To make a fine film, you need three things: A great script, a great script and a great script’. Everyone who works in the studio system, Indie system, Theater, TV world & beyond knows this to be an ultimate truth (won’t always admit it, but they do). No matter the genre. Which brings me to the greatest horror of all. Any screenwriter’s (or any writer’s) greatest terror…

The blank page! Noooooooooooo! Surely, I have no control over that…

Oh shut up! Stop whining! All you have to do is sit and write! Or stand and write! Read, watch, write, read then watch more. Soak yourself in visual story every day. Whether you want to or not – sit down at your designated work place and work! Ten minutes; ten hours. You may lose control of the amount of time you get daily. Life happens. But you can control doing it at all. I write & work in a movie studio in LA. I have to. I want to be near it all the time. I have a need to write that can’t be faked. For fakery, I look to those striving for fame & fortune; for those looking to awards for validation. Don’t do it! It’s a bubble. Awards have nothing to do with writing. Being recognized has nothing to do with writing. Dedication and hard work are everything. If I have a modicum of talent then great… 95% of the rest is gore, sweat and tears! Getting rich & famous never drives true creativity. If that’s your desire, become a hedge fund manager, or marry a Kardashian. All I really know is that if I don’t write, I wither. My mood darkens. Demons fester. More than two days and I’m possessed by a rage unprecedented in any horror movie. Those around me cower knowing that writing is that angelic part of me that quiets the evil. And I’m happy to say I can’t and don’t want to control that. It gets me to my desk well before the crack of dawn every morning. There I can write & consume stories in all their many forms: books, stage plays, webisodes, documentaries, reality TV, music, beat poems, even stand-up comics bringing a funny narrative thread. Solid storytelling surprises, informs, delights, outrages, inspires and in my case, terrifies (Thank you, Billy Friedkin, Guillermo del Toro, Jason Blum, Ed Sanchez, and the like)! But SDC, what if I don’t have it in me? What if my work isn’t good enough? Well, thankfully that’s out of your control…  

Bringing us to the devastating topic of criticism, development notes, studio executives & the marketing machine.

Cinema-goers flock to their nearest Arclight or AMC to escape; to give up control over their emotions. They don’t want control. They actively seek to shed it; to give it away to us. They want the craft of storytelling to surprise, thrill, devastate, tickle to the point of pants-peeing, so they can brag to others. True cinephiles are the ultimate mavens – they want control of being able to tell others how good that movie or TV experience was. Word-of-mouth can make or break, but only after it’s been sieved through the distribution & marketing machine. Now, we’ve all heard those horror stories that make us shudder about ‘the Hollywood Machine’ chewing up work and crapping it out. And sure, that does happen, but try to remember that in most cases, marketing is a primary part of what we do today in order to get our art seen. Marketing divisions can make or break a film. And they test them with an audience full of arm-chair critics ready to hate on it. Remember the marketing plan for Paranormal Activity? They even used the audience reactions they were that good! Watching people terrified of a horror film you’ve just made?! Won’t get a better endorsement than that. It was brilliant!  Powerful. Voyeuristic. Exciting. An affirmation of marketing power. I wanted to see it right then! I wanted that terror for myself. The cringing & cowering of being uncontrollably thrust into a world like that. Meaning as filmmakers we can control our audience. How? Go back to top of this paragraph. Read again. Collaboration at its peak. In fact, why not experience the Paranormal Activity effect for yourself? Go see that amazing horror movie you’ve been waiting for. The go again. This time sit to one side. Watch the audience. You risk being labeled creepy of course, but you’ll quickly identify what works and what doesn’t. Supplement your reading and writing with this exercise. You’ll experience how powerfully a story can penetrate the psyche when told right (or not). Wish I’d recorded my face when Regan O’Neill’s head spun around for the first time wish I’d bottled it. I could make bank! But even if you were able to do that, the next phase is even harder to control. How do I penetrate the Berlin-sized wall of ‘no!’ that seems to exist around professional screenwriting? Rejection after rejection. This is a question most new screenwriters ponder way too late when developing a story. So… try remembering this… the power of The Exorcist doesn’t exist in the possession-based horror spectacle… sure the scares are awesome… the makeup is terrific… but the story’s elevation into the emotional realm investing in our empathies with those threatened by the demon is paramount. We wanna see Regan safe. Free. Back with her mom. We identify with being possessed of a rage so damaging it alienates our family. Pushes them away. Makes them feel helpless. The emotional hook given to us by the storytellers when setting up the character relationships is essential crafting… you can control that as a horror writer. Study the good & the bad. Apply it. Mix in a little of the rules for your chosen genre and you’re on the way. Hell, break the rules if you want. Just know them first; know how they can be used to affect the control you can have over your audience & their experience while keeping in the back of your mind…

You simply cannot control what others think & say about your work… but you can control your reaction to it.

You’ve spent years writing the next big Insidious or The Exorcist (although my advice would be not to do that, as those films have already been made – write your movie). It’s a gem. You controlled its inception. You put in the hard yards. Crafted the hell out of it! You got up at 3:30am every morning and wrote it while holding down two jobs supporting a young family. You deserve the accolades now! Where’s the applause?! Well… the bad news is you’re further away from that than you think ‘cause you’re about to lose control for good (until you’re producing and directing your own work). Development, acquisition then distribution/marketing teams are about to pour over your work. During this period, you need to develop the skills necessary to say goodbye; to lean on that hope-against-hope that the blueprint you created is strong enough to withstand the commercial-sized wash it’s about to enter; a process that even a semi-solid script can die in. And you have no control over any of it. None! Financiers and producers are in the game of making money. Scripts alone don’t do that. Just like any investment, shareholders wanna see the lowest risk possible before handing over their easy-come-easy-go cash. A script alone won’t do that unless you’re Sorkin, August, Cody or Shonda or others of that ilk. Even then you’re gonna need Pitt, Hemsworth, Theron, Streep, or Dwayne The Rock Johnson. Problem is they don’t need you. And what about Howard, Scorsese, Del Toro, Bigelow, Fuqua or Eastwood? Nope. They don’t need you either. The catch 22 here is that attaching ‘an element’ that’s marketable is as paramount to a screenplay’s studio success more than ever. And now it’s a hazier playing field thanks to the many new platforms available for content. Getting a theatrical release nod for Rusty Crowe these days? Nope. Investors want domestic box office bliss. Our little gem alone isn’t gonna excite them. But there are a heap of budget types designed for specific release platforms that will be just right for your project – whether it’s domestic (and/or International) theatrical release (studios large and small), straight to streaming (Netflix, Amazon, iTunes), Pay TV channels of all types (Mel Gibson’s Get The Gringo was a thought bubble for those looking to avid theatrical pitfalls); MOW’s on low budget end like Lifetime and Hallmark not to mention the very real evolution of developing technology continuing to impact entertainment product; Millennials and their isolationist ancestors Google-glassing the latest YA adaptation or firing on terrorists inside Call of Duty 40. iPhones, iPads, laptops, Smart Phones, 4D TV hungry for content. Something for every screenwriter… none more so than the horror/thriller writer now with the likes of Shudder.com & Blumhouse ruling the horror distribution waves. But these will all take care of themselves – once you’ve found the genre & style you like to right in… again… they won’t care until everyone does. Makes it kind of hard to nail down a release plan for your baby… leaving most new screenwriters’ tear-stained scripts abandoned. Right? Well, no. Not if…

You can accept that your career trajectory is totally out of your control unless you knuckle down and just write.  

So here we are. The beginning of the end of trying to figure out what it is a major studio or network might be looking for. Is it your idea? How can you find out? The studio environment these days is vastly different from 10 – 15 years ago where quite often, staggering amounts of money were thrown at development. Now, as a producer, manager, agent, filmmaker, even craft services guy with an idea, you’ll be expected to bring a lot more than a great script; you’ll have to package it with those strong elements we talked about before getting a foot in the door; a hot script with a fully financed budget, semi A (or B)-list director with a track record in the genre you write in; a script that’s marketable in domestic or international territories you're targeting. Good Lord! It IS the Berlin wall! My advice? Get a partner (writing or producing) who has a higher access to these elements. An industry assistant who believes in your work. Foster a few relationships. You don’t need many. They just need to be targeted. As a new screenwriter, you want to find a champion who will push people to read your script. Not always a manager or agent. Could be a young go-getting producing graduate who’ll dedicate their time to packaging your project with you… the same amount of time you dedicated to writing it. But remember… be willing to lose a certain amount of control to that collaborator. You want them to invest that time (usually for nothing). Be compassionate and supportive when opening up the world you’ve created. You can control that. And it does work. You need other creatives on your side. I'm always surprised by the continuing flow of phone calls and queries I get working at a studio from financiers and producers who have ' the next big thing', but have clearly not exercised any due diligence before rushing into developing, financing and producing a project that’ll clearly die in the murky waters of marketing & distribution before it's even left post-prod. Again! Studios are about a bottom line; never more than now with the new world order of dwindling budgets and the saturated online streaming markets in full swing. So before casting Kane Hodder (who I love by the way). Really think about him as the right element to attract funding other than just being awesome for the role. Maybe Thomas Jane & Rose Burn are a better fit if you’re looking for a limited theatrical release. But really, let’s face it… if you’re looking for a wide theatrical release for a horror film then casting isn’t the only hook you’re going to need these days. You want that Fede Alvarez, Jason Blum, Leigh Whannell, James Wan connection. Actors don’t sell theatrical horror releases. It’s a filmmaker-driven medium. Aiming at the studios with your script won’t cut it. Do your research and get it to the right agents, producers, managers because ultimately…

You can control the research, and due diligence you put into finding the right home for your work…

One of the main reason I developed www.thenewscreenwriter.com; a place where new screenwriters can come to find answers to questions they have no idea who to ask. Of course, the site has become much more than that. Control as much of your destiny as possible until it’s no longer necessary. And not just you horror writers! The New Screenwriter unites all genres under one common learning-curve ceiling – the art & craft of screenwriting. Now… sit! Write! Conjure the discipline to leap out of bed and tackle Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory. Having talent isn’t the same as working hard. Pairing that talent with the daily blood, sweat and tears is success for me. It’s 90% of what has improved my writing over the years.