FIVE WAYS TO HIT THE GROUND RUNNING IN 2017

FIVE WAYS TO HIT THE GROUND RUNNING IN 2017
(And Good Freaking Riddance, 2016)

By Jim Cirile, CEO, Coverage Ink

Ahoy, fellow scribes! We’re finally done with 2016, that blizzard of putrescence – and not a minute too soon. Some of the lowlights: Trump, DNC chicanery, and Wikileaks revealing that Citicorp had selected Obama’s entire cabinet, proving he was a fraud from day one (“Change,” anyone?) And we lost so many – not only huge names like Prince, Bowie, Muhammad Ali, George Michael and Carrie Fisher, but lesser-known geniuses like Joe Alaskey, aka the voice of Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck, Monsters Inc. screenwriter Dan Gerson, and two-thirds of progressive rock pioneers Emerson, Lake and Palmer (only drummer Carl Palmer remains). Icing the turd: feature spec sales were at their lowest level in a decade.

Ugh.

But wait? What’s that sound off in the distance? Did that sound like a… cha-ching? Indeed! There is a light at the end of the tunnel. It’s the magic number 455. No, no, it’s not on the front of an oncoming train. That, friends, is the number of scripted pilots bought/ordered last year. Compare that with less than 100 feature specs sold, and you’ll see that TV has superseded features as a place to make money. And that means opportunity.

So I’ve compiled a short list of things we should all do in order to get a piece. Forget pointless New Year’s resolutions you’ll never keep – do this.

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1) ELEVATE YOUR CRAFT

Sounds simple, right? Yet this is probably the single hardest thing for writers to do, mainly because many of us live in a lovely Egyptian land called “Denial.” See, screenplays are not lottery tickets. There is no real element of luck. If you send scripts to 20 contests and hope that one of them will recognize your brilliance, you’re not understanding how things really work. While there are exceptions of course, when a script is great, everyone can see it from 20,000 feet.

The truth is, the vast majority of scripts are mediocre. But rather than doing the heavy lifting needed to get them into the end zone – that means rewriting, people – oftentimes we maybe do one round of notes, then send it out.

The sound you hear next is the door hitting your ass on the way out.

The truth is: creating a great script generally takes work. Malevolent, our in-production animated feature (starring William Shatner and Morena Baccarin) took 20 drafts and over a year of development before it got consistent considers. Expect this and plan for it. Why is it that unlike any other highly paid profession, writers have so much trouble accepting that years of study and revision go into creating a great script?

So I want everyone reading this to take steps to up their game. Don’t just keep writing in a vacuum.

  • Take a class. Pretty much every college has online classes. Embrace the learning process.
  • Find a writer’s group. You’d be amazed how empowering it is to get feedback on your pages week after week – plus the deadlines help, too.
  • Send your script in for feedback from companies who use highly trained professional story analysts – and then actually do the notes.
  • And lest we forget – avail yourself of all the incredible information out there! When I got started out in the ‘80s, all we had were a couple of Syd Field books. Now there are literally thousands of how-to books, blogs, articles, webinars and YouTube videos. All out there waiting for you.

Do ALL these things. And repeat as needed. And there is no point in making any submissions until you are certain that your script rocks.

2) MAKE A LIST AND CHECK IT TWICE

Once you’re confident your material is the shizbombdiggity, how do you get it out there? Good news again: there have never been more ways to do this. The truth is: everyone is looking to find an amazing script. But no one wants to waste precious time trudging through the great unwashed masses. So companies like InkTip and Virtual Pitchfest make it easy to submit your story ideas to producers and reps for just a few bucks (and they take a lot of the hassle out of the process for producers, while adding a firewall to ensure they’re not badgered by the likes of us.) I personally got signed off Virtual Pitchfest in the past, so I can assure you it works.

Two other interesting options: Roadmap Writers and The Black List. Roadmap Writers sets up phone/Skype pitches with execs, while the Black List provides industry exposure to top-rated script submissions.

There’s no better way to get in the faces of executives than by getting in the faces of executives, so we highly recommend Scriptfest (formerly Great American Pitchfest.) This event, held every summer in Burbank, puts you with as many as 15-20 execs in a single day. A smaller but still worthwhile pitch event is Pitching Room, from Story Pros, which is twice yearly.

While an imdbpro.com subscription ($129) has useful company info, unfortunately, they don’t have a lots of up-to-date contacts and e-mails useful for querying execs. Fortunately, there is the Hollywood Screenwriting Directory, from our friends at The Writers Store. $24.95 gets you a hard copy directory with 4,000 companies, as well as access to their frequently-updated website. Make a list of the companies who have done projects similar to yours, then contact the lowest-rung person on the totem pole at those places -- interns or assistants. They’re looking to put feathers in their cap by finding killer material to champion. That means they actually read. Have your elevator pitch ready, and hit ‘em with a cold call. Be electric and personable. A 20-second phone pitch can well elicit a “Sure, what the hell. Send it over.” If you’re going to query via e-mail, make sure it is short and punchy, that you paint a compelling, fascinating picture of yourself, and that you only pitch one project per query.

3) GET YOUR CONTEST DUCKS IN A ROW

There are a handful of fantastic contests out there who break new talent all the time. And there are a boatload that do not. Really, there are less than ten that have any real juice. A cash prize is nice, but what you really need is access. Here are a few worth your dime and your time:

Tracking B

LaunchPad

Nicholl Fellowship

Scriptapalooza

Script Pipeline

Slamdance

Sundance Lab

Austin

As for the rest… meh. Face it, making the semi-finals of the South Terre Haute Film Festival Screenwriting Competition will do precisely jack and squat for your career… and Jack just left town. And while we’re not a contest, I have to shamelessly plug Coverage Ink’s Get Repped Now promotion as well. Again, access is the name of the game.

And don’t forget the network fellowships and diversity programs. Programs like NBC’s Writers on the Verge, Nickelodeon Writing and the Disney/ABC Writing Fellowship are a golden way in – although competition is fierce. Finally, there may be some grant money available for those who wish to DIY. Film Daily has a great list.

4) SCRUTINIZE YOURSELF

Most of us have difficulty with this. That’s why I founded Coverage Ink, frankly – because more often than not, others can see the flaws in your material when you cannot. So buck up, pilgrim, and take a cold, hard look at each of these areas:

Concept. If you are writing a TV pilot, then your pilot should look like a TV show (duh) and bring something fresh and compelling to the table, in a genre that TV generally does. As well, it should ideally fit with a certain network – “this is clearly a CW show,” for example. If it’s a feature, it should be demonstrably studio or indie (but probably not both,) with a clear target audience. Who will pay to see this movie? IS there an audience for it? Your adaptation of a 17th century treatise on the merits of indoor plumbing, for example, may not draw ‘em in at the local multiplex. If it’s an indie, make sure you keep the budget LOW. And even if it’s meant to be a studio spec, remember that while you do need set pieces, you also need complex and robust characterizations. Consider also that no one can sell a huge-budget epic fantasy or superhero spec -- most of these types of movies are adapted from well-known source material, meaning your spec is DOA. Best bet: stay with the evergreen genres: crime, thriller, action, comedy, contained/affordable sci-fi (think “Moon,”) and horror. Romantic comedies, epic adventures, westerns, dramas and period pieces are tough sells on the feature side.

Title. Titles are marketing tools. Ideally they should convey something about the genre, tone, or theme of the script. Beware of naming your script after your main character (lazy, and tells us little unless it is a historical figure) or some cliché like “Good to Go” or “It’s Never Enough.” These titles are so vague as to say nothing. Make sure your title POPS.

Style. Yes, it is possible to scrutinize your writing style! Not just your story, but the way in which you tell a story – aka “voice.” A few things to look out for:

Overwriting. Screenwriting should be snappy and terse, not novelistic and bloated. Read your script over thoroughly, scanning every single line, paragraph, every page, scrutinizing it carefully. Keep the axe poised, and excise extraneous words. It's a bit of an art to train your eye to look for bloat, but it's a skill any writer can learn. Take any sentence and challenge yourself: can I say the same thing in half the words? Or do I need it at all? Be on the lookout for redundancies, scenes that are unrelated to the main storyline, excessive detail and extraneous characters and subplots -- especially in the case of many ensemble scripts, which oftentimes would work better and be tighter with a central protagonist.

Some writers haven’t mastered contractions and possessives and confuse its/it’s and your/you’re. Nothing will get your script tossed on the “pass” pile faster. You’re putting yourself up for highly paid writing gigs, which means you’re expected to know this stuff. Or we make other basic errors like “lightening” instead of “lightning” and “must of” instead of “must have.” Again, this is where taking a class can be super helpful. There is no shame in taking a copy editing or grammar class at night school. They exist to help you. Avail yourself.

But by far the most common style problem is just a plain ol’ lack of it. Some writers’ panache flares off the page, with energetic word choices, vibrant descriptions and punchy, in-your-face prose. Others write flat sentences using tired, uncreative adjectives like “large” and verbs like “walks,” “sits,” and “runs.” One sprints, races, zooms, scrambles, stampedes, bolts, flies, bum-rushes, steams, bounds or blazes. Never “runs.”

Again, creative writing courses are available at every single community college…

Here’s one more tip to improving your style: STEAL. How much do you think I stole from William Goldman’s technique? If you answered “a f*ck ton,” you’d be correct! There are amazing and inspirational writers out there who know how to turn a phrase, who always keep you guessing. For me those people are folks like Harlan Ellison, Richard Marcinko, Carl Hiassen, and David Twohy. Like the way a writer does a cool transition, or uses just the right word to paint a mental picture? Filch! No, I’m not saying lift their content, duh. I’m saying to use their style to inform your own. 

5) WRITE SOMETHING NEW.

Whaaat? No, seriously. You should do this. All of us at one time or another have shopped a project that was past its expiration date. It’s hard to accept something we’ve labored over for years is pushing up daisies. But here’s the thing: agents and managers expect you to write two or three new pieces of material/year. Gulp. Once you accept that, there’s no time to beat that dead horse anymore. Because a gorgeous, brand-new filly has just galloped in.

So put aside that script you’ve been flogging since 1994 and freakin’ start afresh. Okay, now I know I just said to not be afraid to do twenty drafts. However, many of us just keep reworking the same ol’ material which maybe has a flawed or uncommercial concept or is just problematic in some way. When you start a new feature or pilot, you’re proceeding with all the information you’ve learned since then, ready to roll. Your sense of structure and pacing will be better, and you may nail some things first time out that you are still struggling with in the old script. By writing something new you will recharge your batteries and show what you can do right now, in 2017 – not what you did a few years ago, patched up with half-assed rewrites that didn’t really address the underlying issues.

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Simple, right? Hell no. In fact, all this stuff is laborious. But you wanted in on this game. You wanted to write movies and TV and make the big bucks. So make sure 

JimCirile2

you have the tools to rule. Now go kick some ass and make me proud!

Jim Cirile is a Los Angeles writer/producer and the founder of Coverage Ink, helping writers with professional screenplay analysis/development services since 2002.

Want To Be A Professional Screenwriter?

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I CAN GET YOU SIGNED BUT…

I CAN GET YOU SIGNED (But I Probably Won’t)
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By Jim Cirile
.....
Okay, that snarky title is going to require some ‘splainin’, to quote the great Ricky Ricardo. Truth is, pretty much anyone who knows a few people in the biz can probably help get you signed -- a working writer, an assistant, an intern, whatever. Because anyone can be a passionate advocate. And if you absolutely love a piece of material, are gonzo excited about it, well, that’s contagious. And if your connection commands any level of respect at a company, at the very least the script they’re advocating for will be sent for coverage. But if they really trust that person’s judgment, the agent, producer or manager may well read that script personally. That’s the grease in Hollywood ‘s wheels-- referrals from people whose opinions they trust.

Problem is, most scripts don’t rise to the level of inspiring that sort of advocacy.

I founded CoverageInk.com in 2002, and we’ve seen a lot of scripts in that time -- tens of thousands. And while we’ve found a fistful of gems over the years, the vast majority of what we see are scripts that have potential but need a bit of work. Yeah, pretty much every single script, even the awesome ones, has some sort of problem. Of course, not all issues have the same weight. A great storyteller with voice and verve and panache, who constantly surprises the reader on every page? Heck, suddenly typos are much less important. On the other hand, a script with wonderfully dimensional characters but a weak structure is going nowhere fast, because jaded, ADD-afflicted Hollywood types are looking for any excuse to stop reading. Page 20 and your inciting incident hasn’t hit yet?  You’re toast.

However, there are some scripts which we see -- not many, but a few -- which just radiate awesome. They might need a few more drafts, some rethinking, maybe a dialogue polish -- but still, they demand attention. Perhaps because of a unique, bracing writer voice. It may be a killer concept. It may be just a whole lot of brilliance on the page. But above all, it has to be entertaining. When I find a script like that, I have to champion it. I mean, that’s what we’re all looking for. (Except the assholes who will never ever do anyone a solid because they somehow think doing so will jeopardize their little fiefdom. We all know a few people like that, right?) I want to be able to call up my manager friends and say, “Drop everything and read this now.” And that’s exactly what I did with Brandon Barker’s “Nottingham & Hood,” which manager Jake Wagner (then at Benderspink) sold to Disney. More on that in a moment.

Alas, sticking your neck out is dangerous. If the industry-type doesn’t agree with your assessment or share your enthusiasm for the script, you are done like a three-strikes felon who just got pinched for stealing the Chief of Police’s left kidney. That person will never take you seriously again, and that connection will be buh-bye. Thus, people in the biz may well be reticent about championing material. Especially young agents’ and managers’ assistants -- it takes time for the rep to learn to trust that person’s opinion. Until then, they’re likely going to play it safe. Thus they may even nervously give a script they love a “consider with reservations” instead of a “recommend” just to hedge their bets, because a “recommend” sounds the alarm bells and says “Yo, everybody, awesomeness has arrived -- get readin’!”

Same is true with me. Sorry, but I absolutely will not make any calls for anyone unless they truly have the goods. I just can’t. Now that said, we do this promotion twice a year called Get Repped Now, and we always find a handful of good scripts which earn a “consider,” meaning about the top 5% and worth a look. I then get these to our manager panel and hope for the best. But honestly, I always know which ones are going to attract attention.  All “considers” are not created equal. In the case of “Nottingham & Hood,” that one was a clear bull’s-eye. You could see it from 10,000 feet. While not perfect, it had a great comedic voice, concept, pacing and sense of fun. It was a no-brainer. And thus it was no surprise when three of our manager panel clamored for it; nor was it a surprise when three weeks later, it sold to Disney for six figures and got the talented Barker signed to UTA and Benderspink.

I’ve even had people offer to bribe me to refer them. “Just send my script to so-and so,” they say, “and I’ll give you $500,” or they’ll cut me in for 25% or hook me up with their time-share for a week in Paris (what, no airfare?  Cheapskate.) Uh… no. See, it’s not going to do me any good to pimp out a script that isn’t there, that I know will be a “pass.” I have to protect my reputation, and every time you stick your neck out, you put a little bit of your rep on the line. Instead, dear briber, crazy idea, but how about you do the hard work required to make the script decent? There are no shortcuts. Like any other highly specialized job, learning to be a good writer takes a lot of time and drafts.

See, that’s the thing so many emerging writers just don’t get. Landing an agent or manager or producer is actually the easiest thing in the world -- once you’re ready. People will bend over backwards to help you. That is how people break in. But if you’re not there yet, finding an agent or manager is flat-out impossible. So no, I probably won’t help get you signed. But I really want to. You just have to hit me with a piece of material so compelling, so original, so awesome, that I can’t not help. Piece of cake, right? Go get ‘em.

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Jim Cirile is a writer/producer and the founder of www.coverageink.com. Coverage Ink’s new animated horror feature Malevolent starring William Shatner and Morena Baccarin comes out in 2017. Coverage Ink’s Get Repped Now promotion runs until Nov. 20.

Rama-lama-lama-lama

Rama-lama-lama-lama
by Sean A. Mulvihill
Writer, Actor, IMDB Credit
Founder of Hollywood Happiness

We go together like rama-lama-lama-lama-shoo-bop-doo-boo-bee-doo
Together forever like shoo-bop-shoo-wanna-wanna-shoopity-boop-dee-boo
Chang-chang-changity-chang-shoo-bop
That’s the way it should be-eee. Wahoo-yeah!
--“We Go Together from Grease the musical by Jim Jacobs and Warren Casey

 

Like the above song from Grease, the elements of structure and surprise “go together” and are inseparable in a successful story – there is the structure of the song: the melody and the rhythm; then there are the surprises: those funny lyrics (“rama-lama-lama-lama-shoo-bop-doo-boo-bee-doo”), the musical instruments used, the mood of the song, and the characterized voices of the singers. Because they have been married successfully, it is one of the most famous musical theatre tunes of all-time. Similarly, a great story must have both the masterful structure and the unique surprise elements that separate it from similar stories. So what exactly are structure and surprise?

Dramatic story structure is the author’s selection of which events are to be told in a story. The storyteller only includes information that is important for the audience to see or hear in order to be emotionally moved by the story. According to Lajos Egri, to be most effective, the author must choose a single premise, or theme, around which all the events are based. He or she then must choose to tell only the important events relevant to that core premise of the story (1).  When properly done, the author’s selection of both premise and chain of events (or “plot”) affects the audience’s emotions and keeps them emotionally involved in the story. When there is a correct structure, audience members continue to want to know what will happen next.

Structure weakens if an author either omits important parts of the plot, or if he/she includes too many tangential, non-crucial events. For example, if I were to tell you that I witnessed a murder this morning, and I started to tell you the story, but I first told you all the boring details of my morning: I woke up, brushed my teeth, took a shower, had breakfast and other unrelated events for 15 minutes before I got to the murder, you would probably walk away long before I reached the key part. You’d think, “I thought this was a story about a murder! Why is he going on about his pancakes? “You no longer care to know what happens next, because as the storyteller, I have not chosen to tell only the important events in order to keep you engaged in the story.

Structure should be thought of as an efficiency of storytelling: nothing omitted and nothing wasted. Everything the audience sees is needed to tell the story. Just like when planning to build a building, structure must be done in advance, well before putting pen to page on the actual story.

The story structure is usually created as a list, diagram, or drawing. Nowadays, many professional writers use an “index card” system to incorporate all of the key elements of structure before they write a single word of the story (2). The structure contains all of the information needed for a synopsis, which is a simple description of the chain of story events that in and of itself, ought to be interesting to a listener. Michael Hauge says that if you can’t tell a brief synopsis of your novel or screenplay to someone while you are in line at Starbucks and have them say, “Wow!  I’d like to read/see that!” you haven’t perfected the structure yet (3).  Just like a beautiful house must have a sketch and blueprint before it is built, the great story must have a great structure first. Same as a house structure would consist of plans for the foundation, the edifice, the plumbing, the ventilation, etc. there are many specific elements to be planned in the structure of a story.

I like to look at surprise, on the other hand, as “short-term structure.” That is to say, if structure is meant to hold the audience’s attention over the long-term of the whole story, surprise is meant to grab the audience’s attention over the short-term. The way structure hooks us for the long haul is through an emotional investment. The way surprise grabs us in the short term is with emotional jolts. Each kind of surprise has an emotional and physical response attached to it: laughter, tears, screams, goosebumps, confusion, or ah-hahs! Even though we are seated in an audience, when we engage with a good story our reactions are involuntary. A well-constructed story will give the audience the confidence to turn themselves over to be manipulated. Each surprise is a kind of manipulation. When they are employed they elicit a physical response.

Different kinds of surprises (gags, twists, perception shifts, revelations, scares, and tear-jerkers) are tied to the structure and create physical responses. They may be looked upon as the ligature which connects the story to our physical bodies.

The effects of balancing both structure and surprise can be seen in the audience’s faces as they watch your film or read your script. You can learn so much about the story’s effectiveness by hearing their laughter or their silence. With the proper balance, the audience will be engaged, and when an audience is engaged throughout a piece, the story is working. A story that works is one that sticks to and fully explores its premise, has a protagonist who changes, has emotional movement in every scene, and is chock full of surprises. The story structure puts your audience on a familiar path, so that they think they know what’s going to happen, and they watch in order to confirm their guesses. On the other hand, the story surprises keep the audience on their toes emotionally—they never can predict exactly what will happen next. Compelling the audience’s interest for the duration of a script is a difficult balancing act but it can be done, as evidenced by some of the great dramatic works that win Oscars or make millions every year. Writing an unforgettable screenplay can be summed up like this:  once you’ve laid out your story’s structure, you just have to remember to “Rama-lama-lama.” Structure and surprise, they go together.  

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1. Egri, Lajos.  The Art of Dramatic Writing:  Its Basis in the Creative Interpretation of Human Motives.  Touchstone, 1972.  Revised Edition.

2. McKee, Robert.  Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting.  Harper Audio, 2006.  Audible Edition.

3. Vogler, Christopher and Hauge, Michael.  The Hero’s Two Journeys.  Writer’s Audioshop, 2004.   Audible Edition.

MY COLD SLAP IN THE FACE

MY COLD SLAP IN THE FACE

By Steven Kirwan, Executive Director, ASA

I have been working on my screenplay, "Hard Drive," methodically and diligently for over a year. I wrote, then rewrote, and then rewrote again. I shared my writing in peer groups and table reads, took copious note, and then re-wrote again. And again. And again. And again. In fact, I edited and rewrote nearly the entire screenplay 12 times.

When I use the term "rewrote," I don't mean the little tweaks that we all constantly make to our work. I mean scene shattering, story changing, climax shaking edits that impacted the screenplay drastically. And once all of those changes were made, I shared and sought feedback from a variety of peer sources. Read more »

DO YOU LIKE MONEY?

By Jim Cirile,

CEO/Founder of Coverage Ink.

Every year I moderate the Agents/Managers Hot Sheet panel at Scriptfest (aka Pitchfest), which is always a ton of fun and super informative -- hearing how it really is from the tops reps in the biz, that’s pure freaking gold. Two years ago I asked the panel, what do you say to your feature clients who may be considering writing for TV? Magnet Management’s Mitch Solomon’s response: “I say, ‘Do you like money?’”

Read more »

5 STEPS TO GREAT DIALOGUE

FIVE KEY STEPS TO WRITING GREAT DIALOGUE

We frequently discuss the pitfalls of stilted dialogue. It's a problem that hounds many screenwriters, especially our less experienced brothers and sisters. We will explore some of the do's and don'ts of writing dialogue, but the entire solution can be summed up in one short sentence:Write like people talk.

Read more »

PROTAGONISTS: HEROES or VILLAINS?

GoodEvilThroughout the history of literature, protagonists have been the "heroes" of the story. Please note that I mean "hero" with a small "h." Not necessarily a "superhero," but rather the character who faces the central problem in the story and overcomes all of the roadblocks in order to succeed.

Movies were no exception. In fact, as a result of the condensed format of film, the heroism was usually magnified so the point would be easily seen and understood. Like everything in film, this was not a "rule," but most films were made to accentuate the heroic attributes of the protagonist. It was the psyche of the times. People wanted to see a positive message of good triumphing over evil.

Read more »

BUILDING SUSPENSE

You've seen them- those amazing films where you sit at the edge of your seat. As a screenwriter, achieving that level of suspense and excitement can turn a good script into something special.

Read more »

Are Screenwriters Becoming Obsolete?

In a recent editorial, Peter Bart, EVP and Editorial Director for Variety, postulated that writers are becoming obsolete. Just take a look at the credits from most of the new movies made these days, and you will likely find the credits for direct or producer to be that same as the screenwriter. That is not encouraging news for us screenwriters! Read more »

WELCOME TO ASA (AMERICAN SCREENWRITERS ASSOCIATION)

The core mission of American Screenwriters Association (ASA) is to support, promote, and assist
emerging screenwriters to ensure that they have all the tools needed to hone
their skills and sell their screenplays. We are dedicated to creating a dialog between
screenwriters, producers, filmmakers, actors, and industry to ensure mutual success. © 2017 S.Kirwan


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