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Friday, June 13, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Four* (P.J. McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Four

 

It wasn’t long before I decided that I should drop the idea of trying to become a writer/director. I was going to focus my efforts on strictly becoming a writer. But I still didn’t know what to do. I figured the best thing was to seek guidance from a professional. But there was one problem: I didn’t know any professionals.

I did, however, know a cartoon fish.

Let me back up.

During my time at the post-production house, I came to find out that one of my co-workers used to be a child actor, and made it big when he landed the role of a certain cartoon fish in a certain blockbuster kid’s film that, for legal reasons, we shall call The Small Fish Girl. When I found out that he was in The Small Fish Girl, I immediately geeked out and asked a million questions: “Was the small fish girl nice?”, “What was it like being in the lime light?” and “Why weren’t you in the sequel?” It was only a couple of months later that I realized that he might be able to help me beyond satisfying my need for pop culture minutia. Turns out, he had a friend who had made it big as a screenwriter. Like, really big. Like, movie opening nationwide TODAY big. (Don’t you hate it when people write articles and DON’T specifically name drop but vaguely allude to the person instead? I have this friend – a big A-list producer that you’d recognize in an instant – who does it all the time. So tasteless.)

So I asked my co-worker if I could interview his friend. Nothing beyond that. I wasn’t planning to use him as my “in” or toss my script at the guy; I just wanted his advice.

Side note: Don’t use people as “opportunities”. They can tell when you’re trying to. Look, I understand: this is a business made on connections. But that doesn’t mean you have to be sleazy or overly forward about it. Over the years I’ve had lots of coffees and dinners with people way better off than me. And while, in the back of my mind, I always hoped it would lead to something, I never went in expecting it. You have to realize: you’re not the first person to come to them, expecting them to hand over the keys to Hollywood. Odds are, they’re desperately trying to hold onto those keys for themselves, worried about the day they might slip away. If they can help you, and they like you, odds are they’ll offer themselves. I’m serious: I’ve never once had to ask; help has always been offered.

Anyway, I called the professional writer (herein referred to as The Pro) when he was taking a break from being on set of his latest film. He had been prepped that I was calling to talk about “how I could make it as a screenwriter”, so I imagined he had thought of several answers to toss my way. I introduced myself and said something to the effect of “Now that I’m in LA, I was hoping you could shed some light on the steps I could take to make it as a screenwriter. I’ve got a script and I’m just trying to figure out what I can do with it.” I knew the question was broad, but I honestly didn’t know how else to ask it. I guess I thought that he could give me a few broad answers and then we could work from there, narrowing it down with more specific questions.

Silence. Dead silence. I worried I had said something stupid. Then The Pro expelled a long, deep breath and said, “I don’t know, man….make it yourself?” Make. It. Myself. I immediately deflated. I had come to this guy asking how I could make it as a professional writer, and his advice was to become a professional writer/director. It was like asking someone “What’s the best way to get a Masters degree?” and their response is “I don’t know, man… get a PhD?”

But here’s the crazy thing: I took his advice. He had done it, so how hard could it be? (Note: the reason he had done it is because he was a child actor who made friends with a casting director who took his script and personally handed it to an A-list star. I was not a child actor; although at age 11 I did shoot a remake of Mission Impossible with my sister – who subsequently stormed off because I was too demanding a director, leaving me to finish the whole thing by myself. So same thing, really.)

So, how hard could it be? Really hard. And it would take me 2 years of my life, numerous favors and severed connections, and almost ten thousand dollars to figure it out…

To be continued next week….

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

** I think Seth MacFarlane’s flick is out of the theaters now.  So I guess we can stop this tangent, right…?

Friday, June 6, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Three* (P.J. McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Three

 

When I first got to LA, I wanted to be a writer/director. I would later talk to a true-blue professional writer who would find that idea laughable. This guy, who was a staff writer on a popular TV show, was having a hard time convincing his agent that HE could be a writer/director. His agent had told him to “Pick a lane”; and this was a guy who had already made it. Well, I came to LA ready to drive on the median: I was going to do it all.

At the time, I had a short film I was sending around that I had written, produced, edited, and directed. It was doing well, but when I got to LA, I launched a BIG (and costly) effort to put it in some glitzy LA festivals. If you’ve ever entered film festivals (for screenwriting or otherwise), you know that it doesn’t take long for the entry fees to start piling up. Even if you do it smart and get all the early bird deadlines, it’s still usually 30 bucks a pop.

So, a couple hundred dollars later (not counting that in my loss), the film was entered in a handful of festivals in the LA area. THE. NEXT. DAY. I got a call from the head of one of the film festivals. The HEAD. This was the big time. I’d made it. I was talking to the HEAD of a film festival in LA. And LA = success, right? RIGHT!

She was downright hyperbolic in her praise of my short. She said it was “one of the best short films she’d ever seen”, and went on to tell me that I had made it into the festival. I was beaming. She went on to tell me about how the films would be shown at the AMC at City Walk, that there’d be a red carpet (with interviews!), and an awards ceremony. She told me I had to go to the awards ceremony, heavily implying that I was going to win an award. (Her assistant would later tell me “(The head) REALLY wants YOU in particular to go.”) And I could go: all for the low, low price of $200. Wait, what? I had to PAY to go to the awards ceremony? Is that how things worked in LA?

I asked if I could get a ticket on the house. “We can knock it down to $100for you. (The head) really wants YOU to be there.”, they explained again. Something just didn’t feel right about all of this, so I declined the ticket, really bummed out and unbelievably still thinking I was missing out on accepting my award. (Spoiler alert: I didn’t win the award.)

But this was going to be a fancy movie premiere at AMC, so I did spend money on a new outfit, a graphic designer to design a poster for the film, the poster itself (printed full size), and postcards of the poster to hand out (a total value of roughly $400). Not to mention, I lost a job offer because I told them I had to attend the premiere. (They just didn’t get it. This was an LA film festival! At a movie theater! You can’t just RENT those!)

After attending the film festival, I learned a new term:

Vanity film festival (n.): 1. a festival concerned more with glitz and glamour than the film itself   2. An absolute waste time 3. The Cinema City International Film Festival

The only people who attended the film festival were the other filmmakers. Everyone was there for themselves. And so when it came time for my film (which played dead last and started with no sound for the first 30 seconds), the theater was maybe ¼ full (originally packed). Everyone left early to get down to the red carpet to be interviewed (by YouTube’s “elite”). Everyone was just grasping for that feeling of what it must feel like to have “made it.” You see these kinds of festivals in screenwriting too, and you should avoid them like the plague. If a film festival’s justification for you entering is “But we’ve got a shiny award and a red carpet!”: Run.

I later found out that I was one of the only filmmakers who didn’t purchase a ticket to the awards ceremony. I had been smart and didn’t give them my money. I gave it to The Gap instead. And when I was on the red carpet, my interviewer – who didn’t know a single thing about my film- did say I was sharply dressed. So in the end, I…won?

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

** STILL not related to Seth MacFarlane in any way, shape or form.  Pinkie swear!!

Friday, May 30, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Two* (P.J. McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Two

 

(Note: This entry was originally supposed to be a direct continuation of the last entry and explain the time I lost 400 or so dollars trying to make it in film. By the time I got to that portion of the story, I realized I had already written quite a bit. In an effort to keep these posts reasonably-sized, that story will have to wait until next time. Just imagine this as a bridge to the next story, because it will pick up right when I got to LA.)

I moved out to Los Angeles in 2008, unemployed and ready to start working. Problem was, I didn’t really know whereto find a job, let alone a writingjob. I realized I had absolutely no clue how to find work as a writer, as I came to LA with no connections and no leads on work. So I made the first mistake (of many) right out the gate: I turned to Craigslist and looked for any work in film. In my mind (and in the minds of a lot of wide-eyed, wishful thinkers venturing out to the Golden state), it was important to simply find a job in film and the rest would follow. Pre-production, production, post-production: it was all the same in my mind. It was one big world of film, and I just needed to get inside. The rest would follow.

What followed was 6 years working at a post-production house, gaining absolutely no access whatsoever into my field. (Any access I achieved would be done on my own time.) Don’t get me wrong: the job was great. I excelled quickly, was promoted numerous times, earned a good salary, and most importantly: I got to work with big studio films. It was hands-down the most glamorous, exciting, and bizarre job I’ve ever held. (I could write an entire book on that job alone.) When I was sitting in the lobby for my interview (pinball machines to my right, cappuccino machines to my left), a guy skateboarded around me multiple times, while talking on his cell phone. Having come from a background in government work, I couldn’t comprehend what kind of boss would let their employees skateboard around the office. Turns out he was the boss. So, that’s the kind of environment I was entering.

Over the years I made a lot of connections. I can’t even count the number of times someone would say to me “If you ever need a job or a recommendation, let me know.” But here’s the problem: they were all in post-production. No one could help me make the leap to where I really wanted to go. Sure, I was climbing the ladder, but I was climbing the wrong ladder. I was doing all the work I should have been doing as a PA or a writer’s assistant, but I was doing it in post. And I’m not going to lie: at a point I felt trapped. I had invested so much time in the post-production job, that it seemed horrifying to me to start back over in another sector of film. Was I really willing to quit my current job and go work for $10/hour, doing menial tasks at outrageous hours with a family to support? No. I wasn’t.

It’s hard for me to tell you to do otherwise, because I would probably do the same thing again. When you have a family, it’s really hard to weigh anything else against that. So, I can’t say “Take a risk! Quit your job.” But I can say to exercise caution before you leap into a particular field that’s unrelated to what you want to do. Examine what that position can do for you now, and what it can do for your future.

And most importantly: don’t think of film as one big, all-encompassing field. Think of it more like a bunch of little islands, with really bad communication between one-another. But I guess I can’t really complain. My island had a pinball machine.

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew? Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

** STILL not related to Seth MacFarlane in any way, shape or form

Friday, May 23, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer* (P.J. McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer

 

What’s the one thing all of us writers have in common?

There are any number of facetious responses to this question, but the serious one is this: at one point or another, someone has most likely tried to get money out of you with the supposed aim of “helping you”. If you’re lucky enough to be able to say “Not me” or even luckier to say “I haven’t given it to any of those who tried”, keep doing what you’re doing; but allow this post to act as a further cautionary tale.

But this is too big for one post. There is no way I can cover the number of ways people have attempted to bamboozle me in the past 10 years in just one post. There is no way I can cover the humiliation, panic and anger that comes with someone taking something you’ve worked so hard to get in just one post. This is going to be a series. I am going to share my personal anecdotes of how I have lost thousands in the past 10 years. And it’s going to be embarrassing. You know why? Because it’s difficult to admit that you’ve been had. No one wants to do that. It makes you look and feel stupid. And it makes others look at you condescendingly, thinking to themselves “Well, that would never happen to me.” But it could. Because it comes in many forms, and it preys off the desperation you can’t help but feel in this business. (I’ve already covered something as simple as the e-mail blast services for query letters. The promise of your query letter in the high-powered hands of hundreds of producers: for the low, low price of $100. It’s just that easy.)

It’s even tougher when you’re green and you don’t have anyone to ask “Hey, is this right?” Let’s flash back about 10 years ago to a younger, greener P.J; before I moved to LA. I was querying my first script and didn’t know a thing about how to do it. I was learning as I went. So, what’s the first thing I did? I used a shoddy e-mail query service. (::coughScriptblastercough::) I was immediately out a hundred bucks and didn’t get a single read off of it. So I started cold querying. And that’s how I met Mr. Eddie Kritzer: an “agent”. (I’m using his real name because the more Google hits Eddie Kritzer gets, the better.) Eddie Kritzer immediately broke the number one rule I would develop later on: Always judge someone by their website. (Says the guy who a couple entries back said not to speak in absolutes. Well, I’m taking a risk here.) It’s hard to “teach” someone how to spot a bad website; it’s really something you have to develop. But sometimes you just look at a website and you get that gut feeling that it’s bad. The organization is terrible…they’re still using Word Art for their titles…or it lacks basic information and just has a lot of flashy language. Simply put: if you have to convince yourself the website looks good…move on.

Mr. Eddie Kritzer personally called me after reading my script. He said he loved it. I asked him what he loved the most about it, and he told me he really liked the ironic ending. “Ironic ending?” I thought, “That’s odd…I didn’t know I wrote an ironic ending.” (I didn’t.) But I was still flattered. Ironic meant smart, right? So I took it as a compliment, not an obvious skirting of the question. He then went into a big spiel that ended with him saying that if I wanted him to represent me, I’d have to pay him $500. I don’t know why, but I distinctly remember sitting in the parking lot of the local Hallmark when he told me this. I guess you don’t forget the first place someone tries to screw you. I’m not going to lie, I came close to giving him the $500. But this story has a happy ending: I didn’t. I did my Google searches, asked a few people “Hey, are you supposed to pay your agent BEFORE they sell your script?”, and came to the conclusion that: No. No, you are not. So I didn’t. I saw Mr. Eddie Kritzer eating a bagel in Santa Monica about 5 years later. It took everything I had not to smack it to the ground.

The next time, unfortunately, I wouldn’t be so lucky, and I’d end losing roughly $400. But that’s another story…

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

* Not related in any way, shape or form to Seth MacFarlane

Friday, May 16, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – Hollywood (P.J. McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

Hollywood

 

“I don’t write Hollywood films.”

I hear struggling writers say this all the time. And when they say it, they usually emphasize the word “Hollywood” with a healthy amount of bitterness; as if they’re above it. And I’m here to say, on behalf of someone who doesn’t write Hollywood (or mainstream, or whatever you want to call it) films: Stop it. Please. You’re making us look bad. You’re making it so I can’t say “I don’t write Hollywood films”, without making it look like I’m complaining that I haven’t “made it” because Hollywood doesn’t “get me”.

But I’m not complaining. Hollywood doesn‘t get me. And I’m fine with that. I’m not bitter. And you shouldn’t be either if Hollywood doesn’t get you. You should take pride in it, because odds are you’re doing something different and unique. And you’re now tasked with the slightly more difficult job of finding someone who sees your particular vision. Becoming a screenwriter is already hard enough, but being someone who doesn’t write “Hollywood” films is a bit trickier, in my humble opinion. If you write the next blockbuster and get it out there, odds are a lot more heads will turn in your direction. But when you write something that’s good but requires taking a chance, you’re left with finding that 1-in-100 person who can help you.

Remember the dark comedic farce I optioned? (The one I was told COULDN’T be optioned?) When it was all said and done, I did the math. I sent it to 3,000+ companies, agents, producers, etc. I had 63 requests to read it. Of those 63, only 35 got back to me to reject me after reading it. I was told things like “I like it, but I can’t make this.” and “I can’t see the market for this.” But in the end, all it took was one person willing to take a chance. It’s frustrating, but if you’re writing something that’s a little “out there”, you’ll need patience; even if it’s really good.

Now we get to the reason I’m writing this entry:

DO NOT

I repeat: DO NOT USE THIS AS AN EXCUSE TO WRITE GARBAGE

Don’t make “I don’t write Hollywood films” an excuse. It’s an explanation, not an excuse. If something isn’t working in your script, it’s not because you don’t write Hollywood films, it’s because it doesn’t work. I applaud you for soldiering on with your artistic vision, but don’t do it at the expense of quality. If multiple people are telling you something doesn’t work, don’t hide behind the fact that you don’t write “Hollywood films”. But on the flip-side, if you have something you’re damn proud of that a lot of people get behind you on (but doesn’t fit the traditional Hollywood mold), good for you; keep at it! Find that 1-in-100 to make it. And when people ask you why it hasn’t sold, proudly tell them: “It’s different. I don’t write Hollywood films, so it might take a bit longer to find someone. But I’m confident it will, because people really like it.”

And please stop with the bitterness. We all know Hollywood is turning into an assembly line of adaptations, reboots, sequels, prequels and franchises. When you rail against Hollywood, you’re not saying anything new, so just don’t say it. Use that energy to write. Because you know that if Harvey Weinstein called you up tomorrow and asked you to write Peeps: The Movie, you’d be all over that. I know I would.

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

Friday, May 9, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – The Logline List (P.J. McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

The Logline List

 

I’m on vacation this week – in the beautiful, sunny Midwest – so this entry will be a short one.

One of the best bits of advice I ever received was on what to do when I can’t decide what my next screenplay should be about. I have a word document saved to my Dropbox called “Movie Ideas A-Go-Go” where I jot down any half or fully-fleshed out ideas I have. The problem is, I usually have trouble deciding what idea is worth pursuing when I’m gearing up to write my next script. So a pseudo-mentor of mine offered up this advice:

Take your 10 best ideas, put them as loglines in a list, and start handing the list out to people. Tell them to pick their 3 favorite ideas. Write the one that gets the most votes.

This is how I picked the last two screenplays I wrote, and I’m so glad I did. It allowed me to see which loglines really clicked with people (you know, people: the ones that will be shelling out cash to see the finished product), and which ones needed work. If a logline wasn’t generating a lot of votes, it didn’t necessarily mean that the idea was bad, it just meant that maybe it wasn’t as clearly defined as I thought it was. (If anything, the exercise is a great excuse to really hone your loglines.)

But it went beyond that: When I handed the list out, I had a drama logline that received ZERO votes. I was shocked, because I thought it was a really great idea. So I started talking it over with a friend, and realized that the idea might actually be better suited for comedy. So I switched the genre (not the idea), and suddenly it was generating a lot of interest. It was such a simple switch, but it quickly redefined the entire screenplay. If you really think the idea has legs, just tinker with it a bit and figure out what’s not sitting right with people.

One interesting twist I did with the list this time around was leaving off the genres. I told people not only to pick their favorite logline, but to tell me what genre came to mind for them when they read it.   I was surprised to find that a comedy idea I was particularly keen on was being seen by everyone as a horror film instead.

So, give this little exercise a try. Because remember: these are most likely the same people you’ll be pestering to read your script in a few months, so it helps to know they’ll WANT to read it.

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

Friday, May 2, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – Absolutes (P.J. McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

Absolutes

 

I hate people who speak in absolutes. (Ironic, I know.)

When I was learning how to write, a lot of other writers would speak in absolutes when offering their critiques. “You absolutely can’t do this,” and “You absolutely can’t do that.” Some of these things included:

  • You MUST start with FADE IN:.
  • The inciting incident MUST happen by page 12. (or 10….or 15…or 8)
  • You CAN NOT have any orphans in your script. (single words on a line)
  • You CAN NOT have more than 3 lines in a paragraph.
  • You CAN NOT interject any witty asides for the reader.
  • You MUST always show, never tell.

The list goes on; trust me. And you know what I found when sending my script out? No. One. Cares. No one cares about most of these supposed rules. You know what the #1 rule really is? Be entertaining. If you’re boring them, then yes, they might start to care that you’re breaking a “rule” or two, but if you’ve grabbed them with your story they won’t have time to care.

Awhile back I started religiously reading professional screenplays and found that almost every single one broke a whole host of “rules”. “But P.J., those are established professionals. They are allowed to break the rules.” Ok, then crack open the Black List and start finding those scripts. You know what you’ll find when you read them? Rule breakers! All of them! And these are writers who, with the exception of a few, are NOT established, but are catching the eyes of a lot of heavy-hitters in Hollywood.

Side Note: Speaking of the Black List, a game screenwriters like to play is to take another writer’s sold/optioned screenplay and tell you all the stuff that’s wrong with it. (It’s half the reason Script Shadow exists – a website that traffics in absolutes) Whenever the Black List comes along, you’ll find numerous writers tearing apart the works contained within. It carries into other industries too. I used to work for a trailer house, and I would always be amazed at how much negativity was thrown at other companies’ finished trailers. And to me, with screenplays and trailers alike: why not look at what WORKED in the scripts/trailers and think about why that particular item sold? It’s way more productive than bitterly ripping it apart. It sold. Figure out why.

Back to absolutes: Blake Snyder (RIP) said in his book Save the Cat that something huge ALWAYS has to happen on page 25. Always. In fact, he even said he would flip scripts open to page 25 just to see if something big was happening, only to close them if there was nothing. What kind of wack-a-doo policy is that? I’m not going to be so bold as to say that Blake Snyder’s structure is garbage, because it’s not. His structure and beats are solid, I just don’t think they need to be as strict as he laid out. I think when you start arguing about specific page numbers, you’ve run out of useful things to say. (Unless your inciting incident is on page 50…then you should probably re-write it.)

When you speak in absolutes, it can have the tendency to stifle creativity. There are lots of DON’Ts, CAN’Ts and NEVERs thrown around. When I was in the re-drafting stage of my screenplay, I sat down with a professional, working writer and asked for his notes. He told me that my script was a “dark comedy farce”, and that you can’t do that. He said you can have a dark comedy, or a farce, but you can’t have them together. It won’t work in this market. I was devastated, because this was the story I wanted to tell. A month later I optioned the script.

I’m not naïve. I know you need some rules. And you could run into the same bitter script reader I talked about in the last entry who’s tossing out scripts that don’t have a catalyst on exactly page 12. So maybe it IS better to play it safe. But the next script reader could think it’s page 10, and then you’re really screwed. You just don’t know. And anyone who tells you that they DO know is trying to sell you something; be it a service or themselves. When we all start trying to uniform our scripts to the strictest degree, we run the risk of pulling our own voice out of them. They become stale, predictable, and most of all boring to read. But if we mix things up, we keep the field interesting and have the potential to be the next “little script that could”. Maybe the reason a dark comedic farce would work is because people aren’t expecting it. Or maybe I’ll fall flat on my face. But at least I’ll have my integrity. That’ll feed my family, right?

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

Friday, April 25, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – The Pitfalls of Querying (PJ McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

The Pitfalls of Querying

 

Talent really will only get you so far. I’ve heard a lot of cocky people say “Well, if (insert person’s name here) were talented, they would have made it by now. Good material always rises to the top. No. No, it does not. Don’t get me wrong: you need talent. But you also need a healthy dose of luck. Luck that your screenplay will fall into the right hands. Normally you don’t know the sensibilities of the person reading your script. You could be sending your comedy to a reader who only likes horror films. Or your reader could just be having a bad day, and decide to hate every screenplay that starts with a noun. You just don’t know.

Let me tell you how my last script was optioned. I sent a query directly to the head of development and she requested a read. She then sent the script to her reader. The reader provided coverage on it that told her to pass, and about 4 months later, I received a rejection. (Yes, it can sometimes take THAT long – or even longer – to get a response). 2 months later the head of development reached back out to me and asked if they could option the script. Wait, what? It turns out that she couldn’t get the premise for my script out of her head and so she went back and read the script herself…2 months later. I was never told why the reader passed on my script, but the story could have easily ended there. And for most, it does. In fact, I don’t believe I’ve ever heard of a scenario like this. Normally, when something is rejected, they can’t move on fast enough. What happened was luck, plain and simple. You could say it was just because my premise was strong, but I don’t buy it. A lot of stuff had to fall in place for this to happen, and it could have just as easily gone the other way.

Real quick: notice in the last paragraph I said the head of development. I made sure, when I was sending out my query letter, to do the leg-work and find out who the head of development was (Thank you, once again, 2 week free trial at IMDB Pro) and send her an e-mail directly. DO NOT, I repeat DO NOT send to INFO e-mail addresses. It’s an absolute waste of time, and quite frankly, just a bit lazy. Anyone can guess an info e-mail address. Say the production company is Workshop Productions. Then my guess is their INFO e-mail is info@workshopproductions.com. And do you know who that e-mail is going to? No one. There’s a reason all companies put this on their website in lieu of actual contact information. It’s to give you the illusion that you might be reaching someone. (Note: I am not interested in receiving a couple anecdotal stories about INFO e-mail addresses you might have gotten a response from. I will still 100% believe you should do the work and find direct e-mail addresses.)

So, back to the story: why did the script reader pass? Who knows. John August (writer of Go, Big Fish) used to be a script reader and once wrote about the time Quentin Tarantino’s original draft of Natural Born Killers landed on his desk. He thought it was so good, he finished it, flipped right back to the beginning, and read it again. But he passed on it. Why? Because he was too scared to pass it up to his boss. It was too different. Too unique. And even though he thought it was brilliant, he didn’t have the guts to pass it up the chain, for fear it didn’t fit the current Hollywood mold. And I don’t blame him, honestly. Every reader is putting his/her seal of approval on any script that they RECOMMEND. They’re saying, Hey, executive with a million other things to do: take an hour or so out of your day to read this script. I’m not telling this story because I think it was the case with my script, but instead to point out that the factors for WHY your script could be passed up are so varied, you could get a PASS even if they love it. How messed up is that? (My guess is that they passed on my script because the main character spent half the story unconscious; something the production company that optioned it would later change.)

Or the reader could have been a cynical writer, frustrated with his or her own failures. You know another twisted irony of this business? The same people we’re competing against hold the keys to our success. All the hungry, young writers who come out here get jobs as script readers as they try to peddle their own material. So naturally, they’re inclined to think that their stuff is better and everything they read is garbage. Try talking to a script reader at a party sometime, and listen to all that bitterness as they write off 99% of what they read as garbage, but then quickly begin to talk up their own work.

So it all comes back to luck, mixed with the talent to follow through. But don’t give up. The odds are stacked against you (as any screenwriting book’s introductory chapter will gladly tell you), but don’t give up. If you give up, then your high school English teacher was right all along. And you’ll lose out on the satisfaction of some day being able to send her a cake with the words “Eat it, Miss Mudie.” written across it in frosting. And she’ll be hurt, but think she at least has the consolation of a delicious cake to eat. But then she’ll cut into it and be met with immediate disappointment when she finds out it’s red velvet. Because honestly, who the hell likes red velvet?

About the writer: A talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry, “P.J. McNeill” has seen it all (and he’s ready to kiss and tell.) Got a question, a comment or just general bile /praise you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com. New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

Friday, April 18, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – Querying (P.J. McNeill) - posted by P. J. McNeill

As you may already know, we’re a varied bunch at STS.  Our main focus is – and will continue to be – showcasing scripts.  Short and Sweet.  Feature lengths, long and hard (um, okay… that came out WAY wrong.)

But in addition to the reviews, we’ll also be presenting interviews with directors and writers, book reviews, and various articles about the script writing industry.  Today, we’re honored to present to you our featured guest writer “P.J. McNeill” – a talented writer and 10 year veteran of the industry.  This guy’s seen it all.  So sit back – enjoy the read. And learn a little something today.  (And for alot of foreseeable Fridays to come.)

***********

Querying

 

I was once at a dinner party, talking with a writer who had just sold something to Sony. My interest, naturally, piqued upon hearing this. “How? Did you query a lot of producers?”, I asked. He arched an eyebrow. Clearly the term “query” was lost on him. “No, I just gave it to a friend…and they gave it to a friend…and THEY gave it to a friend, until it wound up in the hands of an agent.” I stared back at him in shock. Then he said “Honestly, I don’t even know who gave it to the agent.” His nonchalance made me want to ram my plate of hors d’oeuvres in his face.

Those of us not lucky enough to just release a script out into the ether and have it immediately sell are left with the dreaded query letter. Over the last 10 years, I must have sent out a couple thousand query letters. I do not have an agent or a manager (but believe me, I’ve tried), so I’m left with the task of pitching my material myself. (Side Note: A few months after my infant daughter was born, my wife and I were approached by a talent agent; looking to represent her. We declined, but as we were walking away, my wife said, “4 months old, and she would have had an agent before you.” Ha…ha.)

When I first started writing query letters, I would send these long, bulky letters that I’m almost 100% positive no one read. They were boring to write, so I’m sure they were boring to read. It was only several years later that I realized I needed to do something special. Something that stood out from the one-hundred-some e-mails producers must receive every-single-day. I won’t go into detail what I did, but suffice it to say, I received the most reads I had every gotten from a query blast, and optioned my script within a couple months. It’s important to stand out. It’s such an obvious piece of advice, but I ignored it for YEARS. I just thought “Hey, my work speaks for itself.” Well, no…no, it doesn’t.

It’s also worth mentioning that you need to strike a balance. Get a producer’s attention, but don’t go too far. There’s the obvious example of the guy who left his script in a briefcase at an agency in LA (that was subsequently blown up by the bomb squad – the script, not the agency). Run your idea by a few people before executing it. Ask them “Will this make me look like a nutjob?

Avoid query e-mail blast services. It’s all a crock; believe me, I’ve spent money on them (Future article title: Don’t Spend Money). Don’t get me wrong, they’ll hold up their end of the bargain: they’ll send your query letter to a BUNCH of people; I just wouldn’t expect them to be quality. The way these services get you is by showing you an incomprehensibly large list of producers/agents/companies and expecting you to just give them your money without looking into it; which I didn’t do…AT FIRST. After the service provided me NOTHING in return, I looked into the people on their list. Most of them either a.) hadn’t produced anything in YEARS, or b.) had no real connection to the film industry at all. You’re better off getting a subscription to IMDBPro (or if you’re cheap like me, the 2 week trial) and doing your own work yourself. That way YOU control who you’re e-mailing. It takes a lot of time, but it’s worth it.

So, to sum up: if you’re ever at a party and some writer is going on and on about his recent sell as if it’s no big thing, just take your plate of hors d’oeurves, get a good solid grip on the plate…and offer it to them.  Then give them whatever the hell they want.  Seriously, screw querying.  Just make a powerful friend.  It’s a lot easier.

Contact info: Got a question, a comment or just general bile (or overwhelming praise) you want to spew?  Email PJ at pjscriptblog@gmail.com,  If you’re nice, you might just get an hors d’oeuvre! New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

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