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Friday, September 5, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – Development Hell – Part One (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill

Development Hell

Part I: Your Script is Never Locked

                A month or so ago, a reader wrote me with a question pertaining to a production company’s interest in his script. He told me that a company liked the script, but didn’t feel it was quite there yet. The development executive said that she felt it was about 70% there, and that she was willing to work with him to get his script to 100%. (First off, how do you even arrive at 70% as a figure to throw out? What separates a 65% script from a 70% script? Or 70 to 75?) Obviously, she wanted money; for “consulting”. About $500, to be exact. Then maybe, just maybe, they could start shopping the script around. This surprised me, because what she was describing was known as development, and here’s the thing: it shouldn’t cost you a goddamn thing. (Sorry to be crass, but I’m tired of all the blood-suckers, trying to bilk innocent writers out of their most likely already limited supply of money.)

You see, no company is ever 100% when they option your script. There are always going to be changes. They may like your script….they may LOVE your script…but guess what? They want to change it. And don’t get me wrong, this doesn’t make them evil or unable to “see your vision”, this is just how it goes. Some changes will be better than others, some will be much, much worse, but your script will change. And you have to be ready to walk the line. You have to be willing to accept criticism and new suggestions, but also fight for what you think is right. But you have to do this without coming across as “the stereotype” of a writer.

And what stereotype is that, you ask? The writer who is “overprotective of his/her baby.” Get ready to hear that word a lot. Your “baby”. “I know this is your baby, but…” or “You have to be willing to slaughter your baby.” (There’s going to be a lot of graphic, violent imagery associated with your “baby”.)   Every time you speak up, you’re going to have to work extra hard to choose your words carefully, so you don’t sound like a mother looking at their ugly child through rose colored glasses. Because of this you have to make concessions and pick your battles; you can’t defend everything.

When I used to work in copy, my mentor gave me some great advice on dealing with bad advice. Say an executive is giving you a note you don’t particularly like, and you just flat-out don’t see how it can work. His advice: Show them why it doesn’t work…and then have a back-up ready. The back-up being what you really want. It’s not always going to work, but if it is bad enough advice, once it’s put to paper, it just might show through. And if it does, you want something good on stand-by.

But back to the original point: your script is never locked. Let me give you an example: I’m currently in development on a script (hence my month-long hiatus). I optioned the script over two years ago, and once the ink dried on the contract, we immediately began re-writes. I was originally told that the re-write would consist of small changes; a tweak here, a tweak there. One year later, I had a “locked” script. During that year, the script had been passed off to interns, producers, and veteran executives for their impressions. With each impression came more notes. I changed the script a lot during that time, including hacking off the last 50 pages and re-writing them in their entirety. But finally, the “lock”. Everyone at the company was happy. Now it was time to look for a director. But once we got the director on-board…he had notes. And these notes spawned more notes from the producers at the company; because once one person starts commenting, it’s hard to not add something. So it was time for another re-write. And here’s the kicker: during our meetings, the director was flipping through the script and said “And of course, once we get the actors attached, they’ll all have their notes.” And it was then that I realized that this is never really going to stop. I’ll probably be making changes to the script on set if we ever get there.

And you, as the writer, have to be OK with this. You have to approach every re-write as an opportunity to tighten and tune the script. Do I like every change I made in the new draft? No. But I can appreciate that many of the changes I made are solid and have, in the end, benefited the script immensely. I worked with the company/director, not against them. And because of this, I have a new, beautiful baby…that I’m going to have to kill in about two months.

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 New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

You’ve Finished the Damned Script – Now What? (Anthony Cawood Primers for a Networked World) - post author Anthony Cawood

So – you’ve finally done it; you’ve completed your first short script. Congratulations! Great feeling, isn’t it?

Now what? Well re-write, re-write and re-write…. Until the final version really shines.

But once you’ve gotten to that blessed point, how the heck do you get it filmed?

Now what? That was the question that confronted me in August 2013, when I finished my first short, Prototype. (A dark serial killer script… available again after a lapsed option. Hint, hint, hint…)

Now what? Over the last twelve months, I’ve wrestled with that question every day, on some level or another. And I’ve discovered there’s no one answer, or quick unravel of this Gordian knot. Believe me on this. I’ve looked and tried.

What I have discovered in my research is a wealth of information scattered around the net: resources, writing communities willing to help – and a bunch of places to connect with potential filmmakers. (Including STS: Shootin’ the Shorts, of course!)

In the interest of paying it forward, I’ll be using this series of articles to share what I’ve personally learned, including topics such as:

  1. Marketing yourself
  2. Where to list and publicize your work
  3. Where to share works in progress, and learn more about your craft
  4. Where to find Directors/Producers looking for scripts and new writers
  5. Competitions
  6. General Resources for the new (and not-so-new writer)

A quick editorial note: I write shorts, so that’s where my articles focus. But many of the resources I’ll be mentioning can be used for Features and TV, too.

But first things first. Forget for a moment about the script. You have to be ready to market you.

Marketing Yourself

Let’s be honest. To some, “Marketing” is a dirty word. But it’s best seen as a great opportunity – a chance to showcase your writing. With the right approach and attitude, you can use the tools of marketing to share:

  • News on your newest scripts and their availability
  • Your growing success when things get produced, wins in competitions, etc.
  • Your thoughts and ramblings on writing and film making
  • Your own tips and info on how to get those darned scripts made

In other words, you have to “get yourself out there.” It’s a horrible, over-used expression – but important if you want to get your scripts actually filmed. And get them made regularly.

I was lucky. For me, marketing came naturally. You see, I work in marketing (please don’t hate me or throw things!) But for others, it might not be as easy. So here’s a quick guide to some of the tools you can use to “enhance your profile”:


A website’s essential. It provides you with somewhere to refer potential film makers to – a place they can look beyond the pat logline, and find details of what you have available. It’s a place to compile and showcase scripts that you’ve had filmed, and show that you take writing seriously. In other words, it’s the hub of you.

Mine, incidentally, is When you step into the world of web design, btw, you should seriously consider getting your own domain. (That’s the bit after www.)

Mine you, building your own site can be daunting. Chances are, you’re not an IT programmer! But, it can be easier than you think. There are tons of services out there that take IT out of the process… providing templates, drag and drop functionality, etc.

But what about content? That can vary according to your style. Here are just a few examples of writer websites I personally know about from the Simplyscripts and Moviepoet community:

Rustom Irani:

Marnie Mitchell Lister:

Breanne Matson:

Mark Lyons (Rc1007): Facebook page for The Ephesian –


Alex Sarris:

Dena McKinnon:

Dustin Bowcott:

Quite a diverse bunch! But as you look them over, you’ll see some reoccurring themes and topics, such as:

  • Scripts with loglines and additional script details
  • News of their latest scripts and any developments in various projects
  • Details of produced scripts (with links to videos)
  • Contact details (email, phone, etc.)

And websites have added benefits: they make you more visible in Google and other search engines, and are also a convenient place to store your scripts (in case of that future devasting hard-drive blow-out.) I have a hidden page on mine that holds PDFs of all my scripts. That way, if I get a script request when I’m away from home, I can just send people the relevant link. You can of course use Dropbox, Google Docs and similar services for the same purpose. Or email yourself updates of scripts just in case.

And then there’s the fringe benefits. I’ve had numerous occasions where a potential film maker has asked to see Script A, checked out my website and saw a logline that they liked… then asked to see Scripts D and F too!


Like most people out there, I already had a Facebook (FB) page for personal reasons. But it can be used for industry purposes as well. Many film makers create specific pages/sites for their film projects. They serve the same sort of purpose as a dedicated website, but tend to be more project specific. And also are slightly easier to set up and share. FB pages are terrific for news, networking with people who share your interests and creating communities for your work. And when it comes to connecting – don’t forget LinkedIn as well. Because knowing people is the name of this game!


When it comes to internet tools, Twitter’s more of a two way street. Not only can you share your news, views and general rants – but you can also get feedback from fellow writers, producers and directors. As with Facebook, it’s a great way to keep people posted on your writing developments… Just make sure you don’t end up using it as a writing diversion! I’m @anthonycawood11, by the way….

Other Stuff

Admitted, Facebook and Twitter are my two main marketing weapons of choice. But don’t forget to explore other noteworthy options:

  • Dedicated Blogs. Service providers include Tumblr, WordPress and others…
  • Instagram – great for sharing stills from films made from your scripts.
  • Vine – good for posting short clips
  • Youtube/Vimeo – also great for getting your videos seen by the masses
  • Pinterest – I’m sure there’s something useful here. But I don’t quite have a handle on this one. Yet.

One Last Tip

Don’t forget synergy! (You’re a writer – you know what that means…) Combining the power of these tools are a great strategy for marketing. Forget any hesitation, and mention them at every opportunity. For instance, Facebook and Twitter are both prominent on my website. And my email footer has my web address listed.

I know and you know that you’re a great screenwriter. But make sure everyone else finds out, too! 🙂

About Anthony: Anthony Cawood is a new(ish) screenwriter from the UK with two produced short films, two in post production and another seven sold/optioned. His script, A Certain Romance, recently won in the Nashville Film Festival Screenwriting Competition (short script category), and two other scripts have recently placed 2nd and 3rd in the FilmQuest Screenwriting Competition and Reel Writers Screenwriting Competition respectively. Links to his films and details of all his scripts can be found at

Friday, August 29, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – How Do You Do It? (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill

How do you do it?

Don’t worry, we’ll get to “Development Hell”. But this is something I’ve been meaning to write about for awhile, and after getting a few e-mails on the subject, I thought it was worth exploring (sooner, rather than later).

So I go on a great deal about querying; about what to say to production companies, managers, etc. There’s a lot of blogs that do that: talk about how to query or how not to query. But few talk about how to contact those you’re supposed to query. These blogs all assume that you just “know” how to do it, and I apologize because I have been no different.

When I got out of film school, I had no idea what to do with my first feature script. They sure as hell didn’t teach it in school, and when I tried Googling it, the results were vague. Why? Why don’t people like to talk about HOW to get ahold of these people? I have a theory: if you tell people your “tricks of the trade”, there will be just that many more sharks in the water. And who wants that? This field is already so damn competitive. So go figure it out yourself. (Or buy their list of production companies, for the low, low price of $100!! *Don’t do that.*)

Truth is, I should tell you. Querying is so damn hard already, and that’s just when you actually get ahold of them. Who cares if you get a slight leg up on finding out how to contact them?

So, here goes. You’ve got a brand spankin’ new script. What do you do? (After you’ve bugged your friends and family for a series of critiques, of course.)

First off, figure out what type of movie your script is and then make a list of others like it. Then, do some research and find all the people involved in making that movie: producers, production companies, agents, whoever. If they made a movie similar to yours (in tone or genre), odds are they’ll be more likely to give your script a shot. But how do you do this? Simple. GET A 2 WEEK FREE TRIAL TO IMDB PRO. I’ve done this on multiple credit cards with multiple e-mail accounts over the years. (Sorry, but that membership is too damn expensive for the small number of times I use it every year.) **NOTE: Remember to cancel it. I’ve forgotten a couple times, and it stings having to pay that membership fee.**

So, you start digging, and you make a list. But now you need to actually contact these people. **NOTE: Leave the big fish alone. Don’t go for studio or large production companies. Go for the mid-to-low level companies. They’re more likely to respond.** Problem is, most of them don’t list their contact information; just an address. You can use this though. There is a pretty standard structure you can try out to most companies. Let’s say the person you’re trying to reach is John Smith (I’m a writer!). Here’s a few variations to try out:

                You get the point. Just keep trying until something sticks. You can also try Googling “@companyname e-mail John smith” and see what bounces back. There are ENTIRE THREADS devoted to this on the Done Deal Message Boards. You can also use Done Deal to find out if the person you’re contacting is reputable, so you don’t waste your time.

Once you exhaust your list, you can broaden your search and start querying other companies, managers and agents. Keep it short and sweet. No big paragraphs. Don’t try to be cute and market your film either: “It’s (blank) meets (blank) and will make 52 million”. They just want to hear your logline and maybe a couple other enticing bits. Did you place in a reputable contest? Put that in there. And like I’ve said in previous entries: keep your query blasts small. Only do about 20 a day (if that). This way, you can see what works and what doesn’t. If you’re not getting a hit, maybe you need to change your subject. Or maybe your logline needs work. Don’t blow it by doing 500 in one day.

It’s tough, it’s rarely rewarding, and sometimes it feels downright stalkery. (Not a word.) But for a lot of us, it’s all we have. And most importantly: it works. I promise.

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 New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

Friday, August 22, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – My Dinner with a Development Executive (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill

My Dinner with a Development Executive

So, you’ve sent your script off to a production company, crossed your fingers, and now you spend your days religiously checking your e-mail, hoping for a response. (First off, stop that. Forget you even sent it. It can sometimes take MONTHS before you get a response.) Odds are, your script is going to be read by an assistant or unpaid intern. Someone like you. Probably even the same age as you. In fact, they’re probably a writer just like you, with their very own script. (Spoiler alert: they think their script is better than yours.)

If the assistant likes your script, they’ll pass it on to their boss. Who’s their boss? Odds are, it’s a producer or development executive. And their time is precious. They only have time to read the best of the best. (In fact, you might have to make it through a couple readers to get to them.) But when you do, that’s your shot. Wow them, and you’re golden…until they have to show it to their boss: the head of the company. They have to like it too. (The take-away here: your script goes through MANY hands when you submit it to a production company. It can’t just impress one person. It has to be so good that multiple people feel compelled to pass it on.)

But the development executive is your best cheerleader. Odds are, they know what the head of the company likes. They probably wouldn’t have their job if they didn’t. And once you get them on your side, you’re odds of snagging that sweet, sweet option increase ten-fold.

I’m currently in development on my latest script and had the opportunity to sit down to dinner with the development executive from the production company that optioned my script. He was kind of enough to talk a bit about the querying process.

For starters, they are a mid-level production company, making films with budgets ranging from 3-10 million dollars, with theatrical distribution at the studio level. They receive roughly 100 queries a week; so think about that when you draft your query letter. As I’ve said before, making even the smallest attempt to stand out does wonders.

He told me that the worst thing you can do is badger them. Don’t ask them too many questions, what the status of your script read is, or why you were rejected. You’re lucky that they’re even taking the time to write you about your rejection (most don’t), so don’t try and get coverage out of them. He told me the story of one person who just would not let their rejection go and absolutely had to know why he was rejected. The executive gave in and gave the guy a fair critique of his screenplay. The writer flipped out and sent the executive an angry response, cursing him out. The crazy thing was, several months later, the writer actually queried them AGAIN with a different script. Obviously, he didn’t get a read. The exec’s overall advice: a courteous reply goes a long way towards possibly getting another read. Remember: they don’t owe you anything.

Here was my favorite part of the dinner: I asked the executive if he cared if a script started with FADE IN. No. What about parentheticals? No. How about orphans? Do you care about those? No. He said he cares about story. Period. He said he’s waded through some pretty bad scripts, formatting-wise, because the story has shown promise. He said if they like the story enough, they can always option the script from you and fix it up in the development phase. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t try hard to adhere to proper formatting, but it is not the be-all and end-all. Your story is.

If an executive rejects your screenplay but tells you they like your writing, keep that person in mind for future scripts. Drop them a quick e-mail, reminding them who you are, and telling them you’ve got something new. Don’t abuse your relationship with them. If you strike out with the next screenplay, it might be time to move on from them. I know it can be alluring: gaining access to an executive’s personal e-mail (and bypassing the assistant), but know when to walk away.

But maybe, just maybe, you’ll beat the odds, get an option and your script will enter development. From there, it’s all cake. Fluffy, delicious cake. Trust me.

Next week’s article: Welcome to Development Hell

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 AT New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!


Friday, August 15, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – Know Your Worth (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill

Yes kiddies, and STS Brethren: P.J. McNeill is BACK. 

(We know you’ve been in mourning, and rightly so…)  🙂 

Without further ado or yammering, please tuck into his next article – a rather vital piece entitled….


Know Your Worth

The first script I ever optioned was for one dollar.

The story behind that option is an entire blog post itself, but in a short summary: the company held onto the script (a feature) for three years, and didn’t do a single thing with it. When the three years was up, I had next to nothing to show for it; just a lot of fake promises and a single dollar. I remember taking the check for the dollar to my bank, and actually feeling like a big shot in front of the teller as I plopped it down on the counter. “Yeah, you see that production company logo in the upper right corner of the check? That means I’ve made it. No, don’t look at how much it’s for, that’s not important.

But, you see, it is important. Several years after moving out to LA, I was sitting in a coffee shop with a professional writer, feeling pretty down. Fed up, I told him “I’m not going to work for free anymore.” He smiled and congratulated me, as if I had achieved some kind of goal/milestone. But, looking back, I think I had. A lot of writers are so eager to get their work produced that they’ll take anything that’s offered and sell themselves short. “Wait a minute, you’ll give me 85% on the backend?!? I’d be stupid not to sign this contract giving away all my rights!” (Ok, now take out a piece of paper and a pen and multiple 85 times zero. That’s what you’ll end up with in the end.)

You have to remember: they want your script. They see value in your writing. And because of this, you should see value in your writing. You need to know your worth as a writer. Know what your time and talent is worth. It’s a question that comes up ALL THE TIME: “A production company/filmmaker/student has contacted me asking to make my script. How much do I ask?” There is no one answer. You personally need to sit down and figure that out for yourself. How much are my shorts worth? How much are my features worth?

The main problem is that people are scared to talk figures. People hate talking about money. So, I’m going to share my figures. Whenever I sell a short, I always ask for a couple hundred dollars. My last short sold for $200. I’m comfortable with that. It was a 10 page short, and $200 (give or take) is reasonable to me for giving up the rights to the script. My last feature that I optioned was for $1500 every year. In the end, the script was given back to me, but I had nearly $5000 to show for it. Not only was it nice to get a check every once in a while, but it constantly re-assured me that they felt serious about the project.

Now, here’s where it gets a little tricky. Remember, many blog posts ago, when I said I hate people who speak in absolutes? That’s why I’m not going to say “NEVER accept a dollar option.” or “NEVER take less than you think you deserve.” You know why? Every situation you approach is going to be different. For example: the last script I optioned was for a dollar up-front. But, I did my research. I looked into the company and saw they were a company with a proven track record of multi-million dollar films (with theatrical releases) dating back over a decade. They were serious about their projects, but because they were in another country, could not offer me money on the initial option (as most of their money came from government grants/funding). However, when you’re taking the dollar option, you can use this as your leverage to negotiate certain terms. For example, I got them to agree to some money if the option was renewed (it was).

Be wary of the people with “credits”. I put that in quotation marks, because they’re credits that can’t really be verified. The first company I took the dollar option from? Their website (which had NO completed films on it) boasted their involvement on Harry Potter, as well as many other multi-million dollar films. The problem was, I couldn’t verify this involvement on IMDB (or anywhere else, for that matter). I’ve seen this a lot since then: producers who talk up all the films they’ve been on/helped on, but have no concrete proof as to their involvement. If you’re going to take the plunge and take the dollar option, really do your research, confirm that it’s someone you want to be working with, and feel good about yourself when you sign that dotted line.

But whatever you do, don’t work for free. At the very least, get the dollar. Then cash it, take it all out in pennies, go home, and roll in it on your bed. Because you’ve made 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 New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!


Friday, August 8, 2014

Marathon Writing – with Rod Thompson - post author Guest Reviewer

Marathon Writing

When I first joined the Navy in 1999, there was a moment before Basic Training where myself and whole slew of other would-be sailors were taken into a room with a Job Classifier. He took all of our test scores, then showed us which “jobs” were available to us. Back then, if a person wasn’t overweight or cognitively challenged the Classifier would always ask, “Have you ever thought about being a Navy SEAL?” I told him I’d think about it and get back to him if that was okay, to which he agreed.

That night, I called my Uncle Andy, a former Navy SEAL during the Vietnam-er. A true “tough bastard Frogman.” He asked me one question, “Do you think you can do it,” to which I quickly responded with confidence, “I think I could.” What followed was a loving belittling that only a Sailor could bestow, “Then don’t waste the Navy’s f**king time,” he told me. His point was that to be a SEAL, you have to know from day one that you’re going to be a SEAL – not think. It starts with the mindset as he says, “Eighty percent of it is all mental.” The same can be applied to pretty much anything in life. No one has ever stepped up to a plate, thrown a touchdown pass, brokered a huge merger, or won an Oscar by thinking that they could do it. They KNEW it!

By habit and time availability, I’m a morning writer. As my Twitter followers and Facebook friends will tell you, I post all the time from my favorite writer’s nook – my car, in the parking lot on base. I’ll get into my rhythm, then watch as a scene is coming to fruition and the clock tells me it’s time get onboard the ship. It’s a total creative buzz kill! I’m sure everyone has felt that kick in the groin. So I asked myself, if given the time, could I write an entire screenplay in one day?

My answer: I know I can.

Never one to outline on paper, I sat down Saturday morning with a general premise and character outline in my head, and just started banging away. The general idea was a basic homage to 80’s B-Movie Horror flicks, so it wasn’t like I was attempting to sit down and write Gone With The Wind in less than twenty-four hours. The dialogue is cheesy, the jokes are corny, but the plot is totally RAD! Most of all, it is a story that I knew in my head could be banged out in a marathon session such as the one I was attempting.

After 11-12 hours of writing (I lost track) I was sitting on 70 rough pages of completed, speculative gnarliness. Not hideously rough, but by no means perfect. The point wasn’t to write a marketable, perfectly written spec in a day, anyway – just to start and finish the first draft! Goal complete! Total win!

My takeaway from the experience was moving. This was an accomplishment to me, as it should be to anyone up to the challenge, but there was so much learned just throughout the day. I’m talking simple things that I can now use even in shorter writing sessions. So allow me to pass on these few tokens of salt:

  1. STOP WRITING! Stop a lot. Take long breaks. Throughout the day, I continuously would find myself hitting a wall, even when I knew how a scene should go. In the beginning I was saying to myself, “Don’t stop. Push through. Keep writing!” but as the day wore on, I found that when I’d stop to fix a sandwich, or refill my drink, I could break that tunnel-vision and end up adding a whole new unplanned layer to the story! Break time is key to anything requiring prolonged endurance! Allow your mind to relax so you don’t burn out too soon.
  1. SET REALISTIC GOALS. Like I said, I was writing an homage to 80’s horror. My plot was pretty much A to Z and my characters were mildly dynamic. I didn’t need to spend an hour trying to figure out the internal motivations of the antagonist (albeit they came to me on a bathroom break). I literally spent every moment at the keyboard writing. No thinking. A marathon is 26 miles of nothing but running. Were they to add hurdles and obstacles, it’s less attainable to complete a marathon in a manageable time. So when marathon writing, keep it as simple as possible. And for the sake of your brain, never aim for perfection on a first draft. You will have days upon days of rewrites to mold and flesh everything out. Just be sure that at the starting line, you know where you want to be when you finish.
  1. Yes, I said to take long breaks, but not to the point where you break your flow. At one point my wife called the house to discuss furniture. I’d been writing for the better part of two hours and stopped to chat. I needed the break. I sat down in the recliner, got comfy, and we talked for a while. Then she said, “So how’s the script?” I freaked! The script! “Honey, I gotta go!” She almost cost me the rest of the day because by the time that I sat back down at my Mac, a lot of that heat in the ole fingertips was lost! Always keep that end-goal in sight!

Finally, to reiterate the most important part of all this…

  1. KNOW YOU CAN DO IT. Never sit down to write, whether it be for a few minutes or twelve hours, without knowing you can hit your goal. It could be a line of dialogue, a scene, or a whole script. Know your goal and know you can get there. At 9pm, I was hurting. My back was griping about the chair, my eyes were red and burning, and the inspirational hair-band music selection had repeated itself so many times that I was already sick of some of my favorite songs — but I was right there. So close to the end. I had made myself a promise that morning that this spec would be finished before I went to bed, and be damned if it wouldn’t be! Know you can do it, well before you start, or don’t start at all. Mind over matter isn’t a cliche, people, it’s required.

In closing, let me add that I highly recommend all writers do a marathon session at least once in your life. Sooner than later! It was a blast, and has really pumped me up to write even more. If I’m ever faced with doubt, or worries about finishing a scene or on deadline, I can look back and say, “I wrote an entire spec in one day. I can do this!” It’s not hard to look at a 5k after running a marathon and think about how much easier it’s going to be.

As I always tell people, I’m not famous, nor am I a paid professional. My words are just here for encouragement with the hope that someone takes something away from them. At the end of the day, I’m just a Sailor that loves to write.

Follow me on Twitter: @RodThompson

About the Writer: Rod Thompson currently serves on Active Duty in the United States Navy, with fifteen years of honorable service. In the past ten years he has written numerous award-winning short scripts, with five (or so) having been produced. He recently won Best Drama in 2014’s “Table Read My Screenplay” feature length contest. Rod can be reached at rodthompson1980 “AT”

Friday, July 11, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – The Reclusive Writer (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill

The Reclusive Writer

I’ve always romanticized the idea of the reclusive writer.

One of my idols, John Swartzwelder, is a recluse to the extreme. He’s credited with writing 59 episodes of The Simpsons; the bulk of those being works of sheer brilliance: Homer at the Bat, Krusty Gets Kancelled, Rosebud, Homer the Vigilante…the list goes on. Not only do hardly any pictures exist of the man, but I’ll be damned if I can find an interview. In fact, when the writers call up John Swartzwelder during The Simpsons commentary track, the man on the phone does about 4 minutes of commentary before stating “It’s too bad this isn’t really John Swartzwelder”, before hanging up.

Some people have speculated that he doesn’t actually exist. How cool is that? To be shrouded in such mystery that people question your very existence, and stories begin to be passed around, as if reciting tales of ancient lore. Pretty soon it becomes almost as much fun to talk about the writer as it does to read or view his work. For example, did you know that John Swartzwelder is the only writer on The Simpsons who didn’t have to show up to the writer’s room? He would send his scripts in, after writing them from the comfort of his own home, sitting in a booth he bought from a diner he used to frequent, before the diner instituted a “NO SMOKING” policy. Classic Swartzwelder…or so I’m told.

The thing is, John Swartzwelder is the exception, not the rule. I’m not going to be John Swartzwelder, and odds are, you won’t either. (Note: It’s really hard to write the name Swartzwelder over and over again. Microsoft Word doesn’t seem to like it either.)

Before I moved to LA, I read The Comedy Writer by Peter Farrelly. It’s a semi-autobiographical tale that chronicles when Peter moved to LA to make it as a writer. There’s a part of the book where Peter goes to a party, and he’s really nervous about people expecting him to be charming and funny because he’s a comedy writer. (A common fear of mine.) In the book, his agent instructs him that he’s a writer, and nobody really expects a comedy writer to be funny or talk much. I remember breathing a sigh of relief. “Thank God. I don’t need to be funny…or talk to people.” I’d be re-assured whenever I’d see the stereotype of the reclusive writer show up in movies and TV. You know the stereotype: socially awkward, hunched over, and most likely wearing grubby clothes. I took solace in the fact that I had chosen a career that rewarded merit, not how I acted or what I looked like. I could be John Swartzwelder.

Flash forward to an interview at Nickelodeon Studios for the position of writer. I had wowed them with my sample pieces, but now it was time to seal the deal with my personality. The interviewer stopped me 5 minutes into the interview and basically told me I needed to lighten up. I wasn’t “on” enough for her. I thought I had been doing a good job, but I wasn’t playing the part of the fun-loving writer that she wanted. “Tell me a joke”, she said. “Uhhh…”, I stammered back. I hadn’t ever been asked that in an interview. “Tell me a funny story”, she said after I stuttered my way through a joke. A funny story? My mind went blank. Needless to say, I didn’t get the job. I went in expecting one thing and it was something totally different. My boss at the time told me my mistake was thinking that there was ever a time I should be “off”. As a writer, people want a show. They want you to be as entertaining as your stories. If you’ve ever pitched your idea to a friend or family member, you know the difference between enthusiastically telling your idea and muttering out a few plot points. Obviously the former will pique people’s interest more.

So, practice your conversational skills. Take an improv class (it’ll help you turn off “the filter”). Think of a few amusing anecdotes. And most importantly, if you’re a comedy writer: learn a joke. Here’s the one I used:

Why did the cow go to the moon? Because it was one small step for man, but one giant leap for bovine.

…yeah, I wouldn’t have hired me either.

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 New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

Monday, July 7, 2014

The Making of The Ephesian – An Interview with Mark Lyons and Koran Dunbar - post author Anthony Cawood

Written by Simplyscripts’ very own Mark Lyons, the short film The Ephesian recently made its theatrical debut at the Maryland International Film Festival.  Greeted to an enthusiastic reception by the audience, the film nonetheless deals with a rather serious topic: the death penalty: When a long-grieving father lobbies to visit a killer on death row, he walks into the chance of a lifetime to come face-to-face with the man who murdered his infant son. (Script available to read here.)

In this interview, STS’s Sean Chipman sat down with Mark Lyons and Producer Koran Dunbar to discuss the making and distribution of the film…


Sean Chipman: Well, thank you both for joining me this morning.

Koran Dunbar: Thank you.

Mark Lyons: Thanks for thinking of us.

SC: Let’s talk about the big story of the day: “The Ephesian”. Were you guys surprised by how well the film was received?

KD: The film was received very well. We were up against VERY talented filmmakers.

ML: I knew the talent behind [production company] Rags to Riches, so I knew it was going to be a very high quality film off the bat. But there was nothing like walking out of the theater and everybody saying how well they liked the film and how much it made them think.

KD: That was the key… Made them think… These days too many filmmakers are trying to change the world. That’s next to impossible. You need to allow your audience [to] think… And it was a very thought-provoking screenplay.

SC: What was it, Mark, that compelled you to write that script?

ML: Two different situations that happened to me in real life. One was a couple years ago, when my son was one, and I took him for a walk to get a gallon of milk. On the way back, we got to the corner of our street and there were gunshots a couple blocks down. They didn’t stop and were heading our way. I shoved him behind a bush and stood in the way and hoped for the best. Luckily, they had turned up the street before ours and it stopped a little after that. Then, not too long after that, I was held up, this time way down at the other side of the street. He was arrested and I had to go to his trial months and months later. At the trial, I could truly tell that he was sorry for what he had done and after thinking about it, I really had forgiven him. I truly think he’s going to be a good guy. That got me kind of putting the two scenarios together and if a terrible thing had happened to my son, would I be able to forgive the person if they were truly sorry.

SC: Which begs the question, “Would you?”

ML: That’s so hard to answer. I’d probably say no. It’d be too hard. But, of course, our system takes years and years to put people to death, and I don’t know if I could hold that much hate in me for that long of a time. I’d have to let it go at some point to move on.

SC: Now, on the opposite end of the spectrum, Koran, why “The Ephesian”? What was it about this script that you knew you had to make it and did you know from the moment you opened the script?

KD: I really like scripts about humanity… Since Greencastle, I get “Freshman Scripts”. Scripts that are so contrived and dark just for the sake of being dark. This was different. I have to like the actors… They need to be believable. In this case all of them were. Michael’s character grabbed me so much I wanted to portray [him]. However, there was a better person for that role… Then, I saw another actor that blew us all away… I’m about a good project not putting myself where I WANT to be… I sat back and wore the producer’s hat…

ML: That’s what really made me stand back and go, “Wow. Koran was definitely the right person for this film”. It’s not too often you’ll see somebody step back out of a role and do what’s good for the story. It really showed Koran’s passion for the vision he saw in his mind.

SC: And it seems like it was the right decision as well.

ML: Lol. Of course, we’ll never see Koran in the role. I heard he has some chops.

KD: [Laughs]

SC: Well, I’ve seen him in action, so I can definitely vouch for that.

KD: I am all about working with people that are NOT divas… And, honestly, 50% of things don’t get created due to ego… When I talked to Mark, I felt he was sincere and wanted things to happen…

SC: That’s the first step in getting a film to screen. So, what were your favorite and least favorite parts of filming?

KD: My favorite parts of filming is the cast and crew. They become family for life regardless if you fight or not. The worst part is the sacrifice and time from family and friends. And, of course, budget and red tape from locations… There is so much I would like to do if it wasn’t for budget…

SC: Did you have any specific negative and positive experiences with this shoot?

KD: Honestly, no. Wait, there was a drunk extra that came to the set. Other than that, nothing.

SC: Ah, those random drunk extras. Seems like there’s one in every shoot.

ML: [Laughs] Dave [Vanderveer] was telling me about that! I heard she ended up getting a copy of Greencastle [A 2012 film written, directed by and starring Koran Dunbar], though!

KD: Yes. [Laughs] How do you know?

ML: Dave was telling me and Tanya Chattman about it at dinner at the after party. I wanted to be there so bad for the filming. I tried like crazy to get there. Which is another rarity to see from a production company. Unless it’s filmed local, I doubt any independent film company invites and offers to pay the writer to come to the filming. It’s just a testament that Koran likes to build close-knit families with the people he works with.

SC: That does make me curious, Mark, about the level of involvement you had with the production.

ML: As most writers know, it usually goes that you get an E-mail asking for permission to film your script, then you don’t hear from them again. If you’re lucky, you might get an E-mail in a couple of months saying it’s filmed and to check it out on YouTube. Or, if you’re really lucky, an E-mail that it’s been filmed and won an award at [a] festival. But Koran and David kept me up to date and talked to me and asked my opinions about things throughout the whole process. Early on, they even asked me to do a read-through with the director. That’s another rarity that I think writers don’t get the privilege of. At least not that I’ve seen or heard of. The best part is, all the changes and directions they wanted to go, like adding more lines for Michael’s wife, played by Tanya Chattman, those were things I had already thought of when I wanted to turn “The Ephesian” into a feature. It’s rare to be on that same thought-level as someone.

SC: When everyone’s on the same wave length, good things are going to happen.

ML: Absolutely.

SC: Now, Mark, we spoke briefly about how Koran had initially been interested in the part of Michael. I’m curious how the look of the actors compared to how you visualized them when you were writing the script.

ML: That’s one thing I try not to do while I’m writing a character, is pigeon-hole them. It seems natural I know for a lot of writers, especially new writers to read their character’s dialogue in Kevin Spacey’s voice. (I still do it, though only under certain circumstances.) With “The Ephesian”, and you can probably see from his description in the screenplay, I left a very open interpretation to the casting. I’m a very firm believer in let the actors do their magic and let the dialogue only serve as a blueprint. That being said, I can’t see anybody but Joseph Mills III in that role, now.

SC: It’s amazing the effect it has when you see someone perform a role really well. The actor becomes that role.

ML: That, and he’s got a tremendously strong voice, which is what I’m sure Koran saw in him.

SC: Are there any more scripts in your immediate future, feature or otherwise?

ML: Oh, yeah. Right now there’s not a lot of time to write them between working two jobs and spending as much time with my kids as I can, but I’m constantly thinking about new stories, or how to make old ones better. Thanks to the two jobs, I have a little more money I can sink into the script contests and film festival contests this year. I have one I’m working on now I’m really excited about entering into Shriekfest this year, and I’m getting a feature together for Bluecat in the fall.

SC: What about the big job? Can we expect you to hop in the director’s chair at some point or are you content to stay behind the scenes?

ML: I’d of course need a lot more experience on set before I’d even consider hopping into the big chair! But, ultimately, it is a goal of mine, because a lot of stories that I have, I’m pretty sure I’ll be the only one who’ll make them without any fear. Unfortunately, Youngstown doesn’t have much going on for it, so it may be a while and I’ll probably have to do a lot of traveling to get the experience I need to make the kind of film I want to make with the quality that I want. I’d feel comfortable with gearing the story and the actors, I believe, but I’d need one hell of a cinematographer to make me look good.
I think we’ll chalk that up to a “Yes, if…”.

SC: A big congratulations to you both on getting “The Ephesian” filmed. Thank you for your time and the best of luck in the future.

ML: Thank you very much. I appreciate it!

KD: Thanks, a lot.


Mark Lyons is a screenwriter from Youngstown, Ohio. He’s written several scripts, most notably ‘Best Film’ award winner “God’s Empty Acre”, which was filmed as ‘Girl(s)’, at the 2013 Winter Shorts Film Festival and Best Drama at the 2013 World Independent Film Expo. He has also written the feature “Thistles” which was a Quarter-Finalist in the 2013 Bluecat Screenwriting Competition and the short “Ginger” which was a Finalist at the 2013 Shriekfest Film Festival. He can be reached at markielyons “AT” yahoo

Koran Dunbar is a Jack-of-all-trades, working as a director, producer, screenwriter and actor from Greencastle, Pennsylvania. His directorial feature film debut, “Greencastle” won ‘Best Feature Film’ at the 2012 Indie Gathering Film Festival as well as nabbing him a ‘Best Actor’ award at the World Music and Independent Film Festival.





Friday, June 27, 2014

Notes from a Veteran Writer – A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer – Part Six… and Final! (P.J. McNeill) - post author P. J. McNeill

A Million Ways to Lose Money as a Writer –

Part Six (and Final!)

When I moved to LA I bought 200 business cards that said “Writer/Director” on them. I was told I needed them. In the end, I handed them out to a total of 2 people. A few years later I bought 200 more business cards, this time proudly proclaiming that I was just a “Writer”. I handed those cards out to about 7 people. I once handed my business card to a working, professional writer. He looked at it, paused for a second, and said “Huh. Don’t think I’ve ever given someone a business card.” The lesson: a piece of scrap paper will do just as well and not cost you 20 bucks + shipping and handling. Or just get their contact information. It’ll give you a reason to follow-up with them, and doesn’t place the burden on them to reach out. (Ex: “Hey, shooting you a quick e-mail to say it was great to meet you the other day and blah, blah, blah.”)

My point: it’s not all weasels and sheisters out there trying to get your money. Sometimes it’s bad advice or just plain bad judgment that can chip away at your wallet. And while 20 bucks might not seem like a lot at the time, as the years pile up, so do the dollars. As with most attempts to make it in the industry, the compulsion to pull out my cash was rooted in fear: What if I go to a networking event and I don’t have a business card? And because I don’t, I lose out on a potential connection? Well, I better shell out the $20, just in case. There’s a lot of “just in case” type scenarios in screenwriting, mostly rooted in the fear that you’re going to pass up an opportunity; be it a producer/consultant dangling their “connections” over your head or a screenplay competition that promises to pass your script along to “all the right people”.

Side note: There’s a lot of screenplay competitions out there and only a handful of good ones. Most of them will either offer you cash or connections as a grand prize. While the cash is nice, be wary of the connections. A couple of years ago, I won the grand prize in a screenwriting competition that’s pretty well known and promised to get my script into all the right hands. The script was a universal crowd-pleaser and, given that it had just won a competition, I was pretty confident that someone would get back to me. Weeks passed, and then a month. Nothing. I decided to reach out to past winners, and ask their experience with the competition (something I should have done before). The consensus: no one ever heard anything from the vast list of producers, managers, companies, and agents the competition flaunted. I don’t know why, but my guess is that the ever-growing list contained a lot of people who, at one time or another were game to read material, but eventually lost interest as the years passed. I know it seems obvious, but do your research. Look up past winners and see what’s happening with them. Seriously. Entry fees add up.

Odds are, you work a day job and write on the side. You might even have a family. (And if you don’t have a family, the thought of getting one and still not having made it as a writer probably terrifies you. I know it did for me.) Either way, writing is not your job yet, and you’re most likely putting more money into writing than you’re getting out of it. (Even those script registration fees start to add up.) So approach every expenditure with caution. Do you really NEED that business card? Is paying for coverage really worth it? Will this film festival/competition actually give you anything in return? Should I give this person money to get my script made? (Note: if you give someone money to make your script after reading this series, there is no hope for you.)

I’ve stopped spending money trying to “make it”. I don’t buy coverage, I don’t enter contests, and I certainly will never pay someone to query my work again. I have a daughter now, and I think of her every time I’m dealing with money. When you’re choosing between feeding your kid and printing a business card, the choice is pretty easy.

So, to sum up: Have a baby. That fixes everything.

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 New to P.J. readership?  Click here for more articles!

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