The first “moving pictures” began to entertain audiences around the world almost 120 years ago. These silent films generally had ex-vaudevillians, called scenarists, come up with humorous situations for actors to perform in front of the camera. All of that changed when, in 1927, singer Al Jolson proclaimed the immortal words in the first full-length talking picture, The Jazz Singer: “Wait a minute. Wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” This was actually an ad-lib by Jolson, promoting his 1919 hit song You Ain’t Heard Nothin’ Yet. At that moment, directors and film studios realized that if they expected actors to speak, they’d better hire professional writers to put words in their mouths. Suddenly actors needed something to say, and Hollywood recruited some of the nation’s best journalists and writers, including the likes of F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, who earned as much as $1500 a week, at a time when the average salary in this country was forty dollars a month and you could get a steak dinner for 10 cents.
But major film studios worked according to a factory system and screenwriters were at the bottom of the Hollywood totem pole, having to churn out screenplays at a furious pace while being treated by the heads of studios as no more than overpaid secretaries. In the 1950s, the Supreme Court began dismantling what they considered to be business monopolies. Among those affected were the big movie studios, who had to sell their chains of theaters. Soon after, big name stars began leaving the studio contract system to become free agents, making their own choices of what films to do and having a say as to which screenwriters would write them.
As the powerful studios weakened, screenwriters soon followed suit, becoming freelance or project-by-project workers, demanding as much as $100K for their product. Today, a screenwriter’s pay is comparable to a director’s or producer’s salary. But Hollywood remains mostly a closed playground where “only neighborhood kids” are invited to play.
Although on-location shoots have opened the doors for actors and film crew outside of the 90210 zip code, the screenwriters who do not live in Los Angeles find it difficult if not impossible to get their work noticed by the Hollywood elite. Unlike an athlete who can be scouted by college or professional teams in high school games, or an actor who can get discovered doing Hamlet in community theater, or even a musician who, with today’s technology, can record and produce a demo CD in his garage, the only way a screenwriter can prove his or her worth is by convincing a film studio to put millions of dollars on the line, to take their story from paper to screen, and even then, the hundreds of hours it takes to put 120 pages of original dialogue and scenes on paper may succeed or fail depending on the talent of the director and the actors who bring the characters to life. But in the words of pioneer television producer of such shows as The Danny Thomas Show and The Dick Van Dyke Show, Sheldon Leonard, “The script is everything.”
So how do screenwriters get their screenplays produced? First, they have to get someone to read it. Producer and film development man, Mark Strano, who’s associated with Acuna Entertainment, a literary management and production company based in Los Angeles, says that “a good title and good logline as a package… should be the writer’s calling card.” Mark says he will usually read into at least the first part of act two before making a judgement on a screenplay, but many film company “readers” will make their choice by page ten. Producer Marvin Acuna stresses “…you’ve got to get them in the first ten pages.” Many writers believe the story is everything, but typos and misspellings as well as formatting mistakes can land an otherwise good screenplay in the wastebasket. The studio is considering putting millions of dollars behind your screenplay, so it must look professional.
To Mark Strano, the biggest mistake most novice screenwriters make is “…they haven’t perfected their catalogue.” His reasoning; “A writer with two to three screenplays and several loglines for material… has spent the time and dedication on their writing career.” One way an unknown screenwriter can get his work noticed is by posting his loglines on one of several screenwriters’ websites. Among the best known are moviebytes.com, hollywoodlitsales.com, venicearts.org, and inktip.com. Some of these let you post your loglines for free, and others charge a minimal fee ranging from $20 to $40. Considering what it would cost to travel to Hollywood, knock on a producer’s door, and convince him to let you pitch your story idea, this service is cheap. “We’ve had three six-figure sales in the past seven months… and four three-picture deals.”, states Jerrol, founder and web-guru for InkTip. Many of these websites also have free e-newsletters that often include ads from producers looking for screenplays in specific genres. Screenwriters’ contests and seminars are also posted on these websites.
A novice screenwriter can generally expect not to get a major studio contract through these websites. It is usually the independent and smaller production companies that will take a risk on an unknown, unproven writer. Patrick Baker, an executive at Misher Films (Scorpion King, Run Down, and The Interpreter), has never scouted screenwriters’ websites for materials and gives little or no importance to winning a screenwriters’ contest. Mr. Baker does opine that the easiest genre to pitch and sell is a “high concept comedy” and the hardest is a drama. Producer Geoff Clark of Film Colony (Kill Bill, Kill Bill 2 and Cider House Rules) agrees and admits that he has never produced a story by a screenwriter outside the Hollywood community. Alan Riche of Riche Productions (Starsky and Hutch, Family Man) has produced or purchased screenplays from screenwriters outside the Hollywood community but like Mr. Baker, does not scout the websites for new screenplays. To Mr. Riche, the easiest sell is a “big action” story and the hardest to sell would be a “period piece.”
But the film industry is changing, and with the advent of the Internet, Hollywood can be as close as your own backyard. The real quest is in getting that first foot inside the door. Without an agent or literary manager, no major studio will even look at your material. They count on these representatives to filter through the junk and present what they consider to be quality material. Shelly Mellot of Scr(i)pt Magazine says she is very excited about bringing PitchXchange to New York City. “Screenwriters who don’t want to give up their East Coast lifestyle can find plenty of opportunities outside of L.A.”, says Ms. Mallot. This is one of many opportunities for non-Hollywood screenwriters to meet and pitch to important people in the entertainment industry. Producer/Literary Manager Marvin Acuna (The Bernie Mac Show and Mulligan) takes his seminar, The Business of Screenwriting, around the country, teaching screenwriters how to pitch and sell their product. It seems like “the mountain is finally coming to Mohammed.” Mr. Acuna says that his entire staff scans the screenwriters’ websites and gives great consideration to a writer’s having won a screenwriters contest, looking at it as “… a great filter for material.” He admits that a very small percentage of non-Hollywood screenplays get purchased or produced by a major studio, but “…we keep searching for more.” As to the easiest genre to sell: High concept comedy or Action. And the hardest: Period pieces and Drama. Knowing this, the new screenwriter can avoid wasting hundreds of hours struggling to write a screenplay that only his friends and family will ever read.
A great opportunity the for new screenwriters to get produced is through independent producers and student film producers. Many of these advertise in the screenwriting newsletters, offering little or no up-front money for the screenplays, but providing a great venue to prove that one’s work can be successfully taken from page to screen, giving the screenwriter a “calling card” to present to agents and managers. Pete Giove, independent producer/director at Four Winds/Adrenaline Entertainment (Seven Second Barrier) started out as a screenwriter, who got his first break on “Hollywoodlitsales” websites and now uses the same to scout for new material for his own production company. With the new technologies available and the advent of digital technology “…anyone can make and market a film successfully, so the