Saturday, June 22, 2013

Four ways to be a polite screenwriter

It occurred to me recently that a lot of new writers don't know yet all the faux-pas they're liable to commit in this technological age, so I figured I ought to post some. I asked for tips on Twitter and got quite a few from the screenwriting community. So if you're new to screenwriting and you're about to take your script out for a test drive, here's a few things you should NOT do. These behaviors are considered rude.

1) Do not send a read request with your screenplay attached to someone you don't know. ANYONE you don't know. If you want someone in the industry - a writer, a reader, a producer, an agent, whatever - ask first. Ask politely. I'm not talking about queries specifically, but favors too. On a regular basis I get emails asking me if I have time to read someone's script and give notes. Sometimes the request will say things like "Hey I love your blog! I wrote this screenplay about suicidal monkeys and I think you'll love it! I'd love to hear what you think!" And the screenplay is attached. The person is polite enough. I almost never get a truly rude request of this nature. But it's still rude.

Why is it rude? Because you're asking me to take a large chunk of my time to do you a favor. Would you call up a lawyer you've never met and ask her to look over your contract for free? Would you call up a contractor you've never met and ask him to come to your house and fix your plumbing for free? Would you email a graphic designer you don't know and give them the link to your website so they can make it better for free?  No, you would not, not if you have any social skills at all. You understand that this person's skill and time are valuable, and that if you want them, you have to pay for them. Unless you know the person. Do I know you? No? Then no, I'm not going to read your screenplay, especially not if you attach it. There's just something so presumptuous about that. Plus, it might be a virus since as I mentioned, I don't know you. If I do know you, I'll read and give notes and maybe even pass it on to someone. But I do that for friends or even talented acquaintances, not complete strangers.

2) Do not ask a writer to send your script to his or her agent. It can be frustrating to toil away for a long time and get nowhere. Then you make friends with someone who's well repped and think - here's my chance! And you hand your script over and ask if he'll pass it along to his super star agent.

Why is it rude? If I want to read your script, I'll ask. Fee free to drop hints. If you and I are hanging out and you mention this great script you're excited about that you just can't seem to get into the right hands, I hear you. I'm not a dummy. If I don't ask to read your script, then I either don't think it's an interesting concept, or I don't think I'm at a place where I can recommend things to my reps, or any number of other reasons. But if you ask, you'll put me in a position where I have to tell you no. Or, if I'm really polite and begrudgingly agree, you've now made me dread reading your script. I will always read it before I decide whether or not to pass it on, and if I don't like it, I'm not going to give it to anyone. But I have asked for scripts in the past, and if I read one that blows me away, you bet your ass I'll pass it onto one or more of a few reps I know. I will make that decision on my own. Don't try to force me into it.

3) Don't query on the weekend. You're really excited because you just finished your polish and you are ready to send your script out. You want to get it into as many hands as possible as quickly as time will allow. But it's Sunday. What the hell, people can choose to open emails any time they like, right? Wrong.

Why is it rude? We have smart phones now. Back in the day, you had to actively choose to sit at your computer to check email, so you were at work when you did it. But now we take our email with us everywhere we go. That means when you email Agent Phil on a Sunday morning at 6am, he gets a notification right away. It puts him in a bad mood. He's trying to change his baby's poopey diaper - he doesn't have time for your query. Not only does he delete it, but now he kind of hates you. Is it fair? Probably not. He can choose to ignore his emails. But too bad - that's life. Reps hate getting queries on the weekend. It doesn't hurt you to just wait an extra day or two. If it's the difference between getting your query read and getting it deleted, just put your outrage aside and wait until Monday.

4) Don't argue with the notes. You poured your heart into this script. It's amazing and high concept and perfect and everyone's going to love it. You send it away for a read, and when the notes come back, they bash the hell out of your carefully crafted work of genius. Your instinct is to shout back, to argue, to let this person know how wrong they are and explain that they just don't understand your brilliant vision. Don't do it. Say thank you, ask clarifying questions if you need to, but don't argue.

Why is it rude? Notes take a lot of time - I usually take about two hours to do one set of notes on a full-length script. Nobody goes into doing notes - especially for free - unless they are genuinely hoping to find a great script, or to help this script become better. Nobody takes the time to read your script just to tell you how much you suck. If someone reads your script and gives you notes, he is doing you a favor. What did your mom teach you to do when someone does you a favor? That's right. She taught you to say thank you. She's a smart lady. So say thank you. If you don't like the notes, that's okay, but say thank you anyway and ignore the stuff you don't like. Ask questions about the stuff you don't understand. Keep the stuff that works. Sometimes notes can be a bit harsh, so if that happens, just look at the true intention behind the note. You're still a good person. The screenplay does not define you. It does not mean you're less of a man or some kind of pushover if you don't protest the stuff you don't like. And if you say thank you and look objectively at your notes, the person who did them for you is more likely to do them again. I cannot tell you how many pages of posters on Done Deal Pro I now completely ignore because of the way they've handled criticism in the past. Sometimes I'll think of a note I believe would be really useful, then I'll stop halfway through typing when I realize it's not worth the abuse that will probably be heaped on me for daring to say this person's pages were anything other than perfect. Nobody wants to volunteer to read your script if you're a dick.

Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Screw the odds

When I first started sending pages around, people told me over and over that nobody would make an action movie with a female lead. It was pointless, they said. Write about men. Forget women.

But I've never been one to listen to odds of failure. I'm pretty convinced that I can do any goddamn thing I want to. Except calculus. Because fuck limits and shit.

Anyway, I wrote action scripts with female leads. And after Salt came out, a lot of people started talking about how they were going to try an action movie with a female lead. I bet some of those same people who told me not to bother were now trying it out.

Salt didn't exactly blast the market open, though. Other attempts barely made back their money. So the lesson became, only write a female-lead action movie if it stars Angelina.

Piffle, I say.

The day will come. So I keep writing. I get meetings. Eventually I'll get a deal. A movie will be made. It will fail or succeed or break even. I will keep writing. A movie will get made.

And one day, either from my work or that of someone else, a film will break through that will silence every asshole who ever said women couldn't be action stars. I'm looking at you, Chloe Moretz. Oh yes, I've got plans for you.

There will always be a thousand reasons you could fail, and there will always be plenty of people ready to tell you how. They'll shout it at you from the rooftops. They'll whisper doubt in your ear in quiet corners. They'll gleefully plant the evidence in front of you, happy to "just be realistic" in your face.

You can listen to them and doubt everything. You can quit, or you can change your ways, or you can analyze your odds or you can figure out how to game the system.

Or you can nod and smile and get back to work. Write your best screenplay. Be the one who proves everybody wrong.

Don't get me wrong, I write scripts with male leads too. The majority of action scripts are written with men in the lead; I'd be doing myself a disservice to stick to one gender, and I am certainly capable of writing great parts for men. But I still write the movie I want to see - the type of film that will take advantage of the Gina Caranos of the world.

Breaking into the movie industry is tough. People come out here every year armed with a script or two, convinced that all they need is a year to become Diablo Cody, and that's just not how it works. Most likely, it will take a lot of work and a lot of time.

So accept that. It will be tough. It will take years. It will take several scripts. You will have a few false starts. Once you just accept that as part of the cost, it's not that big a deal. If you expect it to be immediate, you're going to spend a lot of time languishing in disappointment.

So once you know what you're in for, push that aside and write. Just fucking write. Write what you want to see, write the best material you possibly can.

I never listen to the odds. I tune them out, put on my writing playlist and get back to work imagining how Emma Stone is going to kick ass in my next script.

Because there is only one thing stronger than the odds - hard fucking work.