Writing Movies That Get Made

Frequently Asked Questions

"What is the toughest thing about making film? Putting in the little holes. The sprocket holes are the worst. Everything else is easy, but all night you have to sit with that little puncher and make the holes on the side of the film. You could faint from that work. The rest is easy. The script is easy, the acting is easy, the directing is a breeze ... but the sprockets will tear your heart out." - Mel Brooks

Note: This is my OLD Crafty Screenwriting FAQ. Since 2004, I have been blogging at Complications Ensue. There are far more questions and answers there, and in my books, than here.

Motion picture industry FAQ

Screenwriting FAQ

The following are Frequently Asked Questions about screenwriting in the real world. For how to write a good screenplay, buy my book!

Interested in how the writing's going? I have a blog, about what I'm working on, my writing process, movie reviews, the state of the world, and so forth.

Other resources.

Motion Picture Industry FAQ

Q. What are some good books on acting / directing / producing ...?
A. Actually, no one ever asks me this question, but they should! Books will answer more questions than you know you had. At the Santa Monica Public Library film books are in the 791.4092 and 791.437 sections. I find that autobiographies are often more useful than biographies. You can also buy them:
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Editing Producing Microbudget Producing Breaking in and staying in: General How To Hollywood, the Animal that Eats Its Young You May Like These More Than I Did: Incidentally, aside from Amazon and Alibris., rents a variety of textbooks. Could save you some money there.

Q. What's it like on a set?
A. If you live in a city people shoot movies in (LA, New York, San Francisco, Chicago and Seattle are favorites), you can easily find a set to visit by checking with your local location office (part of the film commission) to see where there might be films shooting on the streets on any given day. There are also lots of "making of" videos. A really great one is Hearts of Darkness about the making of Apocalypse Now, shot by the director's wife.

To really get an idea what goes on on a set, find the commercial production companies in your town and volunteer to be a production assistant ("p.a.", translation "gofer" with connotations of "slave") for free. Then you'll be on the set of a commercial; and they're shot much the same as movies.

Q. What's the best way to break in to [part of show business].
A. Offer to work for free until you're worth hiring for money. That could be from two weeks to six months. If you make yourself worth paying, they'll have to start paying you or risk losing you to someone who will pay you. Most people will give an enthusiastic novice a shot at working for free.

Show business is divided into "above the line" and "below the line." Film budgets have a line above which are the people who conceived and packaged the show, and below which are the people hired to put it on the screen. Writers, directors and the various flavors of producers are above the line (ATL). Everybody else from the location scout to the guy who formats the credit sequence is below the line (BTL).

If you want to get into the business Above The Line, you need to perfect your craft and your awareness of the business. Your craft will improve by your reading screenplays, going to movies, writing, directing, and so on. Your awareness of the business you improve by reading about it, but mostly by working in it.

If you want to get anywhere Below The Line, get yourself hired as an intern working for free for people who do whatever it is you want to do, whether it is hair, makeup, creature effects, editing or location scouting.

There is very little motion between the Above the Line and Below the Line worlds. Occasionally a top editor or cinematographer gets a break and becomes a director. Production can become line producers and sometimes make a jump to producer. But working on a set (below the line) is not a very good way to make it above the line.

If you want to learn about the business, the best way is the same whether you want to a producer, a director or a writer, and it is, oddly enough, by learning to be an agent. See the next question:

Q. I want to produce. Where's the best place to learn how?
A. The question is, "Where can I make the contacts I need?" The answer is, go to work in an agency mailroom at one of the major agencies: CAA, ICM, William Morris, UTA or Paradigm. Lie and convince them you really want to be an agent all your life. They won't mind, lying is a big part of their job, too. The work is severely underpaid, so make sure you have savings and a really cheap apartment. Work your way up to agent assistant, or even agent.

If you can't get a job in the mailroom, try to get a temporary or permanent job as an agent's assistant through an employment agency. Check the trades (The Hollywood Reporter and Daily Variety ) to see which employment agencies specialize in entertainment jobs. Tell'em you only want a job in an agency. However, if you want to become an agent at a major agency, you'll have to start in the mailroom there, or become a really great agent at a lesser agency.

You can also check out EntertainmentCareers.Net, ShowBizJobs.Com and MyracleWorks, which have useful job listings.

Once you have enough contacts, quit and start packaging pictures. Everyone will know you, and you'll know whom to call. This is by far the fastest way in. The down side is the agencies will treat you as one step below slime for the first year, and then merely as slime for another few years, and they'll pay you practically nothing, but there is no better way in.

Second best way is get a job as a producer's assistant. That was my way in. You don't make as many contacts, but you see how it's done. Since this is the job everyone wants, offer yourself as a free intern for a reasonable period of time, if you can afford to. Find a production company that's made some pictures you like and offer yourself up as cannon fodder. To find production companies, buy or borrow the Hollywood Creative Directory. (Every serious production company owns at least one copy of this invaluable directory.) There is also an online, searchable version.

No one gives a damn about development people, by the way, or pays any attention to them, but by sheer charm, perserverence, and the judicious use of poison, some people have made producer through the development route. You would start by being a development person's assistant.

What really gets you a job as any sort of assistant are a degree from a good college, superb clerical skills, a charming personality, and a song'n'dance about how you know you ultimately want to produce/direct/whatever, but you understand that you have to learn from the ground floor up.

There is a terrific little book I never read called The Hollywood Job-Hunter's Survival Guide by Hugh Taylor. Unfortunately for me, it was only written after I no longer needed it. It focuses laser-like on how to get an assistant job and what an assistant does moment-to-moment during the long work day.

Working as an on-set production assistant (PA) is something many do (I did), but I don't see what it contributes to being a producer. What happens on the set has nothing to do with finding the project and raising the money. In fact, if a producer hired the right people, the only reason he or she needs to even go to his or her set is to strut.

(As the Admiral sings in H. M. S. Pinafore, "Stick close to your books / and never go to sea / and then you'll be the ruler of the Queen's Navy.")

I don't think starting as a freelance reader helps, except that you'll end up with some sample coverages that might help you get a job as a development assistant. The most important thing to do in any beginning job is to meet people and get a sense of how show business works. As a freelance reader you'll be reading scripts at home and coming in occasionally to pick up more scripts. You don't make contacts that way, and you would feel the pulse of the biz. Moreover, until you've worked for a producer or agent, you won't understand which scripts are worth passing on and which aren't. Hint: it isn't necessarily the best written scripts.

Q. I want to become a talent agent or manager. How do I?
A. See the answer just above. The best way to become a producer is also the only way to become a talent agent or manager.

Q. I live in [name of town]. I'm working in [commercials / industrial films / community theater]. I feel it's time to move to [Los Angeles / New York]. Any advice?

A. Stay where you are. If you're making a living in entertainment, you're doing better than most people here, and people are probably nicer there.

Hone your craft in your home town, where you can shoot in friends' houses, con old buddies to lift lights for you, and get your family to cook for the crew. If you're working in entertainment, that should give you access to cameras, lights, actors, etc. Make your own short films, or if you can manage it, make a no-budget feature film. If you're good enough, people will see your work, and pay for you to come to L.A. Then you come as the conquering hero, with a job offer.

You should only come to L.A. without a job offer if you have nothing going on at home. Then you may as well start here. But you're in for a world of frustration. This town is full of aspiring actors / directors / writers, and there aren't enough restaurants to hire all of them.

Q. What makes a good p.a.?
A. A letter I wrote to an actual p.a. who was unsure:

Dear ***:

Now that you have made the leap from unpaid intern -- whose very presence we are thankful for -- to paid p.a. -- a position which lots of overqualified people are anxious to get -- I thought I'd elaborate my comments of yesterday a little.

As mailroom flunky is to an agency, p.a. is to a production company. Practically no one escapes the job.

You should always be busy. If you aren't busy with something someone assigned, ask. If no one can think of something for you to do, think of something to do! For example:

"We've got a lot of people in here who don't know the office. How about if I reorganize the cabinets and put labels on things?"

"How about if I get some Ajax and eliminate the nasty smell from the microwave?"

"Want some coffee? I bought some half and half on the way to work."

If the above chores seem trivial, they are. PA's do trivial things that need doing, or that simply smooth the path for everyone else. What makes a smart person a brilliant p.a. is the ability to notice something that needs doing and get it done so that someone says, "Gee, who cleaned the microwave?"

You are supposed to listen to conversations, but you're supposed to be able to listen while doing something else. In general, doing two or three things at once is a good idea. Finding something you can do with your hands while you're on hold on the phone is a good way to maximize your efficiency.

Prioritize your tasks. Be aware of protocol. Do you have a pad for noting down what you need to do, so nothing gets lost?

If you don't have the tools for what you need to do, impress upon people that fact. Find a way to work with what you have.

Congratulations, you're getting paid for working in show business.

Q. I am an aspiring filmmaker in high school. What should I do?

A. Satisfy your lust for cinema. See every movie you possibly can, old ones and new ones, bad ones and good ones, on the biggest screen you can. Watch them if at all possible in widescreen (letterboxed) format, so you can see the shots as they were framed by the cinematographer; almost all DVDs and some videocassettes are letterboxed. Choose a few you love and watch them over and over and over and over and over, until you can go through the entire picture shot by shot in your head, and you think you know why each shot is the way it is, and you think you know why each cut is the way it is, and you can think of ten big or small things the filmmaker could have done better.

At the same time, get a video camera and finagle some way of editing. Macintosh's Final Cut is a good introductory system. Hi-8 is probably good enough to learn with and even to show people what you can do, and the cameras are light and cheap. There's no reason to shoot on film until you know what you're doing with lighting, framing, camera movement, editing and directing actors, and think you can sell your completed project. Many films are being shot on High Definition video anyway; that's the future of the medium.

Get your friends together, or actors, and shoot a story on video. Just do it. Then look at the movie, and see what you did right and what you did wrong, and do it again. Don't worry about how slick the production looks, that will suck because your crew isn't professional. Concentrate on how to tell a story. Learn how to frame in a fresh way. Learn how to get performances out of actors. Learn how to move the camera (wheelchairs and remote controlled cars are good for this). Find amazing locations and shoot them at golden hour. Unlike a screenplay, you can show your short movies to people, because they're finished and complete. Hell, you can put up anything you like at Youtube. Blow your audience away emotionally, don't just impress them with your flashy photography and moves. If you can move people by telling a story with pictures and sound, you're a filmmaker.

The key is to do this over and over. Learn from your mistakes, but don't kick yourself for what you did wrong. Just do it better next time.

These days you should not need a full video editing suite, at least not for your purposes. All you should need is a computer and some video editing software, e.g. Final Cut on Mac or whatever the equivalent is on PC's. (If for some reason you do want a video editing suite, you may be able to find find a video editing company that will let you use their machines in the middle of the night in return for cleaning the place up.)

I used to recommend you not write full length screenplays in high school. That's because if you can learn to tell a story well in words, it will teach you 50% of what you need to know about telling a story in pictures. The advantage is that a finished story costs nothing to produce, and people can enjoy it as is. A screenplay is only a first step, like the score to a symphony or the blueprints to a building. Few people enjoy reading blueprints, or know how.

But that may be bad advice. People are more and more visual these days; and honestly, who reads short stories any more? And if you're trying to learn to write screenplays, do you really need to learn to write lyrical prose?

So write screenplays if it floats your boat. Write a lot of them. Show them to your friends. Learn from their reactions. I know a young woman in high school who wrote twelve episodes of a TV series. It would be crazy for someone in the business to do that -- no one's gonna read twelve episodes of an unproduced show -- but she learned a lot about how a TV show arcs out. Don't worry about making mistakes. No one looks at Steven Spielberg's childhood Super-8 films. They're probably dreadful, or worse, "promising."

However, do practice telling your story out loud before you write anything. Just tell the story of the movie, so that whoever you're telling it to feels like they're seeing the movie through your eyes -- tell it so vividly that later on they forget it was a pitch and ask you, "What was that movie you saw that you told me about where .... happened?" Telling your story out loud is, as I keep telling people, the most powerful screenwriting technique in existence and you may as well get up to speed on it now, before you develop any sense of shame. I would say 85% of screenplays I've read went wrong in the story, not the execution; and if you've got the story working, the odds are excellent you won't screw up the execution too badly.

But while you are writing, writing, writing screenplays, don't just read screenplays or watch movies. Read. Read as much as you possibly can, especially books with a strong style. Read Raymond Chandler's Farewell, My Lovely, and Philip K. Dick, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?. Read T. H. White's The Once and Future King and J. R. R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings.

Read, slowly, taking time to enjoy it, The Odyssey, in the Fitzgerald translation (the other translations are too tight-assed). Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe. Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. Robert Graves' I, Claudius. Any of Graham Greene's spy novels (Our Man in Havana, etc.).

Read the Sandman series by Neil Gaiman. These are graphic novels (comic books collected in book form), which have the most fantastic stories, concepts, dialog and visuals anywhere. The hero is Morpheus, the King of Dreams. They are not for the squeamish. Probably the best book to start with (though not the first) is A Season of Mists.

You should probably buy these books so you have them around:

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Almost all of these are really fun to read, but more importantly they all have style. They're not just telling a story. Read carefully, and see how the writer creates the scene, the character, the moment. What goes into dialog, and what goes into description. How is the story told? Read them out loud and see what happens. These writers have voice. That's what makes a filmmaker interesting, his or her voice.

Read about myth: Joseph Campell The Hero with a Thousand Faces , and Sir James Frazer's The Golden Bough. These are thick books; don't try to swallow them whole. Read fifty pages, think about them, put the book down, let them stew, read fifty more. The best filmmaking is myth making.

Again, in high school, don't ask people whether your stuff is good or bad; unless they're film professionals, they won't have any standards to judge the work by, and if you're in high school, they'll want to be encouraging no matter how bad it is. Try to gauge whether the piece is giving your audience what you wanted it to give them. Did they laugh? Are they sad? And ask yourself, "Does my work do what I want it to?" You will know the answer to that question if you read your own work honestly. Film is an expression of your heart told via your head. You should satisfy yourself.

Actually, you should always satisfy yourself first, or what's the point of killing yourself to make it in this lousy business? You will never create something truthful and new by satisfying other people, and your soul will go dead. You eventually do have to satisfy other people in order to make a living. But while you don't have to make a living, you should only try to satisfy yourself. That will be hard enough.

Good luck!

Q. How do I get into film school? Which ones are the best?
A. My impression is that the top US film schools are UCLA, USC, NYU and AFI, with the Columbia University screenwriting MFA an Honorable Mention.

Each school has a different reputation.

UCLA is part of the University of California, so if you're a California resident, you pay about $12,000 a year for tuition, instead of the private school tuition you pay at USC or NYU, which is probably in the neighborhood of, I don't know, $40,000? If you aren't a Californian, and you're planning to apply to UCLA, it is probably worth a trip out here to get a driver's license, address and bank account as far in advance as possible. After all, if you're in the industry, you are probably going to end up staying in Los Angeles till the end of your days, so you may as well get a jump on things.

I went to UCLA, and I found the program disorganized but exciting. (It also cost $3,000 per year in-state!) Some teachers were Oscar-winning pros who wanted to give something back, and some were less than tops. The MFA program at UCLA was a writer-director program, requiring you to complete at least one 10-minute 16mm film and one or two 20+ minute 16mm films, for which you were the writer, director and editor. There was almost no restriction on what your films can be about, you paid for them yourself and you owned them. Although the program is supposed to be much better organized now, when I was there it was basically an opportunity to get your hands on equipment and make some films, while taking classes in the various aspects of film: writing, directing, acting, editing, lighting and so on.

The unofficial motto of UCLA is "tell a story." The faculty encourage you to make good films whether they are commercial or not.

What I have heard about the program at USC is that it is far more regimented. The technical training in lighting, editing, sound and so on is superior to UCLA, and many people get work as technicians coming out of the program. However, only six half-hour final projects (the fabled 480) are made per year. A committee of professors chooses six scripts written by students, and then picks six directors to shoot these scripts, who may or may not be the writers. What I hear from people who went there is that there is a lot of political jockeying to get picked, and that the committee likes to award the 480s to scions of the famous and powerful in Hollywood. I also hear that the student films coming out of USC are not particularly fresh; people tell me they are polished, slick and unexciting. However, those who do succeed in making a 480 are far more likely to get picked as the next Philip Joanou and given a job directing for the studios, something you don't hear much about at UCLA.

If anyone would like to give me another perspective on USC, please email me. (Full disclosure: as a Bruin I am honor-bound to slam USC, but I got in there, too, so it's not sour grapes. Probably an equal number of students from either school make it in the industry.) Ramona Sylvia Grenier writes:

As a USC Cinema-School senior (in the writing program) I have known many people who were accepted and were not accepted, as there are a large contingent of people who go to USC re-applying for Production every year with the hopes of getting in so they can graduate sometime before they're 30.

I have discussed with many people why some people get in and why some don't get in. At the end of it all, many times people with more experience and motivation don't get in while someone who has never even tried to do anything in film at all and kind of applied on a whim (my case) get in.

The best answer I can come up with is that they like to train you from the bottom up. If you already have written ten screenplays, then you probably already have many good and bad habits. I think USC would prefer to start with someone who has never written a screenplay, so they can encourage the three-act-structure and other classical screenplay motifs. The same thing with Production students, they are looking for people who are motivated, passionate, and most importantly, people they think will succeed in the business and then turn around and give a lot of money back to the university. They do not seem to want amateur filmmakers who have been making/writing movies on their own for years.

I don't know much about NYU, except that you shoot lots more films than at either school, and that filmmakers are encouraged to be experimental, independent and Sundance-y. The American Film Institute (AFI) is not attached to a university. The program is aimed at people who have worked in the industry who want to step up to the next level. Columbia University is rumored to have a good screenwriting program, but I've never met a working screenwriter who came out of a screenwriting program, so draw your own conclusions.

How do you get in to any of these schools? Basically, convince them you will be a great filmmaker, and convince them that other people think so too. Convince them that you have passion and vision, and the dedication to make your dreams come true. Send them a script for your thesis film that they absolutely want to see made into a movie.

Remember, film school won't teach you anything; you teach yourself stuff at film school. Take classes if possible from visiting professors who are teaching for fun, not money. My best classes were from Richard Marks (Oscar-nominated editor of "Apocalypse Now") and the late Sterling Silliphant (Oscar-winning writer of "In the Heat of the Night"). Each of them was then making about a million bucks a picture, and this was their way of giving something back.

Film school is a good way to learn a little about everything, but rarely do you learn a lot about anything. I learned more about lighting from being an unpaid set electrician on a one month shoot than I ever learned in lighting classes.

Film school is also a good way to get your hands on equipment for next to free, provided, of course, that you go to a cheap state school like UCLA rather than a posh private university like USC.

The odds against getting into one of the top film schools are terrible. In my class there were 31 students accepted from 400+ applications.

If you don't get accepted at a film school, take the money you would have spent, and make a film anyway. Then make another. And another.

Q. How do I find someone's agent?
A. Call the relevant guild:

Q.How do I become a movie star?
A.You don't.

Seriously, I hate to break it to you, but you have about the same chance of winning a million bucks in the lottery as becoming a movie star. But to win the lottery, you only need to buy a ticket, not sacrifice your pride, hock your soul and give up ten years of your life.

There is no route to becoming a star except learning to act, auditioning, acting, and getting noticed. Los Angeles is packed to the gills with extremely talented, drop-dead gorgeous people who are working in restaurants and taking acting classes, trying to do just that. Eventually, the vast majority will lose their looks and realize they've wasted ten years of their life with nothing to show for it. They'll get sick of working deadend jobs in order to be available for auditions. What happens to them after that, God alone knows. God, and the parents they're living with again because they have no money and no marketable skills.

I cannot stress seriously enough: acting is a horrible, awful profession. It is a miserable way of life. Acting itself can be creatively enriching, but unlike writing, you can't act all by yourself, so practically speaking actors spend 99% of their time trying to find somewhere they can act. A tiny few extremely lucky people, some of them talented, some of them crafted, actually make a living at it. A surprising number of them have an "in" to the business. Is it any wonder Gwyneth Paltrow is successful? Her mom's Blythe Danner. Isabella Rosselini is Ingrid Bergman's daughter by director Roberto Rosselini. Melanie Griffith is Tippi Hedren's daughter. Nastassja Kinski is Klaus Kinski's daughter. Liza Minelli is the daughter of Judy Garland. Mira Sorvino is Paul Sorvino's daughter. Emilio Estevez is Martin Sheen's son, as is Charlie Sheen. Angelina Jolie is Jon Voigt's daughter. Kate Hudson is Goldie Hawn's daughter. Warren Beatty is Shirley MacLaine's kid brother. Kiefer Sutherland is Donald Sutherland's son. Nicholas Cage is Francis Coppola's nephew. Carrie Fisher is Debbie Reynold's daughter. Drew Barrymore comes from an acting dynasty that stretches back to the 19th Century. And those are just the children of famous actors. Maggie Gyllenhaal, for example, is the daughter of director Stephen Gyllenhaal. Sure, they can all act real good, but they also went to all the right parties growing up. You didn't.

I had a dear friend who was extremely talented and beautiful. She worked hard and became an extraordinarily crafted actress. If you had one tenth as much craft and talent as she did, you'd be lucky. After fifteen years of trying to make it, she had been in one tv commercial, an "Unsolved Mysteries" segment, and a lot of free theater. She finally gave up.

What happens is that people take acting classes, and the teachers are very encouraging, and you get a sense of family from being with your classmates, and they encourage you. Teachers have no incentive to be honest with you about your chances. Why would they want you to stop acting? So they string you along. Your classmates don't want to confront their own odds, either. It is all but impossible to get honest feedback about your chances of making it.

If you're an actor in your heart of hearts, then no advice will turn you away from what you love; in which case, God help you. But if what you love is acting, forget about being a movie star. Start a theater company wherever you live, and put on shows. Movie stars do very little acting. Think about it. Harrison Ford acts in one movie a year. It's 120 minutes long. He's in 100 minutes of it. If the director shot a generous 10:1 ratio, that means he was acting for 1000 minutes, or about 16 hours of actual acting per year; or roughly as much as a theater actor does in a week.

Stay in your home town, where people are grateful for a little theater. My first wife's best friend from high school stayed in Chico, CA and founded a successful light opera company. It couldn't happen in Los Angeles.

If you are just considering acting because people say you look younger than you are, or you're hot, or people say you should act, don't even think about it. Take the compliments for what they are, compliments, not good advice on a future career.

You no doubt think I'm being too harsh. But as a Holocaust survivor told a producer I know about Schindler's List, "it's pretty accurate, but it only showed the nice parts." The movies like to show how glamorous the lives of successful actors are; they celebrate all the sacrifices these people made in order to get where they are today. No one makes movies about unsuccessful actors. Their lives are dreary, dreary hell. For every Hilary Swank who lived with her mother in a car for a year, there are a thousand actors you will never see who also lived with their mothers in their cars, for years, and came away with nothing.

Don't do it. Don't go there. Find some other way to evade the mundane in your life. Acting is a joy, in its own perverse way. The actor's life is a thin layer of self-delusion glossing over a well of heartbreak.

Q. Yeah, yeah, I know about all that. How do I do it anyway?

A.God, you just don't listen, do you? I probably shouldn't even write this section, 'cause you'll ignore everything I just said, but I can't help myself.

The best way to become a star is to be born into a family of successful show business people. (Sorry to keep harping on the obvious.) You would be surprised just how many stars began their show business careers by being born. Many of them changed their names (see above) in order to fool you, but everyone here knows who they're related to.

If you haven't chosen your parents wisely, you might possibly be among the handful of people who just radiate star quality. Industry people recognize star quality, and try to pass them along to people who can put them in movies.

If you have star quality, you know it. People have always wanted to be around you. People you barely know invite you to parties. At parties, there's a cluster of the opposite sex around you, even though you haven't done anything to attract them. Some of the people around you arrived with other people, who are now mad at them.

That's "civilian" level star quality. Now, multiply that by one hundred. Does traffic actually slow down around you? (I was friends with an actress who was actually slowing down traffic on Wilshire Blvd. when I drove to pick her up once.) Is there a sudden hush at parties when you show up? Do sane, normal, real-type guys or girls you barely know offer to marry you? Have you never, ever, in your adult life, been turned down for a date? That's actor level star quality.

If you have actor-level star quality, and if you promote yourself relentlessly, learn your craft well, and have an excellent intuition about which parties to go to and which to turn down, and which friends to make and which to avoid, and don't start doing drugs, and you're starting no later than 18, you might make it.

Star quality is not enough; I know lots of unsuccessful actors with star quality. I mention it only because without it, there's no point in trying. In other words when I say, "might," I mean it as in, it "might" snow in August, or you "might" survive a fall from a third story window.

No, you cannot begin your acting career after you've raised the kids. Producing maybe, if you're really rich; writing maybe; directing just conceivably, but not acting. Old character actors were all handsome young actors at one time, except for Walter Matthau, who was never very handsome.

Star quality cannot be taught, though modeling agencies can polish it.

If you don't have vast star quality, but people just seem to always like you, there is another way to break in, though it won't work for everybody. Make friends with good writers. Keep bringing their scripts around to producers. You are not demanding to play the lead, but one particular supporting role that you are just natural for, and if they produce the picture, you get to play that role. What the writer gets is that someone else is working to get his or her script made.

If you don't have star quality, and people don't automatically just seem to, doggone it, like you, 'cause you're you, then acting is a suicidal career choice, no matter how much you love doing it.

Whether you have charisma or not, make sure you have something you do regularly that gives you a reason to get out of bed in the morning. A day job you really enjoy, charity work, sports, church, whatever. Something, anything, so that you don't come home at the end of the day and think, "What the hell am I doing? I had no successes today, and now I'm a day older." Instead, you'll say, "Well, all the casting directors spat at me, but I got a homeless guy off the streets, and he was much worse off than I am!" Acting will not keep your soul together, not even if you're successful at it.

Charity work, by the way, is a good way to meet people in show business. Powerful people are far more likely to be friendly to someone who's working against AIDS, or saving the whales or the Santa Monica Mountains, or helping a Democrat run for Senate, than they are to a struggling actor asking for a break. Later, when you come calling on business, they'll already know you and like you.

By the way, SAG also has some information on becoming an actor. However they are way, way too optimistic, saying things like "you need a day job because even a talented performer may go a season before getting established." A season? A season? In the sense that Hell has a "warm" season, maybe.

If you must try to be an actor, at least get some voice training.

Why Voice Training Is Not Optional

Having sat through too many hours of auditions for movies, tv and theater, I am noticing that many actors are spending too much time learning to act and not enough time learning how to speak. The theatre in America is famous for concentrating on emotional truth, while the English theatre teaches technique supposedly at the expense of emotional truth. (Laurence Olivier was famous for crafting the right nose as part of his method for reaching the character.)

At auditions, far more actors rule themselves out of a part because they cannot speak pleasantly or even comprehensibly than rule themselves out by bad acting. It was not merely a question of loudness, although you'd be surprised how many actors you can't hear. Quite a few actors had voices you simply did not enjoy hearing.

The same actors obviously spend a great deal of time worrying about their looks. They have professional headshots, most of which look more or less like them. But the effect is spoiled the moment they open their mouth.

(As an aside, will someone please tell me what the point is of having a headshot that doesn't look like you? You won't get the parts you're wrong for, but your headshot will rule you out of parts you're right for.)

A good voice makes a plain woman seem beautiful. But a bad voice makes a strong man seem weak.

Now, you can't look better than your cheekbones will let you look. You have a certain presence, star quality, charisma, and you can't train that. But six months of voice training, and your voice will become mellifluous. Your villains will seem darker, your heros sexier. You'll look more attractive, and people will think you're smarter.

Look at Nicol Williamson. Not the most handsome man ever, and you might not notice him in a crowd. But listen to him, let him open his mouth, and use the instrument he has trained for years on end, and he will summon up spirits from the vasty deep. He plays his voice like a jazz trumpet, soothing, barking, roaring, insinuating. You feel he could read you the phone book and tell you a thing or two about the human condition.

Actors! Train your voices! It makes all the difference in the world.

(Aside #2: to get an excellent sense of what casting agents and casting directors are and aren't looking for: why not take two or three months and work as a casting agent's assistant? You'll see what your competition is, and who does well, and who just keeps getting rejected. Just a thought.)

Sex and Casting

"In Hollywood, you can only f*** your way to the middle" -- attributed to Sharon Stone.

I shouldn't need to say this, boys and girls, but if someone tells you they'll get you a job if you sleep with them? They almost certainly won't get you a job if you do sleep with them, and they probably can't get you a job even if they wanted to. Very few people have the power to just outright cast someone. Generally only the director can do it, though a few stars and some producers can.

They probably have some nasty diseases, if they make a habit of it.

Some people do sleep their way into Hollywood. A certain now-deceased hairdresser-turned-manager-turned-studio-president comes to mind. But they got in because the people they were sleeping with actually loved them. In other words it's not a career path, it just happens sometimes.

If an agent or casting director offers to trade you industry favors for sexual favors, don't just pour a cupful of sugar into their BMW's gas tank, although that's an excellent idea. Take the time to report them to the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG). It will be a favor to the next actor.

I want to get my kid into acting.

What, are you nuts? Come on, haven't you been listening? Don't you love your kid?

Do you think you're going to make money off this 'cause your kid is so cute? Are you crazy?

First of all, your kid is not nearly as cute as you think he is. Everyone else is just being nice. They don't really agree with you that your kid is a potential star. They like you and they want you to coo over their kid, and possibly babysit, too.

Second, the odds on a child actor becoming a success are as bad as those for adult actors, and your kid will be beaten out for parts by the director's kid. You don't suppose Sophia Coppola got cast in Godfather III because she was the best actress for the part, do you?

The only circumstance in which you should become a stage mother is if your child has independently expressed a strong interest in acting. Some kids do. A very rare few become famous child actors (Jodie Foster, Ron Howard etc.). However, in most cases, being a stage mother is a horrible life and it puts an awful strain on your relationship with your child. You are asking your kid to succeed at something he will fail at nine times out of ten even if he is successful. Real confidence builder, huh?

Acting itself puts a terrible strain on a child. Generally it's going to teach your kid to have fake emotions. That's not healthy. Some acting techniques, such as the Meisner technique, don't teach fake emotions, but when someone's trying to get a performance out of a six year old, they're not using Meisner technique.

Acting is not a normal life, and it is not a good environment to raise a kid in.

Like acting among adults, the only reason anyone tries to get their kid into acting is because you only read about the success stories. You don't read about all the good people who wasted years of their lives not achieving anything. You don't hear about the talented people who just never got a break and heard just enough encouragement to keep them going far longer than they should have.

Oh, and need I mention the child actor success stories, like Drew Barrymore (years of substance abuse problems), Elizabeth Taylor (decades of substance abuse problems), Judy Garland (decades of substance abuse problems, died a drug addict) ... is that what you want for your child?

Q. How do I contact an actor?

If you are trying to contact an actor for a charity appearance or a legitimate interview, the best way is through his or her publicist. His agent can tell you how to contact his publicist. You can, of course, always find an actor's agent by calling the Screen Actor's Guild (SAG) at (323) 549 6737.

If you're trying to contact an actor about a project, you are supposed to go through the actor's agent. As explained elsewhere, actor's agents generally don't want to hear from anyone who's not a producer with a deal at a studio. But if the actor likes your project, he's going to give it to his agent anyway, so going through a "back door" channel, even if you can find one, doesn't help as much as you might think.

If you are a stalker, please note that the "Maps to the Star's Homes" they sell along Sunset Blvd. are way, way out of date.

Q. So, you think you've got it hard?

A. From Notes, by Eleanor Coppola, on the making of Apocalypse Now:

"Francis feels very frustrated. He gathers up his Oscars and throws them out the window. The children pick up the pieces in the backyard. Four of the five are broken."

Q. What makes you think Ophelia is pregnant?

Has anyone else noticed that Ophelia is pregnant? In all the productions of Hamlet that I've seen, she is interpreted as an innocent girl in love with the doomed Prince. He breaks her heart, and her sanity goes with it. She drowns herself out of madness.

But I think her madness has a point to it. In Ophelia's first scene, her brother Laertes warns her to beware of Hamlet's affection for her:

" For Hamlet and the trifling of his favor,
Hold it a fashion and a toy in blood...
no more."

In other words: the Prince is toying with you. Ophelia demurs ("No more but so?") but appears to submit to her brother's wishes.

Next, Ophelia's father Polonius complains,

"'Tis told me, he hath very oft of late
Given private time to you, and you yourself
Have of your audience been most free and bounteous."

That is, "You've been spending a lot of time alone with this guy." Ophelia, in the time-honored fashion of daughters, claims the relationship is completely innocent: "he hath importun'd me with love / In honorable fashion."

All well and good, but in III:i, Ophelia is set to spy on Hamlet. (Some editors would have Hamlet overhear her father and Polonius asking her to do it. By supposing a lost stage direction that has Hamlet enter seven lines before he speaks, we can explain why he suddenly turns on her with such otherwise inexplicable viciousness.) Ophelia listens to his suicidal soliloquy, which he ends by pretending to notice her for the first time:

Nymph, in thy orisons
be all my sins remembered.

Orisons are prayers. If Hamlet has importuned Ophelia in honorable fashion, why should his sins be remembered in her prayers? The implication is that they have sinned together.

Hamlet really lays into her in III:i, ending by telling her, "To a nunnery, go!" In high school they tell you that "nunnery" was slang for a whorehouse, and the rest of his barbed repartee suggests that he thinks she is as dishonored as she is dishonest. He knows she is deceitful from having just heard her agree to spy on him. The best way for him to know she is dishonored is if he has dishonored her.

But it is the mad songs that Ophelia sings in IV:7 that really give away her secret. More than half of her songs are songs of mourning; after all, Hamlet has just killed Polonius. That might be why Ophelia warns, "They say the owl was a baker's daughter. Lord, we know what we are, but known not what we may be." After all, she is no longer the daughter of the King's chamberlain. But perhaps she knows all too well what she soon may be, for shortly she sings:

Tomorrow is St. Valentine's day
All in the morning betime
And I a maid at your window
To be your Valentine.

Then up he rose and donn'd his clothes
and dupp'd the chamber door;
Let in the maid, that out a maid
Never departed more.

Why is Ophelia singing about a maid seduced by her lover? Aside from the songs of mourning, all her songs are songs of betrayed love. A few lines later, she is singing an even more pointed song:

Quoth she, "Before you tumbled me,
You promis'd me to wed."
He answers:
"So would I ha'done, by yonder sun,
An thou hadst not come to my bed."

It is hard to avoid the thought that Hamlet has seduced and abandoned her.

When she returns, she has gathered herbs. "There's rosemary, that's for remembrance; pray you love, remember..." The various herbs have symbolic meanings well-documented in the scholarship, but the only herb she intends for herself is rue: "...there's rue for you, and here's some for me; we may call it herb of grace o'Sundays; O, you must wear your rue with a difference." The symbolic meaning of rue is, of course, regret. Ophelia has much to rue, but the symbolic meaning is not the only one. The herb rue (ruta graveolens, aka Herb-of-Grace) is a powerful abortifacient. My herbiary notes that rue is "Lethally toxic, do not use during pregnancy."

Herbal abortifacients tend to be mild poisons. The idea is that you poison yourself to the point where your body decides it's too sick to support the growing embryo or fetus, and rejects it. If you miscalculate in one direction, continued pregnancy; in the other direction, personal death. Rue, while toxic, would not be used as a poison, since it is not a pleasant way to go. Presumably Shakespeare would have given Ophelia hemlock if she had intended to poison herself.

A girl who has been seduced and abandoned need fear nothing but a broken heart, provided there is no evidence of her shame. But if she is pregnant, then there is no way to hide what she has done, unless she can abort the child, or kill herself. And, indeed, shortly thereafter, Ophelia drowns herself.

The conventional interpretation is that Hamlet has broken her heart and then killed her father. But the play seems to suggest strongly that Hamlet has seduced her, and to hint that she is pregnant as well.

It is not hard to imagine Ophelia falling in love with the romantic Prince, and giving in to his passions. He has promised to marry her, and it is not an impossible promise. The Queen later says (V: 2) "I hop'd thou shouldst have been my Hamlet's wife." Ophelia might well have hoped to become Queen when Hamlet ascended the throne, as his uncle Claudius has promised.

Hamlet has been away at Wittenberg long enough for Claudius to murder Hamlet's father and then to marry his mother Gertrude, and then for the news to reach Hamlet. Presumably this would be a few months at least, long enough for Ophelia to know she's pregnant. When he returns, she is hoping he'll do right by her.

But Hamlet rejects her, kills her father, and to destroy all hope, is sent by King Claudius to England to be executed. What will become of the mother of the doomed prince's bastard? There is only one way to preserve her honor, and she takes it.

The point is, the next time someone puts on Hamlet, Ophelia really ought to be showing. Okay?

NOTE: A reader wrote in to remind me just how specific Gertrude is when she later describes Ophelia's suicide -- as if she saw it, but did nothing about it. That would make perfect sense if Gertrude knew Ophelia's problem, and agreed that suicide was her only real option.

Q. "I am the world's only Elvis juggler. Is this something you can use?"

A. No.

Screenwriting FAQ

Q. What are some good books on screenwriting?
A. Well, Crafty Screenwriting, I hope!

But here are some more suggestions. The Santa Monica Public Library has many of these books in its 808.23 section. Your library may have them in the same or different place, or you can just buy'em. We authors dig that.

      Search Now:
In Association with
Rich Writers Bite the Hand That Feeds Them John Truby's story seminars are reportedly terrific. In fact, they're so good that photocopies of the handouts circulate throughout Hollywood.

Published screenplays are almost always transcriptions of what was said, not the screenwriting the director was working with. I believe you can still buy actual copies of real screenplays (sometimes early drafts, sometimes the shooting script) from:

Larry Edmunds Bookstore
6644 Hollywood Blvd.
Hollywood CA 90028
(323) 463 3273, fax (323) 463 4245

Another excellent industry bookstore is:

Samuel French Bookshop
11963 Ventura Blvd.
Studio City CA 91604
(323) 876 0570, fax (323) 876 6822

You can also download scripts for free at Drew's Script-o-Rama or at The Daily Script.

I have no really good excuse to recommend Neil Gaiman's Sandman series of graphic novels, except that Gaiman is a genius in the related field of comic books, another medium where dialog and visuals tell a brief story. The 75 comic books, collected in about 8 graphic novels, are packed with the most fantastic stories, concepts, dialog and visuals anywhere. The hero is Morpheus, the King of Dreams. Definitely not for children. Probably the best book to start with is A Season of Mists.

Q. How do I get an agent? Why do I need one?
A. If you're a screenwriter, the Writer's Guild of America (WGA) will send you a list of agents that indicates which ones take unsolicited manuscripts. "Unsolicited" is a misnomer. You should never send a script to someone who didn't ask for it. "Unsolicited" means they don't know you and the script wasn't sent or recommended to them by someone they know. When a script is going to a producer, "unsolicited" usually means you're not represented by an agent or lawyer. Check out the WGA's online list.

In Canada, try the WGC (Writer's Guild of Canada), if you want a Canadian agent. American agents will, if they think they can make a buck off them, represent Canadians (or Australians, or elves for that matter) but it is hard to get through to them if you are not in Los Angeles or New York.

You will want to have a brilliantly written spec script with a great hook that has not been shopped to anybody. So you send a query letter (not the whole script) to all the agents willing to take unsolicited manuscripts. (Simultaneous submissions to agents are the rule, as are simultaneous submissions to producers, except in rare circumstances that don't apply to you.) The hook is what gets them to answer your query letter. Please read my section on query letters. The script is what gets one of them to sign you.

They will ask you to sign a release form before you send the script. These are all scary-looking, and utterly standard. Don't quibble over it. The release form protects them when you later on try to sue them because you think that one of their writers ripped off your idea. Agents don't steal ideas, and you won't get the script read without a release form unless you know somebody, so just sign the goddamn release, okay?

If you can find out the names of specific junior echelon agents who are hungry for new talent, write the query to them individually. They're who'll end up reading your script (or not) if you send it to upper echelon people, anyway.

If you have written a good enough query letter, with a brilliant enough hook, they will then ask you to send them in a script. Please see that it's properly bound. Some people are taking electronic submissions, but most agents are barely wired. They are phone creatures, not computer mavens.

(If you're looking for a TV agent, they're looking for a brilliantly written, slightly outrageous spec episode of a successful, hot, Emmy-winning series in the genre you want to write for. As I write, the shows to spec are WEST WING, LAW AND ORDER, and THE PRACTICE, for one hour dramas, anyway. See below.)

Dan Petrie points out, however, in his column in Terry Rossio's excellent screenwriting website, that practically no one gets a real agent this way. You get real agents through personal contacts in the movie industry. (Yes, it is not what you know, it's who you know. Everything they say about Hollywood is true. What makes it possible to survive here is that everything they say is also not entirely true.) The recommendation works both ways: you ask your friends in showbiz who would be a good agent for you, and they recommend you to that agent, or at least let you use their name.

For what it's worth, I did get my first agency through the WGA list, while I was still in film school. They didn't sell my script or get me a job, but then neither did the next two, whom I got through personal contacts in the biz.

If you are trying to find an agent and have already sold something (and it gets easier but it's still non-trivial), trying getting the person to whom you just sold your script to recommend you to some agents they like.

The one sure way to get an agent is, the next time you need to negotiate a deal for a script you've sold, call the agencies and say, "Hey! I need an agent to represent me on this deal THAT'S ALREADY SOLD." In other words you're giving away 10% to the agent for merely negotiating your fee rather than for finding you the sale. But that's okay. An agent can easily bump the price 10% just by virtue of not being you, the writer.

You need an agent if you're a writer because 90% of all producers won't even read your script unless you have an agent. (A lawyer will do in a pinch.)

A good agent will have relationships with the development executives around town who trust her judgement, take her call and read a script if she strongly recommends it. She'll know what companies are looking for the kind of script you're selling, and not waste the time of people who aren't looking for that kind of script.

An agent will also know what you can get for the script, and what you can't. She can also play "bad cop" so when you're asking for more money than they want to pay, they get mad at her, not you. Many low budget producers semi-expect you to work for free, and actually get upset when you ask for real money. They will often cough up more dough when confronted with an agent. Most writers are poor negotiators, and will ask for too little money, or cave in too fast, or ask for unrealistic amounts of money. An agent is by definition a professional schmoozer and negotiator.

If you write a brilliant, highly commercial "spec" script, a good agent can send out 30 copies and get them all read within a week, creating a bidding war if possible. You can't do this.

Almost any agent is better than no agent.

If you have a choice of agents, multiply enthusiasm by access. In other words a wildly enthusiastic agent in Minneapolis who answers her own phone won't do you any real good, but a wildly enthusiastic agent at a small working agency (say, where your would-be agent has an assistant, but no receptionist) is better than a mildly interested agent at Gersh (a top literary agency). They will both send your stuff out, but after the first few setbacks the mildly interested agent at Gersh will stop pushing your stuff, while the wildly enthusiastic agent at the tiny agency will keep going. If you are getting wild enthusiasm from a top agency, stop reading this, call them and say yes. They flame out quickly if you seem less than excited by them.

Not all agents at an agency are alike, of course. It's always worthwhile to do a quick check on the Net to see if you can find information about the agent with whom you're dealing. Has she been named in recent Variety articles because she sold someone's spec script for $500,000? Did he publish an article in the UCLA student paper two years ago, suggesting he may really be an assistant with high hopes?

If your agent seems to have lost interest in your work, feel free to see if another agent at another agency might be more interested. If you get someone else who wants to rep you, then (and only then) talk to your current agent and see if they have anything cooking for you. If they don't, leave the agency. If an agent hasn't got you a bona fide (real) deal in four months, you are entitled legally to terminate your contract, but aside from the legalities, most agents are decent people, and if they aren't pushing your work any more, they'll probably let you leave the agency without too much fuss. They only fight to keep the clients they're making money from.

The top agencies don't charge any fees at all for their work. They get paid only their commission. Less well-off agencies may charge you to make copies of your scripts ($3 to $5 a script is reasonable) and very impoverished agencies may charge you for postage ($4 a script or so). Impoverishment is a bad sign - it means their clients aren't making much money. If an agency wants to charge you any other fees - reading fees, administrative fees - then report them to the WGA. If they're not signatory with the WGA, there is no point in having them represent you.

Your agent is not there to help you write your best work, though the good ones will give you good tips. Your agent is there to sell and to help you identify what is worth writing from a commercial point of view. Don't blame them for being crassly commercial. If your work doesn't sell, you have the pleasure of writing it, but all they've got is a sore throat.

By and large, do not expect your agent to get you work. I know half a dozen working, professional writers who can't remember the last time their agent got them a gig. You have to roust the work up yourself. My personal feeling is you should never, ever let someone leave a meeting with you without giving them a script or sending a script shortly afterwards. Be your own best agent.

But if you don't have an agent, that becomes harder to do. Having an agent means that at least one professional person believes in your writing enough to spend her time trying to sell it.

If you want to write TV, you absolutely must have an agent. TV producers will not even talk to people who just might be nutso slasher-fans.

Agents get paid a percentage of what you make. That's the only money they make. Some smaller agencies may expect you to pay for screenplay copies; my second-to-last agent did. They should not charge you for anything else. If they want you to pay for postage, they're probably not a real agent. The bigger agencies don't charge for anything at all. If an agent asks you to pay them for a screenplay critique, or anything else that gets into real dollars, immediately report them to the WGA. If an agent is not WGA-signatory, I doubt they're worth your time.

Agents outside of the (310), (323) and (424) area codes in LA are probably not A-list feature agents. In New York, it's (212) or (917). Agents and managers outside of these area codes (okay, arguably 818 too) are probably not going to be taken seriously.

In the case of Canada, most of the effective agents are in Toronto in (416). However jobs are more regional in Canada, due to provincial tax credits, so a Vancouver agent may be able to help you if you're primarily looking for B.C. jobs, or a Montreal agent if you're planning to work in Quebec. Some Toronto agents can also help you to some extent in L.A, but don't count on it.

Agency contracts are regulated in the State of California. They cannot charge more than a 10% fee. They are not allowed to produce your work (conflict of interest). Managers can take a 15% fee and can produce your work, provided you have an agent who negotiates with them. Lawyers can also represent you, although they will mostly only negotiate for you and not get your script out to development people. Lawyers either charge a $200-$400 hour fee or take 5% of your fee. You can have an agent, a manager and a lawyer, if you think all three will help. 70% of something is better than 100% of nothing.

If you can't get an agent, it's a sign your project isn't obviously commercial, but you should not necessarily give up. The aforementioned Terry Rossio is quite insistent on this point: if you have a great script, practically any contact at all will be able to give your script to someone who can give it to someone etc. Therefore all you need to do is get your great script to a production company, screenwriting professor, or agent's assistant, or producer's girlfriend's personal trainer, and it will blaze its own path, hand to hand, xerox machine to xerox machine, into the sanctum sanctorum of the movie industry, the Monday morning meeting at CAA. The corrolary to this is that if you only have a good script, and not a great one, having an agent is not going to make a miracle, either.

If you don't have an agent, you will almost certainly need to sign a fairly gnarly-looking release form every time you submit a script to a producer. This is standard. Don't sweat it. They need to protect themselves against people who are convinced that George Lucas stole the idea for Star Wars from a script they submitted years ago.

There are indeed scripts that got to the right people by following unorthodox channels. The writer of Seven actually sent his script to a famous screenwriter, who sent it to his own agent (after suggesting to the writer that he "get help"). If you know important, famous actors, you can try to get them to read it and pass it along to producers. But generally, what's "great" to you and your friends is very likely not "great" to other people, especially if you are not in the loop in Hollywood and don't have a sense of what people are looking for. The truth is that getting people to read an unrepresented script is really, really hard.

It is generally not worth the effort to try to send an unrepresented script to the agent of a bankable actor. Think about it: if God forbid their actor liked it, they would have to help set the project up, which is a lot of work and usually comes to nothing. They'd infinitely much rather have their actor read a script from a real producer that has a money offer and a production start date attached to it.

On the other hand, you are always welcome to send out queries to the producers in the Hollywood Creative Directory to see if they are willing to read it. See below.

Don't spend more than 10% of your time trying to get an agent. The rest of the time you should spend writing. Figure you should expect to write about ten scripts before you have a clue what you're doing. (I've written a couple dozen and at least the first dozen were terrible.) Figure that 90% of the time the newspaper says someone sold their first script for $500,000, there were four or five or ten pre-first scripts. People in show business use extremely liberal definitions of "first" and "young."

Agencies that accept "unsolicited"scripts (scripts from people they don't know) are listed by the WGA, and agents themselves are listed in the Hollywood Representation Directory If an agency is not listed by the WGA, then they haven't signed with the WGA, and you should not be doing business with them. In Canada, the same applies to the Writer's Guild of Canada, or WGC: if they're not listed in the WGC director, that's a pretty serious flag.

Q. How do I get people to read my script?
A. You write them a query letter.

A good query letter says in one paragraph what the hook of the story is. Asks if I'd like to read it. And (occasionally) includes personal information relevant to the script.

That's all it needs to do! The story sells itself, or it doesn't. And even if the idea is good, if you can't write a clear one-page letter that draws me into your story, I will draw the obvious conclusion that your 115-page script won't draw me in, either.

When I was in development, I used to spend about three seconds reading the average query letter. If it doesn't grab me by the third sentence, I'm outta there. Sorry guys, I know that sounds philistine, but I have found through years of experience and reading literally ten thousand query letters and thousands of scripts, that if a writer is incapable of hooking me in three sentences, the script is not going to be something I can make into a movie. There is no reason for me to read past three dull sentences.

Dull sentences include any sentences with hype, such as "Audiences are ready for a film about gay killer whales" or "this is The Brady Bunch meets Titanic, with the sly wit of Stop Or My Mom Will Shoot."

The same thing goes for scripts, by the way. I have never been bored by the first five pages of a script and then had it improve dramatically on me. They only go downhill. They might get better, but they never get good.

Here is a model letter:

"Dear Mr. Epstein: I have just finished polishing my tenth script, a comic road movie about a Japanese baseball player driving to Spring training, who knocks over a Navajo guy with his car, and gets conned into taking the guy's horse to Flagstaff. He falls in love with a rich rodeo girl, and his life turns upside down. I was a minor league ball player myself for three years, and the script is loosely based on a guy I knew on the team. Please let me know if you'd like to read the script. I would be happy to sign a release form if you have one, or I can have my lawyer send you the script. I enclose a SASE. Thank you. Yours very truly..."

Here is another good letter, if a bit long:

Dear Alex Epstein: I have just completed writing "Aleister Crowley," a screenplay dramatizing the life of one of the most enigmatic and controversial figures to come out of Victorian England. It presents Crowley as the contradiction he was: English gentleman and rogue, mystic and black magician, pet and adventurer, mountaineer and drug addict. From the Scottish Highlands to the Himalayas to the Pyramids, Crowley searched for spiritual truth and physical ecstasy. His life is a classic tale of rebellion against a strict fundamentalist upbringing. His exploits shocked the British public, and cost him everything and everyone he had ever loved. If you are interested in taking a look at the screenplay, please let me know. Thank you for your consideration in the matter. Very truly yours..."

Normally period pieces are a bitch to set up, but it is obvious from the letter than he has concentrated on the man and the scandal, not the clothes and the accents. So I asked to read it.

Again, please don't say why your script will have a big audience or satisfy a need. The producer or agent or exec reading your letter knows far more than you do whether there's an audience for your story or not. Just tell the story. The story sells itself, or it doesn't.

Humor is a plus, but only funny humor.

Please don't apologize in advance for wasting my time.

Please don't tell five stories. It suggests you're just throwing stuff up against the wall and hoping something will stick.

Please don't write your whole query as a scene from a movie. It's been done.

Please don't tell me the script is "consistent with the type of films produced by your company," an odd phrase that people like to use. (And what type is that? It feels like a backhanded insult.)

Spelling counts. I will reject a misspelled query instantly, regardless what it says. People who don't bother to check their spelling presumably haven't spent enough time on their script, either. Grammar counts, too. If I see "you're" for "your," it's recycling time.

If you've done something really exciting in your life ("I was an AP stringer in Beirut for 5 years, was kidnapped by Shi'ites and escaped after 111 days of solitude") then let me know. If you have done years of research, please let me know. If you have won awards for your scripts, or better, seen them bought or, even better, produced, please let me know. If it's your first script ever, don't mention it.

Be sure to address your query to an actual person, not to an agency or company. Otherwise it will be read by a minion. If it's a production company, find a mid-level development person. Producers and their staff are listed in the Hollywood Creative Directory. (There is also a nifty list of what producers have deals at what studios at ScriptRep.) Agents are listed in the Hollywood Agents & Managers Directory. Make sure the production company you're sending your query to actually handles the kind of movie you've written. If they do children's television, they won't want your low budget zombie flick.

It's all about the story. No fancy paper, fancy formatting, colored type, or a picture of you; it just looks amateur. You're not selling yourself as a graphic designer, you're selling yourself as a wordsmith. I'll take a neatly typed letter as seriously as I'll take a word processed one.

These days most queries are by email, not by mail. But if you are snail-mailing a query, please just use a plain business size #10 envelope for the query and SASE. Don't bother with a big manila or Tyvek envelope.

If it's an email query, please don't send a query letter as an attached document. Send it as plain text in the message body. Most people won't open an attachment from a stranger.

Again: you have 3 seconds to hook me. I am looking for a good hook. If I'm interested I'll read the rest of the letter more carefully. But I reject most queries in 3 seconds; and I doubt most execs take any longer than that.

Good luck.

Q. I am a screenwriter in another country. How do I break in?

A. If your script is brilliant enough, someone may represent it. Of course, they can't get you writing work, but until they sell your spec feature, they won't get you writing work even if you're here. The danger however is that it will be much harder for you to get a good sense of what makes a great Hollywood screenplay.

The best way to break through, I think, is to write a screenplay that gets produced in your home country that is about Indian themes but accessible to an American audience. Shekhar Kapur is obviously doing very well in Hollywood right now; directing BANDIT QUEEN was his ticket to directing ELIZABETH. Lee Tamahori translated critical success with his brutal Maori ghetto story ONCE WERE WARRIORS to financial success directing big studio pictures like THE EDGE and MULHOLLAND FALLS. Become well known at home first, then become known here for doing work in at home, then see if you can get an agent here.

Hollywood cheerfully and regularly imports foreigners, always provided they have done something exceptional at home. This is less true for screenwriters, but only because it is rare for a foreigner to truly master American idiom, even if he or she is a native speaker of English. The rhythm and slang of Melbourne is not the rhythm and slang of Beverly Hills, mite.

Q. How do I get into TV writing?

A. You don't want this FAQ. You want my TV FAQ.

Q. How long will it take for someone to read my script at a production company, and how often should I check in by phone? When should I move on?

A.There are two sides to this question.

Speaking as an executive, in the companies I've worked for, all the scripts that come in get read by someone or other. If the company wants them, they will contact you, assuming you've put your contact information on your title page (not your cover!). That's why they read your script, isn't it? So what's the point in calling?

Speaking as a writer, the point in calling is to get a few words of criticism. After a month or so, you might make a call every two weeks or so to check in. Don't be surprised if no one returns your call. If the script has been read, you might politely ask what didn't work, and if it's the kind of project the company is looking for. Don't be surprised if you get brushed off. If execs had a nice heart-to-heart with everyone who sent them scripts, they'd be spending an extra hour a day on the phone. They work 11 hour days.

After three months, your script is almost certainly dead. It may have been tossed, or it's lost, or buried, or they decided they don't care about it it. They are not going to read it. They are not going to send it back. It is no longer useful to call.

When you should move on? Immediately. Everybody submits everything to multiple places, as many as 30 at a time. The object is to get two buyers bidding against each other. This is the opposite of publishing, where you are expected to submit your manuscript exclusively to one publisher at a time.

The above only refers to an unrepresented writer, of course, who has sent his or her script based on a query letter to which the producer responded. A represented writer never, ever bugs the producer unless they know him or her professionally. That's what agents are for.

Q. What do I need to know about copyright?
"Talent borrows. Genius steals." -- Alex Epstein

Many writers are concerned that someone will steal their work. Other writers want to use concepts or situations created by someone else. I will attempt to explain how writers can best protect their own work, while shamelessly stealing other people's ideas.

Copyright is a concept that has developed in force and sophistication for the past four hundred years or so. In Classical times, authors wrote for fame; they had no way of getting royalties when books were copied by hand.

With the invention of the printing press came the possibility of getting paid royalties. But Elizabethan England had no copyright laws. Rogue publishers would regularly send people with extremely good memories (memories were much better then) to see plays by popular authors such as Shakespeare. They would come home, write down as much of the dialogue as they could remember, and the publisher would try to get a folio out before the legitimate owner of the work published a clean copy. They also bribed actors to steal scripts, which required the playwright to write out separate copies of the play for each actor, with only the parts they needed to have. Only after the publication of many "bad folios" did Shakespeare publish his own copies of his plays, risking that someone would buy his "good folio" and put on his play without paying him.

Current copyright law is strong but finicky.

What is copyright?

Copyright is the right of the author to control who can publish his or her work. It exists from the moment he creates something copyrightable, and can be sold, licensed or given to another party.

There are four main criteria for determining what is copyrightable:

How do I enforce my copyright?

There are two ways people protect their copyright in the entertainment industry.

The Writer's Guild of America (WGA) will, for your (I think) $40 check, archive a copy of your work (screenplay or synopsis), and send you back a slip with a registration number on it, providing independent proof that you wrote a screenplay or story at a certain time. This can be useful if someone later steals your idea or screenplay, but:

A better way to protect your screenplay is to register it with the Registrar of Copyright. You do so at the Library of Congress electronic copyright site. It is then archived by the Library of Congress in perpetuity, which is why the LoC is the largest library in the world.

There are important legal differences to the two services. The Library of Congress provides a legal registration of copyright under federal law. The WGA provides only a private-party service with no legal effect. It is good for evidence, but it is not statutory. The legal difference between evidence and a statutory registration is the difference between having a contract that says you bought a house (evidence), and having the title deed registered in your name with the state government (statutory).

The legal distinction is important. If someone steals your screenplay and you can prove it (evidence), you are entitled to damages. But you have to prove you have been damaged, and you have to prove how much you have been damaged, usually by measuring how much money you would have made if the other guy hadn't stolen your work. But if you have registered with the LoC, you can be awarded statutory damages. That means that the statute fixes a certain minimum amount of damages which you will be rewarded even if you can't prove you would have made any money if your work had not been stolen. You don't need to prove you were hurt, or that the other guy made any money. You only need to prove that he stole your idea and "published" it.

You can register a work at the Library of Congress electronic copyright site.. This

Note that popping a script in the mail and mailing it to yourself (so-called "poor man's copyright") is completely useless. What is to prevent you from mailing yourself an envelope today and then putting a different script in it ten years from now?

You do not need to be a US citizen to copyright a work at the Library of Congress. However, if you copyright your work in most nations, your work is effectively copyrighted in the US, I believe. For example, if you copyright your work in France, you may consider it protected in the United States by virtue of various international copyright conventions. If you live in a recent nation such as Croatia, or a nation on poor terms with the US such as Cuba, North Korea or Libya, then you will need to copyright your work here in order to be protected. Of course if you're a writer, you'd better get out of Cuba, North Korea or Libya as fast as you can before you say something someone doesn't like.

Although you can't copyright an idea, you can protect your idea contractually. If you agree with someone that, if they use your idea, they have to buy it from you first, then you have a contract. If they steal your idea, you can sue them for breach of contract -- even if it isn't an original idea and you never wrote it down. A written contract is the safest way to do this, but an oral contract is legally all you need, though practically, it's usually not worth the paper it's written on. You can create a legal and enforceable oral contract by saying, "If you use this, I wanna get paid, okay?" in front of witnesses who will testify to what you said in court.

The truth is, most producers in Hollywood are far too busy to steal your idea. When you're making a $30 million picture, it's rarely worth the hassle to steal someone's idea when you can buy it for $50,000.

Before 1989, you were obliged to put a copyright notice on your work. You no longer have to do so. However, the copyright infringer may claim she infringed "innocently" unless you put the notice on.

By the way, you only have to copyright your work once. Even if you revise it, by protecting the plot and characters, you are essentially guaranteeing that anyone who steals from a later work will run afoul of your copyright. If you change the work so completely that someone could steal from it without stealing from the original, that's when you need to copyright the work again..

What if you want to write something based on someone else's work?

You may not legally distribute something that incorporates copyrighted work that someone else owns, unless they give you permission. If you do, they are entitled to sue you for money damages, and then also enjoin you (stop you) from distributing it any further.

Two exceptions are "fair use," which allows you to use brief quotations; and parody. You can, for example, distribute a poster for "Starr Wars" in which the evil Kenneth Starr appears as Darth Vader, using the exact style and format of the original Star Wars poster. You can quote a short phrase from a song in a movie without permission from the owner of the copyright of the song, but if you have a character singing the song or if you use any part of an actual recording of a song, you will need permission, which will generally cost a lot of money. "Happy Birthday," by the way, is still under copyright!

You can base your work on other people's work that has fallen out of copyright, or which is not copyrightable. Work that is not copyrightable includes, for example, a premise, a concept, or a basic plot. In other words you can write a script about a little girl who is whisked away to a magical land and, opposed by evil creatures and helped by wonderful allies, tries to get home. But from the moment the allies include a Tin Woodman, a Cowardly Lion, or a Scarecrow, you have infringed on the copyright of the L. Frank Baum estate. You also can't have the Tin Woodman show up in a dream sequence in a drama you wrote; the character himself is under copyright.

Once enough time has lapsed, the rights to the book The Wizard of Oz lapse, and become "public domain." At that moment, anyone can make a movie of The Wizard of Oz. However, they can't use any details invented for the 1939 movie starring Judy Garland; these are still under copyright.

How do I tell whether a work is still in copyright?

Works published before 1923 are in the public domain. Any work over 67 years old is in the public domain. Any work published after 1923 was automatically copyrighted for 28 years. That could be extended to 67 years if the right paperwork was filled out, so most works less than 67 years old are still under copyright. Sometimes, though, people forgot to renew their copyright, so some works less than 67 years old are also in the public domain. Anything published after 1978 is copyrighted for the life of the longest-living author plus 70 years, so just forget about it!

To check the registration of a specific work, i.e. to determine whether the book you want to adapt is still in copyright, you can check the LoC online. You will need a telnet program to interface with the LoC's painfully antique system. You can download these free on the Net.

Note, however, that the LoC's online records are spotty and the absence of a registration does not mean the material is necessarily in the public domain. For that you need a Thomson and Thomson search (800) 356 8630. They are a copyright research firm in Washington that search the LoC physical files and give you a report. The reports cost from $290 to $440 and up, and take about five business days. Dennis Angel (914) 472 0820, another copyright and title clearance person, was cheaper last time I checked.

Berlofsky, Cleary & Komen (202) 547 1331 is an example of a firm that will give you a legal opinion based on a T&T report. You do not need the legal opinion until the picture is in production; the T&T or Dennis Angel report will tell you what you need to know.

Other Resources

For a good layman's take, see Mark Litwak's DealmakingDealmaking in the Film & Television Industry. There is also a handy copyright overview at the University of Tennessee.

Check out the Library of Congress's own copyright information page here.

Disclaimer: the information presented here is to the best of my knowledge, and may be wrong. I'm not a lawyer. Always talk to an attorney before making rash threats to guys with more money than you. All motion picture studios have barracks full of lawyers just waiting to bleed you to death.

Q. I want to write a screenplay based on a novel...
A. Before you do a deal for the rights, ask yourself how much you're going to take from the book. If you are going to take characters or plot, then you need the rights. If you're just using the underlying premise, then you do not need the rights to the book. Generally, I find that by the time I've adapted a book idea for the big screen, I've changed the characters, plot, setting and (God knows) dialogue to the point where the screenplay is really no more than "inspired by" the book. In that case you don't need the book rights, and you are not violating the author's copyright (see my copyright section.).

But if you want to do a faithful adaptation of a book, or simply to be able to say your screenplay is based on a book, for example if it's a bestseller, you need the rights from the author. You can find out who has the cinematic rights from the publisher. The publisher is usually listed on the title page of the book. Most publishers have their main offices in New York City in the 212 area code. Call (212) 555 1212 for their main number, then call the main number and ask for "sub-rights." Ask the sub rights person who controls the cinematic rights to the book. They will usually refer you to the author's book agent, who may represent the movie rights (phew), or may direct you to the show business agent in LA who represents the movie rights (oh, well).

You can also do a copyright search by telnetting into the Library of Congress, or a more elaborate search through a firm that specializes in copyright searches, though the latter costs a few hundred dollars. Check out my pages on copyright.

You can also attempt to locate the author on the Web using Alta Vista or one of the other search engines. Good luck.

Best creative advice: read the book once, then don't look at it again till you've written the screenplay. If the scene didn't stick in your mind, it's not memorable enough for the screenplay. Movies are short stories, not novels. (For more in this vein, see my screenwriting notes.)

Q. Is there a good screenwriting computer program?
A. There are screenplay formatting programs, and screenwriting plotting programs that are mean to help you along the steps of making characters, conflicts etc. I don't know anyone who uses a plotting program, so I'll talk about screenplay formatting programs.

A good screenplay formatting program allows you to write a screenplay in proper format without going to any trouble to set the right margins for the various elements (Character, Action, Parenthetical, etc.). They're already set for you. You can switch from one to another just by hitting Return or Tab. You can also change the format you're using, or select from a library of standard formats.

Aside from formatting, a good screenwriting program will track your changes through as many revisions as you like. This is more than multiple levels of Undo, which any modern word processor should do. When I revise a script, all the new text is in pink. When I revise it again, new text is now in blue; and so forth for green, yellow, salmon, goldenrod, etc. (Not coincidentally these are the standard colors of copy paper onto which these changes are copied if the script is in production.) I can see all the colors at once, or just the current revision. That way I can tell what's been changed and what's the original draft. That means that if another writer or producer only wants to read the changes, they can easily tell what's new and what's old and only read the old.

You can also OMIT a scene without actually cutting the text. The program stores the scene you've OMITTED, and you can restore the whole scene with a few clicks.

The screenplay formatting program I use, Final Draft 6, also has a handy "Scene Navigator" which allows me to see all the scenes as virtual index cards, in case I want to get an overview. It also fills in the rest of a slugline if it thinks it can guess what the rest of it is.

How do people read my screenplays if they don't want to spring for Final Draft? They have a free Final Draft Viewer available from their website.

I read baddish things, though, about the latest version, Final Draft 7. So buy Final Draft 6 on Ebay. It's cheaper, too.

I have also heard nice things about Movie Magic Screenwriter, though learning any new program is not something I would care to do. It's made by the people who make the indispensable Movie Magic Budgeting and Movie Magic Scheduling programs.

A third company was kind enough to send me a review copy of their screenplay formatting program, Scriptware. The manual is clearly written. The program seems to be simple and intuitive to use, and I know a few people who use it.

With any screenplay formatting program, you should be able to import a screenplay from any other program. You may have to go through the intermediate step of saving the screenplay first as an RTF file.

Script formatting programs are indispensable for a shooting script when you are in pre-production because they allow you to lock pagination, do "A" and "B" pages, OMITTED's, "X-changes" and a lot of other things you need to know about when you're in production. Do you need a program for or a selling script, which is what you're writing? No. You can write your screenplay in Microsoft Word if you define the styles properly, as I've tried to do in this style cheat sheet. (And here's another style sheet, from the BBC.) Word will do 98% of what you need to do to create proper format if you have the right style sheet. You'll still need to manually enter "(CONT'D)"s at the bottom of dialog that's broken over a page break, but that's about it. If you don't have $200 to burn, use Word. Also, see my section on Basic Format in my book.

As far as screenwriting plotting programs go, Dramatica is probably a good example. The creators of Dramatica have attempted to formalize the process of story creation that goes on in a crafted screenwriter's head as he or she comes up with a new story. It boils down story structure to a branching tree of 32K possible "storyforms." By answering questions such as 'does the main character succeed or fail' and 'is this a good or bad thing,' the program helps you settle on one "storyform," from which you can draw conclusions about why things aren't working or what needs to happen for the story to be satisfying.

Obviously the program doesn't actually write any of the screenplay for you. But it is intended to help you crystallize your story; which is half the battle. I generally spend two to four times the time creating the story outline as actually writing pages.

I have no idea whether Dramatica is worth the money or the week it takes to learn the program; although they have some very happy reviews on their website. But if you have trouble figuring out why your stories come out wrong, or just have trouble creating a story structure, and you have money to burn, Dramatica or something like it might be worth it.

Remember, though, craft is all very well and good. But what gets your screenplay bought is (a) a great, commercial hook, (b) an almost musical sense of pacing and (c) characters that have the breath of life. Oh, and did I mention a great hook?

Q. I live in the middle of nowhere. How do I get intelligent feedback on my scripts and films?

A. Why not lurk on See who makes intelligent comments. Email them and ask them if they'd be willing to read your script or see your film. Most wanna-be critics would be flattered to death that filmmaker is asking their opinion.

The same goes for the guys at your local cool independent video store (not the chains): you know, the dweeby guy behind the counter who knows every movie Sam Peckinpah ever made, shot by shot? He'd love to tell you what's wrong with your movie, and what's right. (Quentin Tarantino used to be one of these guys.)

That doesn't mean you should take his advice. It means you should listen to his critique. You should listen to anyone's critique: if they didn't like something or didn't get something, your script is not perfect. If someone thinks the main character is a bore, then to them, he's a bore. All feedback is true for the person giving it. But you don't have to accept someone else's fix for the problem. It's your script.

Q. Should I submit my script to screenplay competitions?

A. Many people send their screenplays to screenwriting competitions in the hopes that it will get them attention. Personally, I feel about screenwriting competitions the way I feel about the lottery. In order for one person to win $1,000, two hundred (or more) people are submitting their screenplays and paying $50 for the privilege. That means the people running the competition are taking in $10,000 (or $100,000 for all I know) and paying out $1,000. I feel the $9,000 (or $99,000) profit accounts for the large number of screenwriting competitions.

I figure, if Michelle Miller is sending me spam about her "Hollywood's Next Success Screenwriting Contest" (and I can't seem to get her to stop!), she's not doing it to lose money. Same with those annoying Scriptapalooza people. If they're going to all that trouble to spam me about their contests, I assume that's how they're making their living. Real contests don't promote themselves much; they don't have to.

While winning a screenwriting award may get your screenplay read by a few extra people, I do not believe it will contribute much to the likelihood of your movie getting bought or produced. The only real screenwriting competition is show business itself. If your screenplay gets optioned, bought and produced, you won. If it didn't, you lost. If you send out smart query letters, you will get your screenplay read by the right people. Why not cut to the chase?

There are a few screenwriting competitions worth taking seriously, such as the Nicholls, Francis Coppola's online, free "competition" at, and Project Greenlight. But I think most competitions exist because someone wanted to run a competition, or thought they could make money doing it. They're probably not someone making a living from producing movies. They don't have any particularly great insight into what makes a screenplay great. Why should anyone pay attention to a screenplay they like? I don't think I've ever read that a movie got made because the screenplay won an award. If you absolutely must spend money on your writing habit, send your script to a script consultant. You'll at least learn something, and if your script is superb, it will likely get passed along to people who can buy it, just the same as if you had lucked out and won a competition.

You want a real contest? Send out query letters and try to get your movie read, optioned, bought and made. It's cheaper to do, and the prizes are much, much bigger.

Q. A producer wants me to rewrite my own script for free. Should I?
A. If the producer's notes are good, sure. Just be sure that you own the results of your labors. In other words, you should have an explicit, written agreement that whatever creative contribution the producer may make, the revised script is yours and yours alone. Under no circumstances should a producer own the results of your efforts without paying money up front.

However, it is reasonable for a producer to exchange his or her comments for a free option to buy your script. Anywhere between three months and a year is reasonable, starting from when you deliver the rewrite.

If you are unsure whether the producer's notes are good, then look at the producer's credits. Has he or she got a producer credit on a movie? How about (in decreasing order) an Executive Producer, Co-Producer or Associate Producer credit? If he or she has none of these, you are talking to a beginner (although just possibly it may be someone who has had experience as an executive; but they are still beginning as a producer). Does the producer live in the Los Angeles or New York metropolitan areas? If not, and they don't have credits, forget it. Does a secretary answer the phone, or does the producer have only voice mail? There are a few real producers who are working out of their house and keeping overhead low, but they are working at a disadvantage, and some are only be keeping busy until their next executive job. Are they producing full time? If someone is asking you to do a lot of work for nothing, then you have every right to ask.

You are trading your writing time and effort for the producer's knowledge of what will, and what won't, result in a produced movie. There is no objective way to judge what the producer's accumulated knowledge and talent is worth. If the producer's efforts will advance your cause, go for it. If not, you might offer to do the rewriting (if you think the notes are good), but without a long term option contract.

A few things to bear in mind. Most producers will seriously slack off their efforts getting your script set up if they haven't got a sale in three months. They may fitfully send the project out after that, but only as things come up, unless there's a new rewrite. This is a strong argument for not giving a longer option. Remember, any good producer will try to get a maximum option length and the most work out of you for nothing that they possibly can. They're probably lying and exaggerating. This is no reason not to work with them if you think they're real (i.e. have credits). But you don't have to give them everything they ask for.

The last thing to consider is: what else were you going to do with the time? It is always better to write something than to write nothing. If working with a producer helps goad you to get something completed, that alone may be a good enough reason to do it, and the feedback will make you a better writer.

Q. A producer wants me to write a new script for him for free. Should I?
A. The above questions all apply, but more strongly. The problem is that it costs a producer almost nothing to tell you that if you write such and such a script, he will get it set up somewhere. You will be spending three months to a year writing; he will be spending a few hours reading. Producers have no shame about hyping you up to writing something and then deciding later that the concept wasn't so good after all.

On the other hand, a real producer can tell you what is and isn't commercial. If he's for real, he's not going to waste even a few hours reading drafts of an unpromising concept. In my experience, most writers spend vast amounts of time writing scripts with concepts that are never going to get sold no matter how well they're written.

You have to use your judgement. Almost all good producers lie all the time, same as the bad ones, and most of the honest ones choose to communicate the most optimistic aspects of the truth. But why lie unless something in it for them? So when they promise you they'll sell the script, the promise may well be a gross exaggeration, but they presumably have real hopes they'll sell the script, and therefore will make an effort to get it sold. That's how they put gas in the Mercedes, after all. It is up to you to evaluate whether the person you are talking to is a professional, successful producer or a wanna-be beginner who has no better idea than you do what will sell.

Make sure you own the results of your efforts. The producer should have no more than an option for a limited period of time, somewhere between three months and a year depending on how confident you are in him.

If a producer wants you to write a script for free based on his story, beware. He will control the copyright. You can't sell the script without him. But he can go and have another writer write another script based on the same story, and you're left out in the cold. I would never do this unless the producer was willing to sign over his rights in his story free and clear over to me.

Frankly, I have never made any money writing on spec for someone else. I might consider it if I believed the person asking me to write on spec was a major enough player. But I'd probably still refuse. If they're such a major player, why don't they have a development fund to pay for scripts?

Q. I have written a script, and now I see the same story is being done by a production company in Hollywood. What can I do?
A. You are hosed. Production companies do not want to read a script on a subject they're already doing, because if they don't buy your script, they may still have it in the back of their minds, and something from your script will sneak into the movie, and you'll sue them. I have, though an agent, occasionally managed to get someone at a production company to read my competing script, but nothing has ever come of it.

If you don't have an agent, the best thing to do is wait. Odds are the movie won't get made; most don't. Wait till everyone has forgotten about the other project, and then resubmit. Even if they do make the movie, you can still wait a few years and resubmit. I wrote an adaptation of THE ODYSSEY, only to be pipped at the post by Robert Halmi's miniseries. We went out with the script anyway, but it didn't get bought. One day I'll go out with it again.

Hollywood does occasionally make competing projects (VALMONT and DANGEROUS LIAISONS, DEEP IMPACT and ARMAGEDDON, VOLCANO and DANTE'S PEAK, 18 AGAIN and BIG). Generally one flops.

If your picture can be made for a much lower budget than the competing project, you may be able to submit it to independent production companies. JURASSIC PARK did not cut into the market for Roger Corman's $4 million CARNOSAUR much. (When asked about the similarities between the projects, Roger is supposed to have said, "Steven Spielberg and Michael Crichton are both honorable men. I don't imagine for a minute that they would steal my idea!")

Q. I want to write a sequel to a movie I love...
A. Writing sequels to produced movies will not help you. If the movie was at all successful, they are working on a sequel or sequels to it already. If they read your script, they run a real danger that your draft is similar to what they're working on. Next thing, you're going to sue them for stealing your idea. They are going to be very unwilling to read yours.

If they do read yours, likely they already have an idea in their head where they want the sequel to go. It is extremely unlikely that your idea matches theirs. So they will at best unintentionally use some of your ideas without paying you, and more likely will simply ignore your script.

If you want to write a sequel to a produced movie, do it for fun, because you love the movie, or as an exercise. You can put it up on your website as "fan fiction" if you like, at least until they tell you to take it down. But your odds of getting it bought are essentially non-existent.

This is a real no-hoper. Don't waste your time.

Q. Am I too old to start writing screenplays?
A. If your goal is to write a movie that gets made, then no, you're not. What gets a movie made is a screenplay that lights a fire under people to get it made. If you can create a story that makes people cry and laugh, if you can create characters that actors want to play, then you can write a screenplay that someone may buy and produce and shoot. A great screenplay has no age limit. No one is going to meet you before they read your screenplay, and if your agent is doing her job right, they may not know a thing about you until they've bought it; and as for Riley Weston, let's not even go there...

You can count on spending ten years or so learning how to write a good screenplay, though. If you were to start in on writing novels you would not expect to publish your first manuscript, though you might hope it would. Stephen King was writing awful, terrible, unpublished novels for years before he wrote Carrie. Screenwriting is a more demanding craft than novel writing in the sense that the form and style of a screenplay is much more tightly defined. Don't think that because you've seen a lot of movies, you instinctively know how to write a great one. You will have to write some bad ones before you write some good ones.

However, if your goal is to become a working professional writer whom people hire for rewrites, as opposed to creating spec screenplays that people buy, then one does hear a lot about prejudice against older writers. I suspect that there is some truth in them, but only that no one cuts older writers any slack. People figure that their faults are not going to go away, and they are not going to learn to write any better than they have so far. With a younger writer, you hope to be able to mold them into a better writer.

Also, young, inexperienced creative execs are often uncomfortable being condescending and dismissive to writers old enough to send them up to their room without dinner, so they prefer to work with writers their own age, whom they don't mind being rude to. This is not a problem for seasoned execs.

So while it is no problem being a great older writer (William Goldman is, I believe, well into his 70's and gets a million bucks a pop), it is much harder to be an older hack than a younger hack. I suspect that is where most of the complaining comes from.

Q. Will you read my script?
A. I'm not reading scripts now as such, because I'm not looking for new material to produce. But I will still do a professional evaluation of your script. If that's what you're looking for, please click here.

Q.I have a great idea / treatment. Would you like to turn it into a script for me? Can you recommend someone who would?
A.Probably not, unless you are looking to hire a writer, and my guess is you are not.

Here's the thing. Writers don't like to work from other people's treatments or ideas unless they're going to get paid up front. Most writers have plenty of good ideas of their own, which they own 100% and just haven't had time to get around to developing into a script. If they use your idea, they'll have to split the money with you. If you have a treatment, the odds are they're going to want to rewrite your story, and then they'll get into all sorts of creative battles with you.

What does it cost to hire a writer? Quite a lot of money. A writer in the Writer's Guild would have a guild minimum of around $50,000. A writer in the Writer's Guild of Canada gets CDN $42,000, or about $35,000. Working writers charge $100,000 and up. If I were to recommend a non-Guild writer to you, even the least experienced one I could in conscience recommend, I would not feel right passing the gig along unless there were a minimum of a $5,000 payday, with a lot more payable if the picture ever gets made.

Now, if you truly have a madly, insanely commercial idea, then someone may want to develop it with you (and you better copyright it before you tell it to anyone). The odds are, frankly, that you don't. Professional writers are out there trying to sell their ideas every day; they generally have a better idea of what really is a good commercial idea than anyone except producers and agents. I have heard a lot of "great ideas" from civilians, and none of them have been impressively commercial or even compelling.

If you think you have a commercial idea, then here is the test. Describe the movie in 25 words or less to a friend, and ask her if she'd like to go to a movie like that. The term often used for this is "high concept." There are lots of successful movies that are not high concept, in fact the most successful movies aren't -- but no one is going to develop them for you.

Here are some movies that are not high concept: Forrest Gump, Star Wars, ET, Batman, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Jaws, Gone With the Wind. Yep, they all shattered box office records. But it was not their concept that was so wonderful, it was a combination of name-recognition of an underlying property (a comic book character, 3 best-selling novels) and brilliant execution. Nobody would have developed Star Wars based on the idea; nobody did, until George Lucas made a surprise hit out of American Graffiti. Alan Ladd, Jr., the visionary exec who signed Lucas for the development deal, was betting on the filmmaker, not the concept.

Examples of high concept might be: "An angel rescues a suicidal man by showing him what life in his town would be like if he had never lived." "A famous lawyer takes a case defending a man who's made a contract with the Devil, at the risk of his own soul." "An amnesiac housewife gets her memory back, discovers she's a pro hit man -- and has to run for her life from her old employers." "Two people fall in love over the Internet, not realizing they've already met, and can't stand each other." "A ragged team of deep oil drillers race to save the Earth from a gigantic comet." And so on.

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