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Horror Roundtable 6 – Screenwriting


When: February 11-16, 2013
Time: 3pm Pacific Daylight Time

Screenwriting (topic suggestion provided by Michaelbrent Collings).

How to get involved in the industry, the pitfalls and problems, the success stories. Screenwriting is a natural extension of story writing, but it is also a completely different art form. Let’s look at how it differs, and how difficult it is to create visual scenes for filming. And the end result; is it always how you viewed it would be? Are there any tips or suggestions you can offer for those just starting out, things you’ve learned along the way?

Special Guests:

MichaelbrentMichaelbrent Collings – a bestselling novelist, produced screenwriter and WGA member, martial artist, and has a killer backhand on the badminton court (’cause he’s macho like that).

He published his first “paying” work – a short story for a local paper – at the age of 15. He won numerous awards and scholarships for creative writing while at college, and subsequently became the person who had more screenplays advance to quarterfinals and semifinals in the prestigious Nicholls Screenwriting competition in a single year than anyone else in the history of the competition.

His first produced script, Barricade, was made into a movie starring Eric McCormack of TV’sWill & Grace and Perception, and was released in 2012. Michaelbrent also wrote the screenplay for Darkroom, a movie starring Kaylee DeFer (Gossip Girl, Red State) and Elisabeth Rohm (Angel, Law & Order, Heroes). Darkroom is currently set for a 2013 release.

As a novelist, Michaelbrent has written numerous bestsellers, including Apparition, The Haunted, The Billy Saga, The Loon, Rising Fears, and others. In addition, he has also written dozens of non-fiction articles which have appeared in periodicals on several continents.

Michaelbrent is also a member of the WGA (Writers Guild of America) and in addition to selling, optioning, and doing rewrites on screenplays for major Hollywood production companies, he is currently developing several movies and television shows.

He hopes someday to develop superpowers, or, if that is out of the question, then at least to get a cool robot arm.

Michaelbrent has a wife and several kids, all of whom are much better looking than he is (though he admits that’s a low bar to set), and also cooler than he is.


Signe OlynykSigne Olynyk – President/CEO of Protagonist Pictures, Inc. in Los Angeles, and Twilight Pictures, Inc. in Canada. She has associate produced two feature films, as well as written and produced several documentaries, one hour specials, TV pilots, and a six part series. Her work has been seen on the CBC, Discovery Channel, FOX, the BBC, and she has professional credits on more than 120 productions. To write BELOW ZERO, she arranged to have herself locked in the slaughterhouse freezer where the film was shot. As the driving force behind BELOW ZERO, she brought that same level of dedication to all aspects of the production.

Signe created and founded the Great American PitchFest and the Great Canadian PitchFest as a way to help other writers meet the people they need to know for their careers to move forward. As a direct result, more than 60 writers have had their scripts optioned, been hired for writing assignments, or signed with agents or managers. The PitchFest has also allowed Signe to develop relationships with more than 500 industry executives around the world, and she routinely partners new writers with these companies and agencies for representation and script development. The first Great British PitchFest in London was recently held in partnership with the London Screenwriters Festival.

Signe is currently in pre-production on “Breakdown Lane” a zombie thriller written by her producing partner, Bob Schultz.


MattMatt Lohr – A native of Pittsburgh, PA, MATT R. LOHR is an award-winning screenwriter, essayist and critic. He holds an MFA in screenwriting from Chapman University in Orange, CA, where he first met Dan O’Bannon and agreed to work with him on this book. His views on contemporary and classic cinema can be found on his blog, “The Movie Zombie”.

Matt is also the host of the forthcoming Dan O’Bannon Writing Workshops™, which will bring a hands-on presentation of Dan’s “dynamic structure” screenplay system to seminars, pitchfests and industry events worldwide. More information on these events, and on all upcoming projects and programs relating to Dan’s works and teaching, is available online at the official Dan O’Bannon website, www.danobannon.com. Matt can be contacted by email at matt@danobannon.com, and he is available on Twitter by following @TheMovieZombie.

Matt currently lives in Los Angeles.



Brad_Bio_PicBrad Hodson – Originally from Knoxville, TN, Brad C. Hodson lives in Los Angeles. He’s written several award winning short films and has a few feature options out there. He co-wrote (and co-funded) the low budget horror comedy George: A Zombie Intervention and his first novel, Darling, was recently released from Bad Moon Books.

When not writing, he sneaks into your house and watches you sleep. It’s a little creepy. You might want to think about getting a dog.

Check out his work and musings on various topics over at www.brad-hodson.com.





Pen DenshamPen Densham– Oscar nominated Writer, Producer, Director and co-founder of Trilogy Entertainment Group, Pen started in films in the UK at the age of four – riding an alligator in a theatrical short they made. He has produced 15 features and 300+ hours of TV with his producing partner, John Watson, including ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES, MOLL FLANDERS, THE OUTER LIMITS and TWILIGHT ZONE revivals. His first solo directing gig was THE KISS a horror movie! His latest feature as a Producer, PHANTOM (Written and Directed by Todd Robinson – starring Ed Harris, David Duchovny) will be released March 1st on 3,000 screens in the US. (http://trailers.apple.com/trailers/independent/phantom/) Pen occasionally lectures at USC Film School. His impassioned educational book on screenwriting is “Riding the Alligator”. A free chapter aimed to inspire creativity can be downloaded here – ridingthealligator.com.



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145 comments on “Horror Roundtable 6 – Screenwriting

  1. Thanks, all. Yes Michaelbrent, that was what I was thinking – see how the horror film works. I did some zombie film research already (I have an element of that but mostly in a different way than I’ve ever seen, and researched that to confirm). Your comment on the martial arts though, gives me pause – as did Signe’s earlier comment on it. I’m athletic, but have done only a little martial arts. I wasn’t thinking about its physical nuances – but, as with any sport, understanding details can help in the telling of the story. I do have a baseball novel (that I’m adapting to film), and the sport is an important part of that story – You all just gave me a real “aha” moment with your comments about understanding martial arts for this film more deeply than I do now.

  2. Just to add onto everything that’s come before, Beth: you do want to be original. But part of that is watching everything out there in the vein of what you’re doing. There are action/horror movies, and you should know them all by heart. Not so you can copy them, but so that a) you can see how those kinds of movies work, b) you can see what DOESN’T work with those movies, and c) you can avoid doing things that have already been done before. You will ultimately (one hopes) be selling your idea to people who are avid followers of those types of movies, and the worst would be to write a great script that can’t get any traction because all the good parts have already been done! Research isn’t just about the way the martial arts moves work (though as an avid martial artist myself I hope you do the legwork there), but how movies work in general, and how your genre’s movies work in particular. You don’t want to fall prey to cliche through laziness, but it’s no better to do so by accident, either.

  3. I would also recommend seeing movies that are in the same vein as your story. Don’t write a genre, write a story. Great stories come from character. I also recommend writing your pitch BEFORE you write the screenplay. Make sure you have a clear protagonist with a tangible goal, who overcomes obstacles towards reaching that goal, and who is a different character at the end of your story because of his or her experience in trying to achieve it. If you can answer all of that, well, that’s your pitch in a nutshell. And the general beats of your outline too. Good luck!

  4. I laughed out loud, Matt! First step: I’m going to go back to the treatment and make it as detailed as I can. Then – hmm – I’m even traveling to L.A in 2 weeks…

  5. Beth:

    If you are someone who has not had a tremendous amount of experience with or past aptitude for horror, perhaps it might be worth your while to consider working with a collaborator on this script. You seem to have a good sense of the story, what beats it needs and so forth, and perhaps what you’re mainly looking for is someone to flesh out the vibe, give it the appropriate atmosphere and aesthetics. Perhaps it might be worth it to consider putting your head together with someone who knows the genre, writes the genre, and can help you to take your structure and shape the proper meat onto the bones. If only there was a website or something where people who write horror can connect with one another… 🙂

  6. Thanks Signe. Wonderful idea, about going to a martial arts competition. (I did take some martial arts before, so have some feel for it – and just for the experience, as you say.) I LOVE that you went to a meat locker. (Oddly, one of my characters in this script ends up in a locker of sorts!) What I’m hearing – and truly appreciating – is that it is the story first – as it always is. I think I was letting the genre overwhelm the story. And there is the challenge of going deep for the feeling of terror. But I don’t mind that, too much. I just finished a romantic comedy/drama, and have been thinking of which script to start next (I have seven more sketched out). Perhaps it’s this one. Perhaps it’s this.

  7. Hi Signe, I smiled when I read what you just wrote about people hearing “horror’ and thinking body count. I was rewriting the ending of a screenplay that several Bluecat judges said wasn’t satisfying and was wondering, what would happen it nobody died? Will it still work? By the way guys, The Bluecat Screenwriting Contest gives every entrant the feedback from two different judges. It’s very useful. A lot of contests just take your entry fee and promote their own website services. Feedback from a pro can be pure gold. Just sharing.

  8. Hi Beth. I think you are wise to write a horror, even if it is not the most natural genre for you. I usually write really sweet ‘coming of age’ stories, so turning to horrors and thrillers was a bit of a stretch for me at first, too.

    I think horror gets a bad rap though. Many people hear ‘horror’ and immediately think it is going to be about body count and buckets of blood. The secret to any great story – regardless of genre – is writing through character, and internalizing the story so that it is a human story. Horror is no different. When you monster has layers and backstory, you create a character who is more relatable. Shades of Grey in characters are always more interesting to me than characters who are simply black (evil) or white (good).

    You mention seeking a different approach to writing your latest script. I am a big believer in research, and I love to physically immerse myself in the very world my characters inhabit. When writing about a character trapped in a freezer, I arranged to have myself locked in the meat locker of an abandoned slaughterhouse. For your martial arts script, you may want to take lessons, go to competitions (shows?), and plug yourself in to the world of martial art fighting. You will learn and experience things you might not discover any other way, and that will inform your writing.

    Pen recommends that you ‘sink your soul into your writing’, and I can’t think of a more eloquent way to put it. It’s about taking a story, and making it your own. Use your own emotions to draw from in terms of how your characters will feel, and draw from that with every action, word, etc, that they draw. Screenwriting is about action and moving a story forward, but it is that emotion behind it that brings depth to your writing.

  9. This is great great advice, Pen. I am printing it out! Horror is not my natural inkling – but I dreamt this script, and it is a powerful story. I am a lawyer for my day job, so I have many opportunities to see humanity in stark form. Not shy of it. Now to delve deeply and dangerously into my own creative voice, as you so elegantly say…

  10. Hi Beth

    From the vantage of being both a buyer of scripts and a writer. Action and horror can be very commercial – especially if it is original and tightly written. But, let me share a perspective. We see scripts marketed to us as horror. But they are written with no passion and understanding of the dark shocking human poetry of the medium. If you are going this direction – sink your soul into the writing. Delve as deeply and as dangerously as you can into your own creative voice and darkest fears. Distil that on the page and it will be distinctive and emotional.

    Try not to write to please others or to simulate some other previous success. Thinking this is what the audience wants. To cut through the clutter of all the other scripts and to be useful to growing your own creative powers (wether it sells or not). Write where no other can go. Into the undiscovered truths of your own subconscious.

  11. A question I have is about the screenplay itself. I have a smart horror film concept that I’ve outlined but have not started writing. I have written three other scripts (one suspense drama, one romantic comedy drama, one a bit “field of dreams” novel adaptation), but feel that writing this horror film will require a different approach? My concept has martial arts within it – so it’s a combination of horror and action – anyone have guidance for me as I start to put pen to paper? (so to speak)

  12. I just attended a seminar by Hal Croasmun called
    SELLING TO HOLLYWOOD and man this guy is right on
    the money based on my experience with screenplays

    Is anyone still around?

  13. I would like to help anyone that is really good get work

    I’m an idea guy and a CPA (business promoter)and a screenwriter
    adn I know alot about getting financing for deals and how to get
    your screenplay noticed and made


  14. A huge thank you to Signe, Michaelbrent, Bad, Matt, and Penn for taking time out today to provide us with a hugely informative Roundtable.

    The Roundtable is now unlocked so anyone can comment or post questions, and our guests will drop in from time to time during the week to provide feedback.

    Sorry for the slight technical problem in unlocking this Roundtable before now.

  15. My advice: if anyone should have failed in this business, it should’ve been me! I quit school at 15. I’m a terrible employee. I had more imagination than discipline. I love crazy shit. Somehow the magic of moviemaking and stories cast a spell over me that has kept me going despite thousands of rejections. Honestly, if I can do it – then REALLY smart people like you guys should be to do it. Good hunting.

    – Pen

  16. Double-plus amen to what Signe says above. I put in two years of therapy partly because I didn’t follow that advice.

  17. And remember: the forum is open throughout the week, and we’ll be checking in periodically to answer questions and make further comments. Also, if there are any folks out there who want to contact me directly after the week’s over, you can do so via my website at michaelbrentcollings.com.

  18. Produce something yourself. I don’t necessarily mean a feature, but shoot a couple of short films. Once you learn what it takes to make a film, even a short film, you’ll be more mindful of why that giant rooftop motorcycle chase in your script might need to be cut.

  19. My biggest advice would be to make sure you are living a life. Don’t work so hard all the time so that you miss it. In my opinion, the best writing I read comes from people who are living lives, and having experiences.

  20. A couple of things that I would like to say: if you don’t LOVE screenplays, don’t write them. If you go to imsdb.com and are pissed off because they haven’t updated it with any new scripts, and you’ve already read all the hundreds of scripts archived on the site, you may be in the right business. If you go to Drew’s Script-o-rama for fun on your lunch break, you may be in the right place. If you actually buy the script of your favorite movie because you’re curious how they differ, you may be in the right place. It’s like writing a novel: if you’re in it for the money, chances are you’re in for a disappointing ride. It’s a labor of love. I enjoy scripts. I think they’re a hoot to read, a hoot to write, and I love seeing them come alive on the screen. Even when the end product sucks, there’s a kind of magic to it.

    But magic, as any good fairy tale will tell you (because we all know fairy tales are just horror stories for kids), magic always has a price. And screenplays cost. They are hard to write, hard to learn the forms for them, hard to learn how to craft them and then peddle them. Hard to build it up to its perfect length, and then break it down and be able to tell it compellingly in a two minute “pitch” that has all the enthusiasm of the story and yet leaves some surprises for a later read. There are so many ways to trip up, so many ways to strike out.

    But it’s fun. It’s magic.

  21. Thanks, Michael. I would really like to advocate people taking a minute or two to review the link to my two articles on writing screenplays and selling them. They are from the heart and the best I can do to give encouragement and logic to the process. They are free and probably take a total of 8 minutes to read, and I would love them shared with people. I believe what goes around comes around.

    Pen’s 10 Secrets to Writing Success!

    Pen Densham’s 10 Secrets to Selling Your Screenwriting… And Not Your Soul!

  22. And if I were to give any words of advice, I would encourage your writers to look at the resources in their own lives. What ingredients do they have that they could weave into a story, and produce a great script with. Do they know someone who has a convertible, or vintage car? Or a cabin in the woods? Or a friend with a coffee shop, or some other funky, cool, awesome location that would be a great setting for a film. What story could you tell with that in mind? Now, go write it. And then contact me.

  23. I want to re-emphasize the idea of cultivating a strong memory and knowing people’s credits. One of my major connections in the business is a man I met while working the cash register at a Barnes & Noble bookstore. I recognized the name on his credit card, struck up a conversation with him, and now we’re friends. He’s even got a blurb in Dan’s book. Just because I connected a name to a body of work.

  24. Okay, so the instant gratification part of this roundtable is going to wrap up in a few minutes. Any last words of advice? Any thoughts on how to break in? Any words of warning? Anyone want to share their success story? Any cool recipes for snickerdoodles? I’m just spitballing here.

  25. Re: Script Competitions. There are some that make me suspicious that they are set up to pocket hopeful screenwriters’ funds. But I can genuinely advocate Final Draft’s script contest and the Austin Film Festival script contest. I consult with the winners of both as an advocate to help them. The judging seems truly honest and the winners are selected from as many as 5,000 entries, which shows you the odds. I feel part of my commitment to the creative community is trying to help others break through and spend a large amount of my free time trying to be the non-partison guide that I was searching for when I was starting out. This is a crazy business but if it’s your business you deserve to be encouraged.

  26. The Worldfest-Houston International Film and Video Festival also has a screenplay competition that can do you some good. It was through a referral from one of their judges that I got my agent.

  27. One manager who I am completely impressed with is Kailey Marsh. The lady responsible for The Blood List – an innovation that puts horror writers on the map. She is a young force of nature. She loves horror like you wouldn’t believe and champions her clutch of writers like a momma lion. You can tell her that Pen said these things! She does stand out and is worth trying to see if you can win her heart with your work.

  28. Another way to get noticed is to enter contests. There are a LOT of them out there, and many of them aren’t worth the time or effort (or entry fee), but some are pretty good. The best one, and most prestigious, is the Nicholl Fellowship. It’s also quite inexpensive to enter, and if you make it to quarter- or semi-finals or above, you are almost guaranteed to get some industry attention. Others that are good (IMO) are Scriptapalooza, the AAA Screenwriting Competition, and the PAGE International Competition.

  29. Matt is right. No professional producer or manager should ever charge to read your work. It’s their business to find material.

  30. Matt – Another phenomenal one is THE ECLIPSE, written by Connor McPherson and starring Ciaran Hinds.

  31. A few years ago, I was asked to write a treatment for a production company for a graphic novel they were hoping to develop as a screenplay…but “of course”, they couldn’t pay me a dime for my work. I passed on the assignment, and as I drove home, every three blocks I passed a billboard for the film that production company was releasing in three weeks’ time. And I just remember thinking, “Wow. How the hell’d they pay for those billboards?”

  32. Good advice in general: be careful who you get into bed with. Be ESPECIALLY careful whenever being asked to sign something. Lawyers can sometimes be helpful, even though they are also demons from hell (I used to be one). But seriously, there are a lot of people out there who are looking to “get the best deal possible” – i.e., bend you over and wait for you to drop the soap. You have to approach everyone with a smile, but you don’t have to believe everything you hear, or just sign some contract out of sheer gratitude that someone wants to rep you or buy your work. You’re a writer, so presumably you can read, too. Behooves us to do so.

  33. For a brilliant recent “horror” film that’s really about something else entirely, check out Lucky McKee’s THE WOMAN.

  34. I don’t have an agent or manager either. What I do have are connections. I work really hard to meet everyone I can. You never know who you are going to meet who can change your career. I recommend using every tool out there. Get on the email list for your local film organizations and join their membership. Sign up for online groups. Join a writing group. Use social media, and actively tweet / follow others. Go to conferences and awards (like the Bram Stoker Awards coming up!) and meet everyone possible. Engaging with others with enrich your life and develop your career.

  35. Pen – That’s always been one of the things I enjoy the most horror. It’s a very strong, primal way to deal with topics that, if dealt with straight (as a “drama” or what have you) might not have the same emotional impact. How powerful is THE SHINING, for instance? King has since said he was writing about his alcoholism at that time and didn’t even realize it.

  36. Managers are more amenable to new writers than agents are. If you’re good on the phones, get an IMDbPro.com account, get on the phones and start calling reps for folks whose work you admire. That is, of course, if you have rock-solid ready-to-shoot samples.

    And BE CAREFUL. Managers are not beholden to the same professional and legal strictures as agents, so there is much more possibility of fly-by-nights who don’t know what they’re doing and who may be a flat-out scam artist. And if any manager tries to charge you a reading fee to review your material, DON’T.

  37. JUST A QUICK NOTE – the roundtable is now open to questions/comments from the general public. So jump on in, the water’s fine. (If you hear the JAWS theme while reading that last bit, you’re in the right place.)

  38. The other wonderful thing about horror which Rod Serling used in The Twilight Zone is it can be thoroughly subversive, politically cynical, or highly anti-establishment. One of the joys of being able to revive The Twilight Zone for a brief period, was unleashing our writers to quietly kick some butt while the TV executives weren’t looking.

  39. And remember, we’re speaking at a moment when one of the number-one films in the country is a horror romcom.

  40. I think Signe makes a great point about agents versus managers. What advice would anyone give on finding a manager?

  41. Horror gets a bad rap by mainstream audiences. To me, the best horror is just a drama – with scary elements.

  42. Horror melds with other genres really well. There are great horror sci-fi films, horror action, horror comedy, you name it. The genre’s versatility is one of it’s strengths, methinks.

  43. It’s interesting that Dan’s film ALIEN shows up on many lists as both one of the all-time greatest science fiction films and one of the best horror films, and it never looks out of place on either of them.

  44. Spielberg is a master at making horror movies, but never uses the word ‘horror’ for Jaws, Jurassic Park, Poltergeist etc. He’s a savvy merchandiser.

  45. Right, Signe. An agent is for brokering deals. I don’t have a manager, so all the legwork of finding the people my agent contacts about assignments, submissions, etc. is all done by me. I basically am self-managing.

  46. True. One thing I find is that most people who say “I don’t like horror movies” really mean they don’t like SLASHER movies, which are just one subgenre within the larger horror form. A lot of those same folks dig the old classic Universal horrors, or a ghost story like THE HAUNTING, or a good ol’-fashioned devil movie like ROSEMARY’S BABY or THE EXORCIST.

  47. How to get an agent. Geesh. It’s such a giant question, and the one that every writer thinks they need. The truth is, most writers need a manager, not an agent. An agent negotiates deals and finding writing assignments for you. A manager helps to setup your script. They help with attaching talent, financing, production partners, etc. A manager is also someone who generally works more ‘hands on’ with a writer to help them move the script through the development process.

  48. Opening another topic: the great thing about horror, science fiction and the supernatural is they are vast playgrounds for the imagination. The creative brakes are off. Human nature is designed to be fascinated by our survival and safety and teenagers are constantly going to go to movies where they can hug their girls and guys during the scary bits. Writing horror scripts is one of the greatest creative freedoms of the movies.

  49. It’s an ebb and flow, like always. Indie cinema exploded in the ’90s, went away for a while, and seems to be in the midst of another flush period.

  50. Signe – Oh, I didn’t say it’s the worst time. Just that, to me, it’s the worst part of screenwriting and the film industry as a whole right now. All of my favorite films, from Rocky to Taxi Driver to Shawshank Redemption, fell in this range (or their time period’s equivalent of this range). I just think it’s a shame that this venue seems to be drying up.

    I’m hopeful for the indie scene. I think we’re a couple of years off from a nice explosion of the scene as a whole. The only drawback I see is that there is so much material out there right now it’s difficult to find the gems hidden in the midst of the rest of it. It’s the same thing in publishing. Self-publishing gets rid of the vetting system and it’s hard to find those ten great novels you would love that were self-published in the thousands of self-published titles that, well, had no other recourse than self-publishing.

  51. LOVE the assistants. Assistants a) are amazing, b) are often the nicest people in the office, and c) have a strange tendency to turn into executives.

  52. I won’t even contact a company if I don’t have an actual name to use. If you’re sending a message “To Whom It May Concern”, guess what? It will concern NO ONE.

  53. I’m biased, of course, and would tell people to go to the Great American PitchFest (I’m the founder – your writers can check it out at http://www.pitchfest.com if they want). But really, go wherever you want to make your movie, and meet everyone you can. Get plugged in, and start building a team to help you get your script made. Find a producer, a DP, and an editor. Together, use your collective resources and keep asking questions such as ‘where can we get talent’, ‘where could we get this location’, ‘where could we get a tax credit to help with financing’, etc, etc, and with each answered question, you will move yourself and your script closer towards production.

  54. I only respond to queries that show they have a personal knowledge of my career and interests. I guess that a ‘Dear Sir’ has been seen by hundreds of people and if it was any good it would have sold.

  55. Excellent point, Pen. Assistants are the gatekeepers of the Emerald City in Hollywood, and when I talk to them, butter wouldn’t melt in my mouth.

  56. I think that the best advice I have is OPEN YOUR MOUTH. Talk about your script to everyone. Give it to people who have connections to people who have connections to people who have connections. I had a very fun conversation with Jean Claude Van Damme once after he read and loved one of my scripts. And it didn’t happen because I gave him my script, but because I gave the script to a gal who happened to tutor his kids. She read it, loved it, took it to work with her. JCVD’s wife saw the script, snatched it out of the tutor’s pile of books, passed it on to her husband… etc. etc. Same with a movie I have coming out this year called DARKROOM. I have yet to meet any of the people who made it. But they were given the script by a producer I worked with on another project, and called me about the rights. You have to talk about yourself – not arrogantly, not snobbishly – but with enthusiasm and excitement. Rev people up everywhere and all the time.

  57. Trying to synthesize the selling process – first write something you are totally passionate about. If you are only chasing what you think others may buy, you’ll find yourself giving up quickly. Second, reality check your work with people you trust. Not downers, but empathetic artistic readers. Then write personal notes incorporating your knowledge of your buyers – be they actors, directors, producers – explaining your appreciation of their work and suggesting that your material might challenge their creative energy. And befriend the assistants of all the people you deal with in an authentic way because they can give you more advice and have more knowledge about the system frequently than their bosses will.

  58. To be fair, though, I’m with a “low level” rep, a boutique, and you’d be shocked at the folks who actually do return his calls.

  59. Matt – I don’t either. That’s killing me now. My goal this year is solid representation. But without a referral, you’re kind of stuck with the low level folks who probably don’t get their calls returned.

  60. Brad, I don’t think it’s the ‘worst time’ to be a screenwriter. I think it’s a ‘different time’. And in two years, it will be completely different again.

    Right now, it feels like the studio system is nearly impossible to break into for most new writers. But if the studio system is the major leagues, then the indie system is the minors. Where do the majors recruit from? They look to the minors. And every so often, a young rookie gets a break, or has a hit that rocks the studios.

    The trick is looking at each story you write as being a stepping stone. Understand that the first one might be an indie film, shot for very little, and there will be a ton learned on it by all involved. The next might be another indie sitution, but your reputation and experience will grow, as well as the connections you make through each process. It also depends on what you want, and how much control you need.

  61. Right. And actors are natural born hustlers. At least the ones I know are. Where they go, the action follows.

  62. Michaelbrent – When you find out, let me know!

    I’ve lucked out in just being at the right party (usually as a tag along to someone else) or meeting someone as a friend of a friend. I guess my biggest advice would be to become friends with actors. They’re always hustling to meet people and get work. Let them read your stuff and, if it stands on it’s own, they’ll pitch it for you to their connections. After all, if you sell a great script to a connection of theirs chances are good there will be a good part in it for them.

    Pen – I’m checking that out right now!

  63. Every panel I’m on, we get asked how you get an agent. Do any of you guys know someone whose representation wasn’t the result of a referral? I don’t.

  64. Facebook has honestly been an invaluable tool for me in networking, getting the work out there and connecting. Honestly, it also just helps to have a good memory. LA is a surprisingly small town, and I’ve struck up friendships with people just because I was introduced to them and was able to rattle off a list of their credits (thank you, IMDbPro!).

  65. I know there’s no “magic wand” answer, but so many people ask this, it might be illuminating to discuss it a bit.

  66. The 2 questions I get asked most frequently when I go to script conferences are: 1) How do you write a script that sells and 2) How do you sell a script you’ve written? An effort to distill answers to those questions, I wrote ’10 Secrets to Writing Your Screenplay’ and ’10 Secrets to Selling Your Screenplay (And Not Your Soul)’ which are liked to here: ridingthealligator.com

  67. I’ve been to a lot of horror events lately because of Dan’s book, and I don’t have to tell any of you that horror fans are some of the best in the world.

  68. So where do you go to MEET the people you need to meet? Assuming you’ve written the script, you have the skills. What then? You get in your car and where do you go? Or where do you look on the internet?

  69. Brad: I write a lot of action and crime-thriller scripts, and that market is in a very strange place right now. Most of the mid-budget films are DTV, and when one does hit the big screen, the results at the box office are usually discouraging (witness the recent one-two bombs of Messrs. Schwarzenegger and Stallone).

  70. Horror fans do tend to be more rabid and hungrier than the fans of other genres. Even sci-fi and fantasy tend be fans of very specific properties. Horror fans, we just like to be skeered.

  71. Also, horror is great because of the awesome fans. How many Romantic Comedy conventions have you been to lately? No one celebrates film like the horror fans.

  72. That’s because in horror, the genre is usually the star. The genre has its big names, to be sure, on both sides of the camera, but there are some fans out there who’ll see a horror movie just because it’s a horror movie.

  73. Michaelbrent – I think this ties into the worst part of screenwriting right now. The 10 to 20 million dollar studio movie has virtually vanished. Every thing is either $300 million or an ultra-low budget trying to mimic the success of Paranormal Activity. It’s really limited the market as far as work goes. It’s hard to break in at a decent level because those movies aren’t getting made regularly right now.

  74. Michaelbrent: Which is why all the remakes and “reboots” and comic book and toy movies and the like. Because in that case, you don’t even need the 30 seconds. You just say, “Oh, we’re doing a Transformers movie”, and that’s all you need to do. I think the most brilliant film title of the last ten years is KUNG FU PANDA, because THE TITLE IS THE PITCH.

  75. And you can do it from anywhere in the world – even right where you live now. You don’t have to live in LA (unless you work in tv).

  76. YES, Matt! And horror tends to be cheaper AND it never (really) goes out of style. Ebbs and flows a bit, but it’s always there. Huzzah for us!

  77. The great thing is that the internet has made the world even smaller, and more connected. Indies can do the same thing that Hollywood can. An indie producer can find webisodes, or books, etc, the same way a studio can. They can option them, produce them for less, and distribute them directly to the fans without having to go through the studio system any longer. It means a lot more work for today’s producer, but it also means the industry is more in control of the filmmakers than it has ever been before.

  78. One advantage that horror filmmakers and writers have is that so many of these films are independently produced. They’re working outside the system, and so they can feel free to take real creative risks…for an audience, it must be said, that are frequently more accepting of innovation than the mainstream filmgoing crowd.

  79. That brings up a good point, Pen: when you’re talking about a studio film, you’re talking about $100 million, plus another $100 million for advertising. So the studios will hedge their bets any way they can: established actors, great “high” concepts, and things that already have built-in audiences. So a lot of new writers try to sell their great idea that is about [insert twenty minute description] and don’t realize that the studio wants something – NEEDS something – they can sell with a 30 second commercial and a cool tagline on an eye-catching one-sheet. A lot of subtlety gets lost when you’re dealing with that much money, because you have to play to the lowest common denominator, at least when you’re selling the project.

  80. That’s the thing people forget when they complain about Hollywood. It’s a business, first and foremost. The trick is how to meld those business sensibilities with creative sensibilities. That’s when you get a great movie that’s also a massive hit.

  81. The 2 questions I get asked most frequently when I go to script conferences are: 1) How do you write a script that sells and 2) How do you sell a script you’ve written? An effort to distill answers to those questions, I wrote ’10 Secrets to Writing Your Screenplay’ and ’10 Secrets to Selling Your Screenplay (And Not Your Soul)’ which are liked to here: http://www.ridingthealligator.com

  82. No mistake, it can be great if someone can take previously existing material and give it a new spin. That’s why I think Pen’s version of ROBIN HOOD scored: because, to use a cliche, it wasn’t your father’s take on the hero of Sherwood. Conversely, Ridley Scott’s ROBIN HOOD was a disappointment largely, I think, because people felt like they’d seen it before.

  83. Hollywood (and by that, I mean ‘studios’) want to minimize their risk. If they can only produce things that they know there is a following for, then they reduce the risk involved. Having a book that has a fanbase, or a webisode series, or graphic novel, etc, allows the studios to produce work that they know there is a built in audience for.

  84. Many of the studios are now being run by businessmen rather than artistic or creative personalities. Branding is something they understand more than they understand originality, so rather than figure out how to conceive an original concept, bring it to fruition, and educate the public on how it works to entertain them, it’s easier to say, “Hey, people have heard of the Smurfs. That might work.”

    Every now and then a really original big-budgeter sneaks in, but it usually has already established talent behind it (like INCEPTION).

  85. The studios and independents are always looking for that which seems to be the easiest to get their money back on. IPs are a convention they use when they have no courage, so I have always suggested that when people pitch their material they describe it in previous terms of successes. I used Batman and their slogan “The Dark Knight” to frame our Robin Hood with Warner Bros. – a success they’d already experienced, and that gave them a path to follow.

  86. Michaelbrent – I think you’re spot on. It’s a cliche, but it’s true. Hollywood is about who you know. Which is unfortunate for writers, because we tend to be introverts more comfortable with reading and writing than party going. You have to make yourself get out there and meet people.

  87. There are a lot of complaints about this – the “lack of creativity in Hollywood.” Anyone want to explain WHY Hollywood seems to love adaptations and sequels and established properties?

  88. If I may be permitted a vulgarism, I once told someone back home that virtually everyone in Hollywood who had done something worthwhile got to do it because they either knew someone or they blew someone. Which is just a dirty way of agreeing with Michaelbrent’s statement about who you know. The most important thing I learned when I got to Los Angeles, in terms of my career, was how to build and maintain connections.

  89. Good points, Signe. I’ve heard this a few times lately. You can see it pan out in what’s getting made now, too. It seems that 70 or 80 percent of movies coming out this year are based on novels or comic books. And I’m not even talking about the obvious superhero movie trend. There are a lot of comic books like “Ghost World” or “Red” that were adapted as films that most people would never realize started off as a comic.

  90. “Pre-sale value”. It’s a term people have to get used to. My friend and fellow writer Brandon Easton (THUNDERCATS) had a great screenplay, a sci-fi action thriller, that got passed on for exactly that reason from several companies. He has since published it at as a graphic novel. I don’t know if he’s gone back out with the script, but it would be interesting to see what the response would be.

  91. BUT

    If you can write something with a low to modest budget in mind, with a limited number of characters, locations, special effects, etc, you have a better chance of having it produced in the independent system.

    The studio system only produces a couple hundred movies a year. Indies produce thousands. The biggest differences are the budgets, and the distribution.

  92. What about meeting people? Is the web of contacts you develop more or less important in film than it is in publishing? For my money, film is much more about who you know than publishing is. Both rely on talent, for sure, but you are much more likely to get a good gig if you’re going to lots of meetings in Hollywood, going to the right parties, etc.

  93. To transition to a screenwriter, I think many HWA members actually have a headstart. Writing a book, developing a following for that book, and then developing it as a screenplay gives your work a better chance – at least with the studio system. In fact, many screenwriters are now ‘backwards engineering’ their careers to adapt their screenplays into books. This is because the studios are producing less and less original screenplays. Almost everything is based on an existing IP already, that has a demonstrated audience demand. It’s less risky for them.

  94. One thing I’ve learned from the scripts I’ve written versus ones written for the studio – the scripts I’ve let my creative engeries be free on, usually thinking I was wasting time instead of writing something commercial, those scripts got made more often to my surprise, I think, because the voice of the material comes from a deeper and more subconscious place that it seems fresh and different to the actors one needs to sign on to get your movies made. I believe actors want creative challenges to show off their skills. Our latest movie PHANTOM written by Todd Robinson, is a case in point. Ed Harris signed on because he loved the writing.

  95. Well, I’m still in the process of making it in film (have optioned several scripts and one on the hook right now, with to date one multi-part web series and one short produced). I actually am doing things somewhat in reverse, as it was my screenwriting experience that got me hooked up with Dan O’Bannon and got the book happening. I am currently in the process of novelizing my latest screenplay, which I may be e-publishing on my own.

    One difference I do find is that publishing companies are much more willing to do business with unrepresented writers than film production houses are. I’ve had lengthy and detailed interactions with editors and publishers who will deal directly with me, even though I have no book agent. To contrast that, my screenplay agent still occasionally gets told by producers he calls that they don’t accept unsolicited material. These are the times when I’m sad I’m not there to pull out the overhead projector and show off my PowerPoint presentation on the meaning of the word “solicitation”.

  96. I wrote scripts before tackling short stories or novels. I mean, I wrote short stories as a kid, but as far as seriously tackling prose, screenplays came first. It was helpful, I think, as it helped me learn structure, pacing, and strengthened my dialogue.

    From a business standpoint, though, I think the primary difference is that publishing makes more sense. I write something, I find someone who publishes similar material, I follow their submission guidelines and send it in. It gets rejected and I start the process over again. The film industry has always been bizarre to me. There’s no clear path on how to get in, how to sell a script, how to even get someone to read it. What projects I have worked on have ended up being a result of meeting someone at a party or finding out that a friend of a friend needs a rewrite. I’m still confused on what to do with most of the original scripts I have, lol!

  97. I think the only time you may want to write a character with a certain actor in mind is:

    1. If it helps you hear to visualize that actor and capture their voice.

    2. If you can plant certain things that you know have personal appeal to the actor you want attached (ie Adam Sandler sings in all his movies. John Travolta is a pilot, etc.)

  98. Question for all, one that I suspect a lot of the HWA members are interested in: how do you make the jump from books/short stories to scripts? What’s different/the same about making it in film as opposed to publishing?

  99. As a director, working for myself, I put in everything that I need to remember and the crew needs to know so the movie can be budgeted accurately and I can plan ahead. Shooting a film is always an experiment, and the more clarity and planning you can apply to it, the less chance of going wrong. I storyboard, I rehearse when possible. And each layer is like writing, as one incorporates more from your partners in the process.

  100. Actors and actresses want to play juicy roles with fascinating characters they can get their teeth into. Characters who evolve over the course of the story. Creating those characters is how you get great talent attached.

  101. Most editors I know think of it as writing. This was one of the driving motives behind the reality TV crews taking place in the WGA strike a few years back. They were writing plotlines from hundreds of hours of footage, sometimes creating stories wholecloth.

  102. Matt – I don’t know about the rest of the folks, but I rarely tailor to actors. Now if I were writing specifically FOR someone – meaning Tom Cruise had paid me to rewrite his next movie – then fine. I’m a huge whore and I’ll do what has to be done. But when writing on spec I’m thinking along the lines of characters that intrigue me, and stories that I think will interest, scare, whatever. Actors aren’t real, for me. Or at least not as real as the voices in my head.

  103. Matt – I’ve done both. I just got hired onto a project that has very specific casting they’d like to meet. So the writing is interesting as, while creating unique character voices, I’m also trying to match these voices up with the cadence and rhythm and whatnot that I know these actors speak with. But, for the most part, I just think of a “type.”

  104. I always loved editing when I studied it in film school, and I eventually figured out that the reason for that was that it was indeed the most like writing. It’s storytelling in another form.

  105. it’s very illuminating looking at scripts that the writer knows they’ll be directing. Have any of you ever had an opportunity to read one of Woody Allen’s screenplays. It is SKELETAL. He seems to really generate most of what he’s planning to do in his mind rather than on the page, and then leaves the rest to his crew.

  106. That’s a good point about the number of people who are involved with bringing a script to the screen. Your work as a writer continues, right up until the locked edit. In fact, editing is probably the job on a film that most closely mirrors the writing. You rewrite the movie when you edit. It can be a very different film from what appears on the page, and from what is shot.

  107. My attitude to the business is – it is capricious and sometimes unfair. But we have to create what we envision despite that. I have had both wonderful and disappointing experiences seeing what I’ve written come to the screen, but so many scripts don’t get made, that – even to be the inspiration for one that does – still has to be valued. Then, of course, you get to the point where you can direct your own, and discover another set of fascinating challenges.

  108. Speaking of seeing your characters…when writing on spec, do any of you tailor a character to a particular actor, or do you write more to a type that various actors might be able to fill?

  109. Hey everyone! Glad to be here.

    Jumping in to Michael’s question:

    If you’re a movie buff, then the reward of hearing your lines come from an actor’s mouth, of seeing that beautifully constructed scene you wrote unfolding, are rewards enough. The hurdles of getting that to play out can be massive, of course. There are so many pieces to a movie that, even if it DOES make it to production, chances are things won’t play out as they did on the page. But that’s part of the magic, too. Film is collaborative. I’m a novelist as well and, the differences in the art and craft aside, the primary reason I write a novel is because then the story is mine. The characters are mine. I don’t have to take anyone else’s input.

    With a script, you take notes and suggestions and make changes based on what the director wants, the producers, the actors, etc. And even after that, after the script is complete and shooting has started, changes will be made on set, interpretations will nudge things in a different direction, what have you. This can, obviously, ruin a good script. But it’s also the same process that makes a brilliant movie. Every one brings their strengths to the table to contribute to the finished project. To see that process not only work but to have it build upon a foundation you created with a script… Well, that’s movie magic, isn’t it?

    There’s also obviously the monetary rewards. Even though there is less money in the movie biz than there was even ten years ago, the paydays (when they come) are still larger than for prose work for the bulk of us.

  110. I do remember hearing a Q&A years ago with Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, and they said their experience on ED WOOD was as close as they’ve ever come to having exactly what they wrote on the screen. I’ve read their original script, and I think with the exception of one scene that was cut, the film is pretty much their script. Of course, this is definitely the exception rather than the rule.

  111. Books can be more ‘internal’. Screenplays must be ‘external’. We need to see our characters actions with screenplays, where with books, you can spend time writing about their feelings, backstories, etc.

  112. Matt – yes, there’s more to it than pooping out a couple dozen pages and waiting for a producer to come along with his magic pooper scooper and turn it into a big payday. I spend as much time planning scripts as I do planning novels.

  113. You also make a good point, Michaelbrent, about people underestimating the sheer amount of work good screenwriting takes. It’s one of the few styles of writing people seem to think is inherently easy, which is why virtually everyone on a film set seems to think they can do it.

  114. Pen – that’s something that is both good AND bad, I think. I mean, great that it’s an ongoing process. But I don’t know any screenwriter who’s ever had a movie made of his/her script, who saw it in the theater and said, “That’s just the way I imagined it.” There are so many fingers in the pie: the director, the producers, the cinematographers, the editors, the craft services people, the list goes on and on. Very collaborative, which is way different than writing a novel. I remember screening a movie I wrote and thinking… “Where did my script go?”

  115. Matt – please send my warmest to Diane. I enjoyed meeting her recently and I think the book is an asset to our business. Well done for realizing it.

  116. Good question, Michaelbrent.

    Screenwriting is about action, and a character pursuing a specific, tangible goal. Books can go on for hundreds of pages, describing how a character feels, what they eat for breakfast, etc. In a screenplay, you have 85-110 pages to tell your story.

  117. To add to Pen’s point…you don’t even need to put on pieces that are only original to that script. My latest screenplay has a line in it that originally appeared in a scene I cut out of a script I wrote back in college.

  118. To address Michaelbrent’s comments…

    One of the most difficult things about being a screenwriter is the constant “I don’t have time for that” feeling that often accompanies the work. Sometimes, you have details and digressions, character insights and internal struggles, that you’d just LOVE to share…but you’ve got 110 pages, and you just don’t have time. It’s a luxury that I do envy novelists (and I’m getting to enjoy a little of it now, as I’m currently novelizing my latest screenplay).

    At the same time, you learn how to convey so much with so little, a skill that can take your writing a long way if you know what you’re doing. In one of my scripts, two important supporting players get shot in the head 3/4 of the way through the script. The amount of space it took me to cover this pivotal event? Four words.

  119. The thing I like about screenwriting is it’s like creating Frankensteins — you can keep putting pieces on and taking them off all throughout the process until it goes to the movie theater.

  120. Welcome to the roundtable on screenwriting. The Powers That Be have asked that I start things off, so here goes….

    First thing I’d like to point out is that something a lot of writers seem to know applies to everyone… except for them. And that is that screenwriting is DIFFERENT from any other method of telling a story. It’s different from novels, from short stories, from poetry. You don’t have the luxury of working on a tone for twenty pages: if you haven’t hooked the first reader (often a college intern at a production company whose idea of heavy reading involves his iPod music playlist) by page five, you’re dead. You can’t rely on beautiful language: it’s not about the sound of your words, it’s solely about the image and action they convey. And you don’t have infinite space: in screenwriting, every page is a minute of screen time, equating to thousands or even millions of dollars.

    These are just some of the differences. There are also formatting differences, different ways in structuring the story, different ways to place ideas in the “viewer’s” mind.

    I write novels as well as screenplays, so I shuffle back and forth between both worlds, but they ARE different worlds. When I am contacted by an author who wants me to consult on a script he or she has written, often that author is shocked at the amount of work it takes to “bang out” a hundred or so sparsely-written pages. And more shocked at the fact that just because you’re an amazing novelist, or short story teller, or haiku-ist (is that even a word), that doesn’t automatically mean you’re a good screenwriter. Different skills.

    I liken writing a novel to open heart surgery. One mistake, one wrong move, and your work is over and done with. DOA.

    Screenwriting, then, is like laser surgery. Everything is smaller, tighter, more compact. And the body can still end up just as dead if you so much as twitch in the wrong direction.

    Now I don’t want to scare anyone off screenwriting. I LOVE it. I love reading scripts, writing, them, watching movies. I love everything about the process. But I also respect it, and I think if you DON’T respect the process, and the work that goes into learning the craft, you’re not only going to have a hard time “making it,” you’re also going to irritate a lot of people along the way.

    That being said, there are a lot of rewards in screenwriting. And I guess that’s where I’d like to open this up first to our esteemed group here. What are the rewards – and challenges – inherent in attempting to work on screenwriting and work AS a screenwriter?

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