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Do You Really Want to be a Screenwriter? by Michael Hauge

June 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles, Featured

This article posted with permission from The Writers Store. (http://writersstore.com)

Almost every writer and every serious film fan at one time or another has at least considered writing a screenplay. Lured by the power of the big (or small) screen, and by stories of all the fame, success, awards and big, big money that other screenwriters have achieved, they get seduced by the fantasy of Hollywood.

Now no doubt some of you reading these words have already achieved a career in the industry. But my guess is that most of you are still at the ‘breaking in’ stage and are wondering if writing for movies or television is a silly pipe dream—or is truly worth considering. I’d like to help you answer that question by discussing some of the realities of the movie and television business and offering both the right and the wrong motives for pursuing Hollywood.

Do You Have What It Takes To Be A Screenwriter?

I’ve been teaching screenwriting classes and seminars for more than fifteen years, and I’ve worked with thousands of movie and television writers at various stages of their careers. But, whenever I’m with a group of would-be filmmakers hoping to launch their careers, I encounter two different myths about the Hollywood obstacle course that both lead to disappointment.

The first misconception is that Hollywood is an easy path to fame and fortune. Perhaps a writer watches some brainless TV show and concludes that anybody with the I.Q. of corn could write drivel like that. Then she reads about how Joe Esterhasz sold a spec script for slightly more than the gross national product of Portugal, while she’s wondering how long she can get by on her $25 check from ‘Big Rig Monthly’ for her article on mud flaps. And then some polite, but chicken-hearted, publisher tries to let her down easy by saying that her 873-page manuscript about the Millard Fillmore White House years would be much better as a movie. So before you know it, she’s typing ‘FADE IN.’

She has fallen victim to the erroneous belief that writing a movie is no harder than watching one. She thinks that everybody who sells a script will be a millionaire and that because movies and TV shows are plentiful, relatively short and frequently mediocre, there really are no rules, standards or professional skills to worry about. In other words, that screenwriting is easy.

Not True.

The other, more destructive, myth about screenwriting is just the opposite: a writer hears about the thousands of unproduced, unsold, unoptioned, unread and unopened screenplays floating around Hollywood and decides that his dream is absurd. Friends, loved ones and failed screenwriters will be happy to reinforce this belief with loads of anecdotes and statistics: everybody in Los Angeles is working on a script; it’s not what you know, it’s who you know; every writer in Hollywood gets ripped off; you have to live in Southern California; you have to be a young white male; and even if you could break in, writing movies is obviously a ridiculous, pointless, demeaning and hopeless pursuit for any serious writer to consider. In other words, screenwriting is impossible.

Not True Either.

The first myth described above ignores the years of pain, struggle and failure that precedes (and sometimes precludes) success for most working screenwriters. But, the second myth ignores the fact that about a hundred and fifty feature films, plus more than fifty TV movies and seventy weekly series are produced each year by the major studios and networks. And, for every film produced, an average of at least five scripts are developed and paid for. And these figures don’t include non-primetime and cable television or the numerous markets for independent, educational, industrial, religious and adult movies and TV. Somebody must be writing all those stories.

Screenwriting, like any other form of professional writing, is a specific, learnable craft that requires study, talent, training, practice and an immense level of commitment. It is at various times frustrating, exciting, fulfilling, exhausting, lucrative, unfair, depressing, ego- gratifying and fun. And, it has a clearly defined set of standards, rules, parameters and methods for achieving both artistic and commercial success.

So, to decide if you want to commit your life to this particular path, ignore both the fantasies of wealth and fame and the prophets of doom and, instead, ask yourself exactly why you want to write movies or television.

The Wrong Reasons to Want to Be a Screenwriter

Screenwriting is not a wise career path if you’re choosing it for any of these reasons:

1. The Money
Pursuing screenwriting because an occasional spec script sells for a million dollars is like studying hotel/motel management because Donald Trump has a big yacht. Starving screenwriters are no happier than starving poets, and if the big bucks are your only goal, by the time (if ever) you get there, the trip won’t have been worth it.

2. You Want to Weave Magic With Words
If your love of writing is based on the beauty, texture, breadth and majesty of the English language, you’ll be much happier as a poet, novelist or essayist. Screenwriting ‘style’ is much closer to that of ad copy, comic books and the sports pages than it is to great literature.

3. You Want the Respect that Comes with Being an Acclaimed Artist
Dream on. Once you sell your screenplay, it probably will be re-written by someone else (often several others) until it’s unrecognizable. You’re usually persona non grata while the movie is being shot, and neither the status nor the financial reward given the average screenwriter is anywhere close to proportionate to his or her contribution to the film. If you want real respect in Hollywood, become a maitre d’.

4. You Have a Strong Visual Sense
I’m not even sure what this means, but I hear it all the time, and, if anything, I think it’s detrimental to successful screenwriting. Sure you want to picture what is going on on the screen, but the important talent is the ability to turn action into words. If you think only in pictures and are very right-brained, pursuing a career in production design, cinematography or directing might make more sense.

5. You Want to Adapt Your Own Novel (or Play or Life Story)
This is hard to accept, I know, but trust me: if your novel or play wasn’t published or produced in its original form, it’s extremely unlikely it’s going to work as a movie. And, by now, you’re much too emotionally attached to your original story. You will never be objective enough about it to make the numerous changes necessary for it to become a commercial script.

The same holds true for your own life experiences (or those of your grandparents). Yes, your life has been thrilling, painful, passionate, moving and glorious for you. But, I’m afraid the mass audience really isn’t interested.

(It’s fine to draw on your own experiences, but only to provide an arena for a fictional story. And if you want to be both a novelist and screenwriter, choose separate stories that are best suited to each medium. Just don’t mix the two until someone offers you money to adapt your work into script form.)

6. You Want to Improve the Quality of Movies
If you don’t like the stuff that’s coming out of Hollywood nowadays, and you find yourself gravitating to foreign films and Fred Astaire festivals at the local Cineplex, or if you don’t see at least one current American movie a month, then screenwriting probably isn’t for you.

I don’t think you’ll ever be very happy pursuing a career in an industry you don’t like. And you won’t be able to change Hollywood. The most you can hope for is to write the best screenplays you can within the parameters of the system. Or else blaze your own trail outside the mainstream arena with low budget, independent films. But success there, which is even tougher to achieve, still requires a basic love for the movies.

The Right Reasons to Want to Be a Screenwriter

1. The Money
Yes, I know I just said that untold wealth is the wrong reason for pursuing screenwriting. But if money isn’t your only motive, and you know you want to write, then you can probably make more as a steadily working screenwriter than with any other form of writing. Just remember that it’s a package deal, and all of the other rules and obstacles are included.

2. You Get to Tell Stories
If creating unique, captivating characters and taking them over seemingly insurmountable obstacles to achieve visible, bigger-than-life goals is the kind of writing that thrills you, then you should consider movie writing.

3. You Love the Movies (and/or Television)
You not only love seeing them, you relish the challenge of staying within a rigid formula and creating a visual story that is original, thoughtful and emotionally captivating.

4. You’ll Reach a Huge Audience
More people saw last week’s episode of ‘The West Wing’ than have read ‘Gone With the Wind’. Makes you stop and think, doesn’t it?

5. You Love to Write
Screenwriting may not employ all the big words in the dictionary, but you still get to spend your day lost in the power of language.

In summary, if you’re wondering whether to begin (or continue) your pursuit of screenwriting, forget both the defeatist statistics and the dreams of glory and riches. And omit the word ‘easy’ from your vocabulary entirely; there is NO form of professional writing or filmmaking worth pursuing because it’s easy. Instead, ask yourself if your joy will come from within the process of sitting every day at your computer and creating a story for the big or small screen.

If the answer is truly ‘yes’ and your motives match those listed above, then close the door, fire up your computer and start writing.

MICHAEL HAUGE is a Hollywood script consultant, screenwriter and lecturer, and is the author of the award- winning book ‘Writing Screenplays That Sell’, now in its 23rd printing for HarperCollins.

If you’re interested in Michael’s script critique and consultation service, please call 1-800-477-1947 or email mhauge@juno.com.

© 2007 The Writers’ Computer Store®, LLC All Rights Reserved.

No Limitations: The Screenwriter as Writer

June 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles, Blog

One of the myths of the motion picture industry states that screenwriters only write for the big or small screen. Somehow writers become entrenched in this head-messing idea. “My screenplay didn’t sell”…”my agent hasn’t called”…”Oh, My God, what will I do?”…”Do I have to go back to (choose your option) ‘waiting tables’ ‘working construction’ ‘become an accountant’?”

Sheer, unadulterated nonsense.

Some of the most prolific film and television writers have gone on to create memorable theater and profound fiction. In a number of instances, playwrights and novelists have transitioned to film and television.

Larry Gelbart, one of the creative geniuses behind the long-running television series “MAS*H”, wrote the Broadway farce “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” and the Broadway musical “City of Angels”. Woody Allen began as a comedian and joke writer and continues creating films as well as writing short stories, books and plays. Pulitzer Prize winning playwright David Mamet went from stage to film, published novels and created series for television. Before he wrote screenplays, William Goldman published several novels and had plays produced on Broadway. Herman Wouk wrote gags for the Fred Allen radio show before he won renown as the writer of “The Caine Mutiny”, “Marjorie Morningstar” and “Winds of War” among others.

Of course the way a story is written depends on the medium. Motion pictures and television rely on the visual. It’s difficult to get inside someone’s head unless you’re into voice over narratives or Shakespearean soliloquies. The interior character has to be represented by exterior actions, reactions and dialogue.

Novels and short stories, on the other hand, can delve into the workings of the mind and the psyche painting pictures for the readers of the interiority of characters as well as the environment in which they exist. While you can rely on art directors to create the ambience of a motion picture, the author of a novel must be his or her own art director creating an environment that intrigues and draws in the reader.

Okay, it’s difficult to switch gears. But if you have written a damned good screenplay and can’t sell it, why not turn it into prose? Why limit yourself to one medium when you have a world of art and literature at your feet? The incredible desire to write one hell of a story for the screen indicates that it has within it the seeds of a great novel or play.

Consider how many films have been produced based on novels, especially Victorian and Edwardian novels. Why do they work and why are they so valued? Because most of them have intrinsic cinematic values. Read Austen, Dickens, the Brontës, Howard and the others. They evoke wonderful imagery, dramatic and humorous dialogue, intriguing characters, motivation, psychological insights, and most of all great structure.

That screenplay gathering dust on your shelf is gold. A story good enough for you to spend months developing has potential far beyond the large or small screen. Consider the upside: the author of a book doesn’t have to worry about some producer or director taking over the manuscript and manipulating it so that it has no resemblance to your intentions. Plays are the same. The ultimate authority when it comes to making edits belongs to the writer as his or her sole right.

What a difference from motion pictures and television where the ultimate copyright owner is not the writer, but the producer or the studio that buys it. There’s an axiom that after you sell a screenplay “they can paint it green” and almost every screen and television writer can tell tales where producers and/or directors changed the lead character’s gender or switched locations or flipped time periods

Of course selling your screenplay and seeing it produced is an emotional high. Everyone reading this wants to make the big killing. But take a look at reality (as difficult as that is).

If you do sell your screenplay chances are the contract may have a large dollar figure attached. Let’s assume you will be paid $250,000. I use this figure because it seems like a goodly sum of cash. Note that in the Writers Guild Schedule of Minimum payments the minimum payment for an original high-budget screenplay (anything with a budget exceeding five million) at this writing is $102,980. Let’s assume your agent does manage to get you an over scale payment. Most contracts are step deals. You’ll receive part of the payment up front, another payment when you deliver the rewrite, and the final payment when it goes to principal photography. The process may take three to four years before it comes to fruition. Assuming the final payment for your screenplay is $250,000, after four years you will have earned $62,500 a year less agent commissions, taxes, etc. Starting salaries for first year attorneys are about $125,000 a year. Therefore, writing for the screen or television is not going to make you rich unless, according to Writers Guild statistics, you happen to be in the one-tenth of the ten percent who earn a living at the craft.

The answer to all this, of course, is belief in yourself as a writer who has the potential for creating insightful stories. Those stories may become motion pictures or end up on one of the premium cable channels. If they don’t, there’s no reason to give up on them. Leap at the opportunity to adapt your screenplays for other media.

As a writer with a long career in television, I faced the very same dilemma. One of my screenplays was always received with a great deal of enthusiasm. So much so, that I received assignments based on it. Unfortunately, no one wanted to produce it. A friend recommended that I turn it into a novel for children. It was published by a mainstream publisher and has sold over one-third of a million copies. No one told me I had to change it. No one leaned over my shoulder staring at my computer to make sure I satisfied his or her idea of what the story should be.

Once I had that experience, I took another story and adapted it as a novel. It too was published and has sold well. A producer read it and optioned it and I wrote a new screenplay for which I was paid. I have done the same with two other screenplays and publishers have expressed interest in them.

Of course I’m still writing screenplays – as well as novels and plays all of which have been produced. I call myself a writer because I write. For screenwriting students it’s critical to keep writing – screenplays, journals, essays, short stories, novels, poetry all develop creativity and help germinate ideas that find their way onto paper. If you do that, you have the right to call yourself a writer – or perhaps an author.

The economical screenwriter

June 21, 2009 by  
Filed under Articles

Back when I used to run a touring theater company, there was only one rule regarding the amount of furniture and props for any given performance: If It Doesn’t Fit in the Car, It’s Not Going. (Fortunately, I was also penning all the plays the troupe performed so I had some control over the situation.)

This sense of economy carries over into my lectures and classes for aspiring screenwriters, reinforcing the philosophy that if no one is going to mention why there is a moosehead above the mantle, maybe that moosehead really doesn’t need to be there. Little did I know at the time that I was laying the groundwork for my eventual segue into writing for film…and the necessity to craft a good story that can succeed on the strength of its plot, not the weightiness of its budget.

A case in point was the adaptation of my Scottish time travel, The Spellbox, to a feature length script for an independent producer. Aside from the challenge of compressing 400+ pages to 120, there were scenes which I purposely omitted in deference to what it would ultimately cost to execute them (i.e., a banquet in which the Great Hall is set on fire). Anything which involves destruction of sets, utilization of stunt people, or more insurance is going to drive up the price tag of a movie.

The economical screenwriter articles

Video School

For writers who have yet to get their scripts over the transom and their foot in thedoor, such items can be a red flag to producers whose coffers are not quite Cameron-esque. While everyone hungers to write a cast-of-thousands epic with a wealth of elaborate sets and technical glitz, the reality is that the lower the author can keep the script’s production costs, the higher the chances of a sale.

The bottom line is that it’s easier to add in the glitz later than to have the crux of your plot contingent on its being present in the first draft.

Can your own script pass the following ten-point economy test?

1.Contemporary storylines are generally less costly than period pieces.
2.Fires, floods, earthquakes, volcanos, explosions—while many disasters can now be computer-generated, those that can’t are going to cost money.
3.Do you really need those swarming crowds? Even though they’re paid scale for just taking up space, they’re still an expense.
4.Anything with animals—especially trained ones—could be a big-ticket item.
5.Exterior scenes leave the crew at the mercy of time, season and weather, as opposed to interior shots which will look exactly the same whether it’s 3 a.m. in the dead of winter or 7:30 on a summer night.
6.Night scenes are more expensive to film than scenes in daylight.
7.Are your car chases/crashes necessary or just gratuitous? Vehicular mayhem can put a sizable dent in the budget.
8.Going on location is pricier than staying on a soundstage, especially the travel factor.
9.Specifying that “Mel Gibson has to be in this movie or it simply won’t work” probably isn’t a compelling pitch.
10.Every time the equipment gets moved, the cash register dings. Try to minimize your locations so multiple scenes can be shot at one time.

Former actress/director Christina Hamlett is a professional script consultant whose credits to date include 25 books, 122 plays and musicals, and 5 optioned feature films. She is also a ghostwriter for The Penn Group in Manhattan. Her latest MWP title, Screenwriting for Teens is targeted to high school students who want to learn how to write film shorts.