Friday, November 25, 2011

Article - The 3-5 Year Plan

So a couple weeks ago I stirred up some emotions when I came up with the 6 month plan for selling a screenplay. I think my article was somewhat misinterpreted. I wasn’t saying that selling a script was EASY - that all you had to do was follow these steps and VOILA – 500 thousand dollars magically appears in your bank account. I was merely saying that if you ONLY HAD SIX MONTHS to sell a script, and didn’t have any (or very few) contacts, that the route that gave you the best chance to do so was that one. And I still believe that. I’m open to hearing alternatives, but so far no one’s given me something better.

Also, since the article, I’ve gotten a few e-mails telling me that e-mail is a better way to pitch your script than a phone call. The reason being that phone calls take time and if you’re not important, busy assistant types are likely to hurry you off the phone. With e-mails, they can check them whenever, which is easier for them. That actually makes sense so if that’s the way you want to go, go for it. Just remember that if you do go that route, make sure you've followed RULE #1 (pick a great concept!) from last week’s article. Because chances are that’s the only thing they’re going to read in your e-mail. And if you want that logline to be as powerful as humanly possible, then be sure to check out my logline article.

Okay, now let’s get down to business. Last week we talked about the 6 month plan. That’s fine and dandy if you only have six months. But a more realistic plan for selling a script and becoming a professional screenwriter is 3-5 years. You know how doctors and lawyers spend 4 years of 50 hour weeks to get their degree? It’s no different for you. You have to study this craft religiously if you want to be great at it. With that in mind, onto the plan.


DON’T QUIT YOUR DAY JOB - Not yet at least. You need to start saving money. You’re going to need it later when you either visit or, preferably, MOVE to Los Angeles. Save as much money as you can. Stop spending it on stupid stuff like Angry Birds Seasons. Every buck counts. You can live on In and Out Burger for 8 bucks a day. The more money you save, the more Double-Doubles you can buy!

READ - Start reading scripts. As many as you can. The more you can get your hands on, the more you should read. Not just the pro scripts, but the amateur scripts as well (which you can get over at Simply Scripts). Nothing has taught me more about screenwriting than reading screenplays. At the VERY MINIMUM, read 2 a week. But if you can read up to one a day, do it. And don’t tell me you don’t have the time. Sheldon Turner still reads a screenplay a day and he’s one of the busiest screenwriters in the business.

FIRST SCRIPT - Write your first script. Write about anything you want. Something personal and non-commercial even. Why? Because you’re not going to show it to anyone. Just write and have fun. Enjoy the process. Enjoy figuring things out. If you write 4 pages a day, you’ll be finished in less than a month. Resist the temptation to show it to friends because you think you’re the exception to the rule who’s written a genius script your first time out. Those friends will always secretly think you’re a terrible writer and feel sorry for you whenever you bring your writing up. You only get one chance to make a first impression.

ONLINE RESEARCH - Start trolling the Done Deal message boards as well as the Scriptshadow archives. Read the popular posts, the popular topics debated. Read the comments sections as well. There are some great commenters here at Scriptshadow, guys and gals who know more than I do about screenwriting. Learn who they are, who’s respected, and take their lessons to heart. They’re usually right. Reach out to those people (reach out to anyone you like). Get to know them. Get to know as many screenwriters as you can! This is a lonely profession and it’s a lot easier when you have someone you can e-mail or call when you hit a rough patch. You’ll also need these people for script feedback and to trade contact info with later.

SECOND SCRIPT – Write your second script. As much as you want to, you’re still not going to show it to anyone. It will be better than your first script, but it will still be bad. You won’t think so but that’s only because you don’t know what you’re doing wrong yet. If you did, you wouldn’t have done it wrong. Take a little more time with this one. 2 pages a day so you can think about what you’re doing. See if you can’t apply some of things you’ve been learning from reading all those scripts. Afterwards, take a week off and come back to it. Assess the slow parts, the parts you don’t like, then come up with a plan to fix those problems. This will be your first rewrite. You’re now officially a part of the club.


BOOKS – It’s time to read some screenwriting books. All of the big ones. Save The Cat, Story, The Sequence Approach, 500 Ways To Beat The Script Reader. Read’em all. Some of the big ones you can get for free at your local library. Think of screenwriting as a language. You may be able to pick up a language by being around others who speak it, but if you want to sound intelligent, if you want to be fluent, you’ll need to study that language, and these books are your professors. Learn the three act structure. Learn how to set up a story, how to build a second act, how to develop characters. Find an author who speaks to you and build your approach around his advice.

THIRD SCRIPT – Now it’s time to get serious. You need to start thinking about your concept (check the Six Month article for how to do so). If you have loads of talent, selling your third script isn’t unthinkable. But you won’t have a shot unless you pick a marketable concept. You’re also going to be outlining for the first time. The books should have taught you how to do this. Just remember, the first time someone starts outlining and structuring, they tend to overdo it, making everything in the script feel TOO structured. Apply these “rules,” but not overtly. You still want the story to feel natural. Rewrite the script a few times. Rewriting is what’s going to turn a good idea into a good script.

GIVE TO FRIENDS – Okay, time for some feedback. Send your script out to friends, family members, and screenwriting buddies you met on the internet. If any of those internet friends ask you to send a naked picture along with the script, de-friend them immediately. Unless that’s exactly what you’ve been waiting for. In that case, send away. Your friends will lie to you. They will tell you your script is much better than it is. That’s okay. You need to ease your way into feedback. It’s not easy hearing someone’s flippant reaction to something you slaved over for 3 months. Rank your friends/family’s enthusiasm for your script on a scale from 1-10. Whatever it is, subtract 4. That’s their real reaction.

CONTESTS – Pick 3 or 4 contests (Nicholl, Bluecat, Austin, Zoetrope, Page, TrackingB, etc.) and send your script into them. Don’t expect to win. You won’t. But if you’re on the right track, your script should at least place in one of these contests. Use the inspiration to motivate you for your next script.

KEEP READING – You need to keep reading as many scripts as possible. You won’t have a lot of time because you’ll be writing, but try to get in at least 2 a week if possible. It’s not hard guys. At the end of the day, instead of watching your fifth favorite TV show, read a script.

FOURTH SCRIPT – For the love of God, test your screenplay idea ahead of time. You’re now on your fourth script, where you’re actually starting to get good. You don’t want to waste 3 months on something that has no chance of selling. Spend more time on your outlining as well. Make sure to avoid mistakes you made in previous screenplays. Substantially rewrite (I’m not talking about a polish here) the script 7-8 times. Really try to make it as good as it can possibly be.

FRIENDS AND CONTESTS – Follow the same pattern. Give it to friends. Ask them to be harsher in their feedback. I find that the more scripts you swap with friends, the more honest they get, because they’re more comfortable with you. So it might actually seem like you’re getting worse, since they’ll be more critical. But the reality is they thought your previous scripts were awful and didn’t tell you. So don’t worry. You’re improving. Send your script out to contests. Try to place. Don’t worry if you don’t. It’s only your fourth script.

MONTHS 13 – 24 (YEAR 2)

CONTINUE THIS PROCESS – Your goal for the second year should be 3-4 scripts, depending on how much time you have. Keep writing. Keep reading. Keep studying. Keep exchanging with friends. Keep entering contests. They’ll keep you on a deadline. The goal here is to use every free second of your life on screenwriting. Immerse yourself in it. The quicker you learn everything, the faster you’ll improve.

START QUERYING – Once you get to your fifth or sixth script, assuming it’s a marketable premise, you can start querying. Look back at The Six Month Article to see how to do this. The difference is, you’ll be querying agents and managers in addition to producers. This is going to be an important step for you because this is the second stage of building your contacts. You already have a group of online screenwriter friends. Now you’ll be adding business contacts to that list. Now chances are, ASSUMING YOU HAVE A MARKETABLE CONCEPT, you’ll get some bites. And most of those bites will be low level agents and managers. That’s okay. You’re low level too. And just like you expect to be big time in a couple of years, so do they. So send your script along.

LUCKY – If you’re lucky, maybe someone wants to represent you. They’ll probably want to send your script out to a bunch of people. And some of those people will want to meet with you. Which means guess what? Yup. You’re flying to LA! Have fun with these meetings. It’s still unlikely that anybody’s ready to buy a complete unknown writer’s script, but that doesn’t mean you can’t set up a network for future purchases. Be excited. Have a few pitches ready for these meetings. Industry folk always want to know what you’re working on next. Remember, script sales usually take time. Building relationships and trust. Getting to know people who then feed you information of what the people they work with want. If nothing comes out of the script itself, it’s still a win, because you’ve expanded your network.

UNLUCKY - Don’t worry if no one liked your script. You’re still learning. At the very least, a few of them will open the door to send your next script. So you’ve still expanded your network.

MONTHS 25-36 (YEAR 3)

IF YOU CAN, MOVE TO LA – Notice how I waited until Year 3 to have you move to LA. That’s because you’ve built up a library of scripts, and not rocketed into town with that abysmal first script you wrote (which by this time you’ll be looking back at and saying, “Thank God Carson didn’t allow me to show that piece of crap to anyone.”). Now I know some of you are saying, “Do I have to move to LA?” No, you don’t have to. But here’s why you should: You want to be able to meet people year round, whenever they read your script or hear about you or have something to discuss. Hollywood is just like any other business. It’s about relationships. And if you’re not physically there to build those relationships, people tend to lose sight of you. They move on to the next guy who IS there. Let’s say one of the producers your new manager sent your script to didn’t get to it for 3 months, a full 2 months after you left LA for that week of meetings. He wants to meet now but you’re back in Iowa. What if you and that producer had hit it off? What if he had asked you to rewrite his little horror flick? Maybe that horror flick got a surprise theatrical release and did a lot better than expected and now that producer is willing to pay you TRIPLE to work on his next movie. All of a sudden you’re a credited screenwriter with people asking for your services. Which means more people know about you. Which means more meetings. More offers. More fans. Which means more people to pitch your OWN ideas and send your OWN scripts to. Which means a REAL SHOT at selling your script! Hollywood people like to meet. I don’t understand it either but they like to see your face. They like to look you in the eyes. They like to bounce ideas off you, see if you’re a writer they can work with. If you’re 3000 miles away, you’re missing those opportunities. I’m not saying you can’t succeed if you don’t live in LA. What I’m saying is, if you CAN live in LA, do it. You’ll increase your chances of selling a script tenfold.  AND you'll get to eat at Tito's Tacos whenever you want.  Which is a HUGE plus.

IF YOU CAN’T MOVE TO LA – Don’t freak out. Technology is bringing us closer together every day. More youngsters are moving into important positions. Those guys may not mind skyping you. Or Facetiming you. And even the older folks should be okay with a phone call. It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing. Still, if you’re getting consistent nibbles from producers and other industry people, you should plan to fly to LA 3-4 times a year and meet all those people face to face to keep those important relationships active. Building your network of people to send your scripts to is the most likely way you’re going to sell one of your own screenplays. So you have to meet these people face to face if you can.

CONTINUE PROCESS – Aim for 3 or 4 scripts this year. Keep entering those contests. Keep querying managers with your new scripts. Keep getting feedback. Keep reading screenplays. Keep reading Scriptshadow. Keep sending new screenplays to producers you have relationships with. With every new idea comes the opportunity to find someone who loves that idea.

MONTHS 37-60 (YEARS 4 AND 5)

TIME TO BREAK THROUGH - You have your pattern down by this point. You know what to do. I’d be surprised if you don’t have, at the very least, a dozen contacts by this point. But even if you don’t, don’t worry. The thing with screenwriting is you can always get better. Go back through the feedback you’ve received. Identify what you need to work on and get better at it. If your characters are forgettable, for example, go back through all those books and re-read the chapters on character. Or just read the character article on Scriptshadow! You’re bound to have an “ah-ha” moment sooner or later. And then continue that process. Write. Read. Feedback. Rewrite. Contests. Query. With every script, you’ll get better. If you’re still not getting any bites, another option is to get your script looked at by a professional analyst. These guys will tell you why your script isn’t up to snuff with the pros and what you need to do to get better. It’s expensive, but if you’ve been at it for this long, it’s an investment that might be worth it. I give notes when I have time, so you can come to me. But this isn’t about me pimping my services. There are a lot of people online who give notes and some of them are really good. Do your research and find someone you feel comfortable with. There’s nothing quite like specific quality notes on one of your screenplays.

KEEP FIGHTING – A lot of people ask me, “When do you know you’re not cut out for screenwriting? How do you know when to give up?” My answer is, “When it’s no longer fun.” If you start to hate screenwriting, you shouldn’t do it anymore. And, you know, as long as you’re still a responsible human being who’s contributing to society, you can write til you’re 90. If you’re the 45 year old guy living out of your car suffering for your art who says he’s got the next great found footage rom-com, maybe it’s time to reevaluate your life. But if you enjoy the challenge, if you enjoy what you’re doing, fucking write screenplays til you die. Who gives a shit if they never sell? You’re doing what you love and that’s all that matters.

I don’t think there’s anything more to say but get to work! :)