I went down to the Atlanta Film Festival today for the “Screenwriting for a Living” discussion as part of the Coffeehouse Conversations series. The guests were Robert Orr (Underworld: Rise of the Lycans), Tom Luse, and Ray McKinnon (Oscar winning VSU alum who came to speak at the school a few years ago.) It was fun and really informative. Here are some of the notes I took:

Writing Process

  • Read screenplays of movies you’ve never seen, and then watch the movie to see how it plays out. If you read the script for a movie you’ve seen, you’ll only be seeing it played out in your head as you saw it on screen.
  • The best education is experience. You can only learn to be a writer from writing; you can only learn to direct from directing. Education doesn’t translate into jobs. If you’re going to film school, do it for technical knowledge (editing, cinematography, etc.) or go to USC for the connections.
  • 120 pages used to be industry standard for a spec. Now, they’re looking for 100 pages, and maybe even 90. Attention spans aren’t what they used to be.
  • You need far less dialogue than you think.
  • Cut all small talk and entrances. You don’t need them. Get in late, get out early.
  • Sometimes you write a cool action sequence. Sometimes you just write “They fight.”
  • Loglines are essential. You will not be read without an interesting logline that clearly states the concept.
  • After you write a draft, let it sit. Not just for a few days; go work on something else. When you come back to it, try to be not just objective, but Machiavellian with it. See what you can cut and make more concise. That scene you used to be in love with may actually suck and not need to be in there at all.
  • When you get writer’s block, write. Even if it’s junk, write.
  • Paraphrasing David Mamet: When you’re not feeling a scene and don’t feel motivation to write, work on structure. When you feel the creative juices flowing, get as much of it down on paper as you possibly can, and to hell with structure.
  • Write out whatever cool ideas you have in the descriptions of the action. It may not make the cut (never write camera angles), but it may make it read better. Just don’t go crazy with it.
  • Don’t avoid writing something because you don’t think it’s sellable. It may not be. But if it’s well written, it may open up a door to script doctoring something.
  • When you’re rewriting someone else’s script that’s already in development, it’s less about a creative “I’ve got a cool idea” and more about logistics (this scene has to be shot on this day, with these people, with what is already available.)
  • Your first script will be bad & probably won’t be salvageable. Don’t let that discourage you. Keep at it. Persistence is the key. The coverage of Robert Orr’s first screenplay said “Never accept anything by this writer ever again.” If you don’t keep writing, you’ll never get better.

The Business Side

  • Most studios now are looking for a package (a spec script that comes attached with an actor or director.)
  • The spec market is doing better than it was. It’s still not as strong as it was in the early 90’s, but it’s good. Recently, the movie Abduction was sold for $2 million with Taylor Lautner attached to star.
  • There are only about 50 really bankable actors in Hollywood. If you can get one of them interested & attached to your script, you have a much better chance of selling it.
  • Read “I Will Not Read Your Fucking Script” by Josh Olson (A History of Violence). Very good article for beginning screenwriters.
  • A screenwriting competition won’t get your script produced, but it could potentially give you some name recognition.
  • Don’t pay people to give you coverage on your script & assume that any producer will read their coverage; they won’t. Maybe do it for the feedback, but don’t expect that it will get you an in anywhere.
  • Producers are looking for things that are currently selling. You may have written a great period horror film, but period horror films aren’t selling.
  • The young male demographic has been written off by a lot of producers as being too distracted by video games & porn. There is much more focus on the young female demographic now.
  • If you want to write an adaptation, you have to be able to pitch exactly how you play to do it, right down to which pages in the book translate to which pages in the script.
  • It is easier to sell a script that can be made for less money.
  • Producing your own work can help you get noticed. Film is a visual medium, so showing someone a five minute clip (not trailer) from something you’ve done is a great calling card.
  • When producing & asking for money, have a legit budget, even if it costs thousands to have it professionally done. Know exactly how much money you need & why you need it.
  • Don’t go to LA until you have at least 3 good scripts written, and several more in your head. They will always ask “What else are you working on?”