When you decide to jump into this unpredictable chaotic world of screenwriting, the first thing you’ll want to do is write some scripts. Bust out that copy of Final Draft and write whatever story pops into that dysfunctional little noggin of yours. Doesn’t matter if it’s not commercial. Doesn’t matter if the idea gives your Grandma gas. Doesn’t matter if it’s a 90 minute action film about parking your car. New writers are blessed with a wonderful gift. They’re not going to show their scripts to anybody. Not yet anyway. That comes after a few test laps around the track.
However, once you’re ready for the race, it’s time to start thinking about which avenue gives you the best chance of breaking in. Everybody has their own path. Everybody “makes it” their own way. But what I’ve found is that there are a lot of talented writers out there who aren’t making it because they keep banging their heads up against the wrong door. When you’re jonesing for some ice cream, you don’t head over to the nearest Pizza Hut, do you?
The most common way into the business is still a good writing sample that gets you heat from low level agents, managers and producers, which gets you into meetings, which allows you to pitch other projects and interview for assignments, which allows you to start working, which – voila – makes you a working writer. However, let’s face it, that path is the least fun to walk. And it takes so damn long. So let’s discuss four quicker ways into the business and see if your style matches up with that avenue. If it doesn’t, you may need to reevaluate if the direction you’re taking is the right direction for you.
I’ve read a lot of Black List scripts and there are two common traits that permeate through the ones that end up on the coveted list: quirkiness and cleverness. The people voting on these scripts are used to reading the poor man’s versions of all those stinkers you see in the cineplex. That’s like trying to find refreshment in those generic supermarket colas (“Premium Cola!”) as opposed to drinking real coke. And you wonder why readers have a reputation for being bitter. Because of this, Black List readers like to be caught off guard. They like to be surprised with something as far away from the Hollywood groupthink as possible. A small-town butter-carving competition? They’re in. A depressed man who speaks through a British-accented Beaver puppet he’s found in the garbage? Touchdown. A serial killer flick about a guy who talks to his pets…and they talk back? Oh yeah. This is the place for all the future Charlie Kaufmans, the disciples of Michael Gondry, the guys who build “best of” Spike Jonez Youtube compilations. There are other ways to make this list for sure, but if you’re quirky and clever, if those are the kind of scripts that emerge from your hard drive, then the Black List is your destination.
There’s a little crossover between the Nicholl and The Black List, but the Nicholl, more than any other screenwriting avenue, gravitates towards depth. They want their scripts cerebral. Period pieces about the human condition, a recent politically charged event, a dark exploration of characters facing death…this is what these readers like. Theme is also a huge component of a Nicholl-winning script. If you aren’t trying to say something with your story, if there isn’t a moral or a statement about humanity, then chances are your script isn’t going to do well here. And that’s great for writers of slower character-driven screenplays. Because if it wasn’t for the Nicholl, there’d be no place where these writers could find acceptance. So stop sending that script about an 1875 Scottish wake to Michael Bay. Save yourself the trouble and enter it into Nicholl.
Selling a script for a million bucks is getting harder and harder to do these days, and usually only happens via high-profile agents who can use past sale prices from their top-level clients to negotiate that elusive seven figure sum. But does that mean we’re just going to give up? Hell no! Big price tags have notoriously come from four genres: Thrillers, Comedies, Sci-Fi and Action (and sometimes Horror). Why? Because these genres are the most receptive to the high-concept, and high-concept is still the most important component to making that big sale. If you don’t have a big idea, drop your dreaming ways and enter the Nicholl instead. High concept has been debated to death but basically, you know you have a high concept if you can put it on a billboard and people everywhere will get excited to see your movie. A bachelor party where they lose the groom told as a mystery the day after? High concept. A CIA spy who doesn’t know that they’re a double-agent (Salt). High concept! Someone keeps reliving the same time loop over and over again (Groundhog Day, All You Need Is Kill, Source Code)? High concept. If you’re hoping to sell your script for a lot of money and you’re not working with a big idea, you’re proverbially banging your head up against the wall, keeping your career in check!
What if I told you you could write a script that was guaranteed not to net you a single penny? Do I have your attention? Probably not. But trust me, you’ll wanna keep reading anyway. There’s a secret way into this screenwriting business and it’s through the back door. I’m talking about the “viral” script. Viral scripts have been around a lot longer than “viral” became a media buzz word. You might remember Blockhead about the Peanuts gang all grown up in New York, smoking pot and fucking each other like nobody’s business. Or Passengers, where the writer decides to tell the story in the first person. Or Van Damme Vs. Seagal, about the two once-famous action stars warring with each other in modern day L.A. The common thread here is that none of these scripts can be made into movies, one because of copyright issues, one because the actors would never agree to it, and one because the main reason it’s such a good read (that it’s in the first person) doesn’t translate to the screen. But each of these scripts received a ton of buzz, and really what it comes down to is getting your name out there so you can start getting into rooms and pitch your backlog of projects. This avenue is for the craziest of the crazy, the weirdest of the weird. If you’re a little bit nuts or notoriously think outside of the box, this is definitely a direction you’ll want to consider. A word of advice though. Make sure you have a couple of “real” scripts already written and ready to go when you write your viral script (they should preferably be in the same genre). There’s no use going through all that effort to get some meetings if you don’t have any product to sell.
I run into a lot of writers who don’t have a plan – who fall in love with their well-written but ultimately unmarketable script and haven’t yet figured out which avenue is their way in. As a result, they cling to scripts that don’t have a lot going on in them. I call these: “nothing happens” scripts. The most common “nothing happens” genre is the “coming-of-age” story. We all write them, particularly early on, but this genre is notorious for creating scenarios that are completely devoid of drama and conflict. Characters sit around and philosophize about life (“Death is like so…complicated”). 25 year olds are bitching about how difficult their life is (They’re 25!). There are no character goals, no point to the story, no forward momentum, no interesting situations. It’s just talking heads. Talking head talking heads talking heads talking about…whatever the writer thinks is interesting. And yet we write them. Why? Because that’s generally how our 20s go. If you want to write a character piece, that’s fine, but make sure there’s a hook to it. Everything Must Go is essentially a coming-of-age story, but it’s one with a clever hook – a guy is kicked out of his house so he starts living on his front lawn. I think the lesson here is, try to be exploring some unique angle in your screenplay – whether it’s the style, the hook, a character, a subject matter, the point of view, how you treat time – some aspect, no matter how tiny, that gives your script a uniqueness that sets it apart. Nobody wants to linger in obscurity but if you’re clinging to that idea where a bunch of people in their 20s are just trying to “make it in life,” there’s a reason no one’s responding to those query letters.
And that’s it folks. Now that you know which kind of scripts do best in which scenarios, you can start targeting that specific avenue. For example, if you’ve decided you’re a Black List writer, go back through all the old Black Lists and write down every agent and manger in the Top 30 and send them a query. And one more thing, which should be obvious but it’s worth mentioning. The caveat for all these scripts achieving their goal is that they’re well-written. They have to have structure, conflict, character development, sharp dialogue, story density. And they have to be good from page 1 to 100, not just in spots. So there you are. I’ve given you the blueprint for your success. What are you waiting for?