When you write your first screenplay, the
path to glory seems clear--find an agent who will get you a six-figure deal.
A hundred and fifty query letters later, you’re languishing at Hollywood’s
front gate. You’ve received a lot of encouragement, but, as Pauline Kael put
it, "Hollywood’s the only town where you can die of encouragement." Maybe
it’s time to try another approach.
In the film marketing business, if you lack resources but have a winner, you
platform that winner by showing it to one or two markets at a time and
letting it accumulate positive reviews. In other words, you build momentum.
Chariots of Fire and American Beauty were both distributed in
If you’ve written a winner, maybe it’s time to platform yourself right over
Hollywood’s front gate where the players can see you. Your first sale may
not be a blockbuster, but it could lead to one later in your career--maybe
sooner than later. The idea is to gather strength with each positive step
you take and get in the game rather than pace on the sidelines.
Here are 21 platforming strategies that you can use to give your career
momentum and direction. Success in any of these can lead to more successes
until you are recognized as the next great screenwriter and a bona fide
1. Write the book. For the last several years, there has been a
greater movement towards writing the novel version of your script, and
selling rights to both the novel and screenplay at the same time. The large
agencies (CAA, ICM, William Morris) and some small agencies (Paul S. Levine,
Charlotte Gusay, among others) handle book-to-screenplay deals. Another
angle is to write the graphic novel version of your script. Screenwriter
Joseph Calabrese did that with The Eyes of Mara.
2. Become a reader. Almost any writer can find a job as a story
analyst; that is, as a reader. It pays almost nothing, but the
experience teaches you what works and especially what doesn’t work in a
screenplay. You will also make connections. Michael Arndt, screenwriter of
Little Miss Sunshine, started out as a story analysis, as did Sherry
Lansing, former Paramount CEO.
Apply for this position with agents and producers. A college education is a
plus, especially if you majored in literature or something similar. Submit a
resume plus a coverage of a script for a produced movie, one that they will
be familiar with. Offer to write a free coverage for a script that they are
currently considering. It’s not particularly important where you live, but
don’t ignore local opportunities. One of my Texan students reads for local
productions companies and festivals. That experience and the contacts made
led to a deal to write a screenplay. The script is being produced and she is
getting a writing credit.
3. Get a job...as an assistant. If you become an assistant to a TV
staff, for example, you may get a chance to write for a TV show. Duppy
Demetrius from Pittsburgh started this way. He’s now an executive story
editor for The Closer. It is not unusual. The same is true for agent
assistants, producer assistants, script coordinators, and even production
assistants. You will meet people and learn about the business. Many writers
and other film professionals begin this way. If you live in LA, you might
try a temp agency, such as Apple One. Studio temp pools keep resumes on
Apply for these jobs like you would for any other job. Send resumes to
studio or production company HR departments, show runners, networks, and so
on. Get your hands on the UTA Job Board, a job list circulated among agency
4. Make a short film. Learn more about the business by making a
short, inexpensive film that you can enter in a festival of some kind or
even show on Youtube. The experience of producing and directing will improve
your skills as a writer, plus the film might get recognized and find you
valuable contacts. If you act in it, you will--at last--fully understand
Hollywood types often view short films and peruse Youtube and similar sites.
Filmaka is an organization that you
might find helpful in terms of networking and getting your short film
noticed. Several of my clients and students have made short films and won
awards. They are in the game. One example of a successful short film is
The Pizza King, which has won four festival awards. Jared Hess wrote and
directed the short film Peluca, which was shown at the Slamdance Film
Festival. He then adapted it into the feature screenplay, Napoleon
5. Network. Virtually all of the 21 strategies are aimed, at least in
part, at meeting people and making contacts. Never underestimate the value
of a contact. A former student and now working writer (Max Adams) tells the
story of when she was just trying to break in. She met "an assistant to an
assistant of an industry pariah." This assistant went on to become a studio
executive. Together, the ex-wannabe writer and ex-assistant put together a
feature deal that the studio bought.
6. Learn, burn, and yearn. There are
three things writers do: They continue to learn their craft. They burn the
midnight oil writing. And they yearn so much for a writing career that they
get out and connect with people. There are plenty of seminars, workshops,
publications, conferences, expos, pitchfests, writers groups, professional
organizations (including online organizations) to help you meet people and
continue your education. Wherever you go, schmooze. Part of the schmoozing
art is to remember that you have two ears and one mouth, and to use them in
7. Expose yourself. Literary manager Mason Novick saw Diablo Cody’s
blog and contacted her about her work. Get yourself and your writing out
there. Cruise http://www.storylink.com.
Some established and beginning writers have even created a web site as a
pitching tool and/or to post credits. Here are just two:
http://www.ettanin.com/. Perhaps, when
you meet someone or deliver a short pitch, you could give that person your
URL and a password to your secret projects. That person could read or view
your pitch, read your synopsis or treatment, and even read your script.
8. Win contests. I recommend you look into two or three contests that
seem right for your script and that have some kind of reputation behind
them. Consider reviewing the
Moviebytes contest ratings. Some contests provide notes, and some
writers have made valuable connections with people associated with the
contest they entered.
9. Become a hyphenate. Billy Wilder was once asked why he became a
director. His answer: "To protect the script." If you decide to produce
and/or direct the movie yourself, that makes you a writer-producer-director.
However, before attempting a feature production, do #4 above and get a feel
for the head-banging experience putting together a film is. You’ve heard of
Murphy’s Law--if anything can go wrong, it will? Well, Murphy was a
filmmaker, so you want to be prepared. There are books and short courses
available, some only a weekend long. Oh, and don’t use your own money to
cover production costs.
10. Package it. You already have the script; now add talent (an actor
or director) or other creative element, and--shazam!--you have a package. A
client of mine added a known singer to his package, and now has access to
her music. With a package, you can act as a producer and approach other
producers about your project, or you can simply mention your package
elements in a query letter or pitch.
My co-writer for Hemingway’s Twin worked as a kid for the Hemingways
at their house at Walloon Lake. Based on that relationship, we secured
family cooperation on the script. I also secured a letter of interest from
Mariel Hemingway to play the main role and, with the help of others, Alfonso
Arau (Like Water for Chocolate) to direct. On that basis, I made a
deal with a producer who had a deal with 20th Century Fox, but some legal
issues got in the way of a production and everything fell apart. The bottom
line: I was paid, I met people, and I still own the script in case someone
11. Ask Proctor & Gamble to help you. Approach corporations for
funding. The makers of the independent film Film Camp received help
from Pepsi-Cola and Ty, Inc. One client recently wrote a screenplay that
indirectly highlights the sights of a particular city. She’s contacting that
state’s tourism office and film commissioner for financing and production
assistance and leads. I worked as a script doctor with the producer of a $40
million animated film. They have raised $20 million already from businesses
and organizations interested in the content of the film. To get you started,
the following blog chronicles corporate and other sources for indie film
12. Succeed in other writing areas. Diablo Cody, before she wrote
Juno, wrote a critically acclaimed book entitled Candy Girl, A
Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper. Prior to that, she wrote for a
Minneapolis newspaper. Why not sell a short story to a magazine or write in
some other area to get your career moving in a positive direction? I started
out as a copywriter of marketing collateral, advertising, and scripts for
business videos before moving on to "more creative" areas. For direction on
how to succeed in 17 different writing areas, pick up a copy of The
Freelance Writer’s Bible.
13. Apply for a grant. There are many grants available for making
documentaries and other films. You’ll need to do your research to find
these. Also, beware of scams. Perhaps one place to start your search is
Michigan State University’s compiled list at
14. Declare your independence. There are about 27,000 independent
feature productions every year. Many a writer, director, and actor have
gotten their start with an independent film. Don’t you love Jack Nicholson
as the masochistic dental patient in Roger Corman’s Little Shop of
Horrors? The best part of working in the indies is you don’t need an
agent, and it can be a lot of fun. Be aware that the smaller indie producers
may want to pay you next to nothing for writing the script. Negotiate a
written and signed deal with an independent producer.
I was paid a small sum to develop a screenplay for indie producer, Tanya
York. I was given a long list of parameters. For example, I was allowed one
outside location, one burn (where a guy is lighted on fire), one car crash
of two inexpensive cars, and so on. I took it on as a creative challenge.
Remember, one experience can lead to another. The idea is to get some
momentum to your career.
15. Go to Televisionland. Consider approaching television and cable
movie producers. There are hundreds of cable channels and TV stations
looking for content (movies, sitcoms, reality shows, and so on).
Have you considered a documentary? Erik Stahl wrote two documentaries, which
led to his producing and hosting a TV show in Colorado. Another client, S.A.
James, wrote a feature screenplay for the big screen and that sample
eventually led to an adaptation of a Danielle Steele novel for a TV movie.
16. Find a true story. Secure the rights to a little-known but
compelling true story, write the script, and approach producers that
specialize in true stories. National true stores are already locked up
before you’ve even thought of them as a possibility. However, sometimes you
can find unknown stories about major events. Oklahoma City--A Survivor’s
Story is a TV movie about a woman saved by a fireman. A few movies have
been made of unknown stories stemming from 9/11. Perhaps you are aware of an
undiscovered novel that would be perfect for an adaption; secure the rights
first and plunge ahead. You begin that process by contacting the subsidiary
rights department of the book’s publisher.
17. Dig in your own back yard. Acres of Diamonds is the story
of a man who searched the world for diamonds without success and finally
returned home to realize that there were acres of them on his own farm. So
what’s available in your own back yard? Look at regional markets and
specialty markets (such as the Christian market, for example). Contact your
state film commissioner (and nearby state film commissioners) about local
production companies. My screenplay The Penny Promise was produced by
a Utah company. The film won "Best Feature Comedy" at two film festivals,
plus I got paid.
18. Go foreign. The BBC set up the
Writer’s Room to assist
writers interested in writing for the BBC. There is a growing market for
films written and produced in Spanish, if that is your first language. If
you are a Canadian, realize that production companies get tax credits for
producing their film in Canada and using Canadian talent, including writers.
Your research question is this: who produces or is about to produce in
Canada? There may be an opportunity there for you.
19. Get lost in cyberspace. Some writers have sold their scripts
through Internet marketing services as Inktip, Triggerstreet, Script P.I.M.P.,
and PitchPerfect. I tend to favor a
focused approach rather than a shotgun approach. Nevertheless, you may find
these services to be worthwhile.
20. Sell direct. Consider Direct-to-DVD producers. This is still a
very large market. I received a "thank you" letter from a prior student,
Daniel Springen, who wrote, "I...have six films available for rent at every
Blockbuster in the country." In years to come, Direct-to-DVD productions may
give way to Internet productions. The newest version of Apple TV will allow
you to download media and play it on your big screen TV. In view of that,
let’s look at the current Internet market next.
21. Become a writer or hyphenate for a New Media production. Atom
Films was one of the first producers in this arena. Check out some of their
fare at http://www.atomfilms.com and
notice that productions are paid for by ads. Online TV Series, such as
Quarterlife are becoming popular.
Episodes (actually, webisodes) are approximately three-minutes in
length, although Prom Queen features
eighty 90-second webisodes. In doing research, my wife and I checked out Afterworld and found ourselves
getting more and more involved in the series.
You promote your series on Youtube, Facebook, Myspace, and similar sites
and/or secure funding through some other means, including via corporations
and organizations (see #11). The
Guild has solicited donations from fans and has produced episodes
from those donations. Internet productions such as these may be a place to
start and get noticed. Some productions have had up to 8 million views per
Do you carry an iPod? Consider writing for that arena. A mobisode is
an episode of a TV show written specifically for mobile phones, iPods, and
similar devices. The production company Fun Little Movies produces "fun
little movies" for your cell phone. Check them out.
* * *
The position of screenwriter or TV writer is a profession, like a doctor or
a lawyer. Usually, it takes years of education to prepare for a profession;
consider these 21 platforming strategies as part of your professional
There is one step you should take before you try any of the above 21
platforming strategies, and that is to write one or more original,
feature-length screenplays. You will need them as proof you can write, and
by applying some of the above strategies, you might even sell them and
become a player in the game..