In anticipation of the Launching Your Writing Career panel in Los Angeles on Saturday, March 30th, we interviewed three of the panelists included in the discussion. The interview features Greg Beal, Director of the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting; Franklin Leonard, Founder of The Black List; and AFF Screenplay Competition Director Matt Dy. For more information about the upcoming event, click here.
Q: What do you consider a strong story?
GREG: For me, Graham Parker’s song title “Passion Is No Ordinary Word” should apply to every story. If the writer truly cares about her story, her characters and the moments of true feeling she’s conveying, it appears on the page and on screen. If she can make her characters live and laugh and survive, then I have the opportunity to live through them, feel with them and learn from them.
FRANKLIN: A beginning, middle, and end that keeps the audience interested in what happens next, elicits emotion of some sort of emotion (anything from fear to laughter to awe to sadness), and lives the audience viewing some aspect of their lives – no matter how small – differently than they did before being exposed to it.
MATT: A strong story is one that takes you on a journey without realizing it. When you’re reading a truly engaging script, the words fly off the page and you’re anxious to get to the next scene rather than thumbing through to see how many pages you have left. It’s easier said than done but it’s what every writer should strive for.
Q: What common mistakes do you find when you read a script?
GREG: If we’re talking about well written screenplays featuring intriguing characters and strong dialogue, then the missing ingredient is all too often conflict. Solid but inexperienced writers often suffer from following story templates and guru advice too slavishly, which can suck the life out of a script. If you’re referring to weaker scripts, then the problems run the gamut from poor writing to weak craft and execution to a lack of structure to all too little story.
FRANKLIN: The main (and biggest) mistake a writer can make is forgetting the human element. Emotional resonance, regardless of the genre, is the thing that will distinguish a screenplay (or any sort of storytelling or art more generally.)
MATT: I second Greg in that not establishing conflict is the most common problem with a lot of scripts. Conflict is what drives a story and moves it forward. Without conflict or greater stakes, there is no story. Also, a lot of first-time screenwriters will direct too much in their scripts and include long blocks of scene descriptions. Screenplays are considered the blueprint for a film but it still needs to leave room for the director’s vision.
Q: What’s the best advice you would give to a writer hoping to advance in a competition or make it on The Black List?
GREG: Submit your best work. Prior to uploading your script and paying the entry fee: Read the rules. Make sure you’re submitting an eligible and appropriate script for a particular competition. If you have questions about a competition, shoot an email to its administrators. Don’t trust everything you hear about competitions from online screenwriting forum “experts.”
FRANKLIN: I’m going to paraphrase Hayao Miyazaki’s definition of a popular movie: write something that is “full of true human emotion, no matter how base. The entrance should be low and wide so that everyone can be welcomed in. The exit should be high and purified. It shouldn’t be something that emphasizes or enlarges the lowness.”
MATT: Write something that truly stands out. Write the most daring and uninhibited story you can think of and in the most cinematic way that can draw in an audience. There isn’t a dearth of screenwriters in Hollywood so what the industry needs and is looking for is the next great original voice. Screenplay competitions hope to infuse the industry with new, exciting talent so you should do whatever you can to stand out.
Q: Could you share some success stories?
GREG: We have plenty, but let’s focus on the immediate. Destin Cretton’s “Short Term 12,” which he directed from his 2010 Nicholl Fellowship-winning script, just premiered at SXSW. 2002 fellow Creighton Rothenberg co-wrote “Olympus Has Fallen,” opening in theaters on March 22. 2012 fellow James DiLapo recently signed a two-script deal with Warner Bros. Jason Micallef wrote “Butter,” which opened theatrically in the fall of 2012 after being the opening night film at the 2011 Austin Film Festival; “Butter” was Jason’s 2008 fellowship-winning script. 1992 fellow Andrew Marlowe is the creator and executive producer of the ABC series “Castle.” 1999 fellow Rebecca Sonnenshine is an executive story editor on the WB series “The Vampire Diaries.” 2003 fellow James Mottern is currently in post-production on “God Only Knows,” which he directed. 1998 fellow Karen Moncrieff is currently in post-production on “The Trials of Cate McCall,” which she wrote and directed.
FRANKLIN: The annual Black List has seen its share of success stories, though it’s important to clarify that those who made the movies deserve the credit for the films themselves. It is worth noting however that over 250 scripts on the first seven years of the Black List have been produced. Those films have made over $16 billion in worldwide box office, been nominated for 159 Academy Awards and won 30 of them. Three of the last five Best Pictures were Black List scripts, as were seven of the last twelve screenwriting Oscars. As for the new platform, in just over five months, more than a dozen writers have already found representation with major agencies or management companies. I also believe we’re now up to a half a dozen script sales/options, and one writer – whose name I can’t yet reveal – just closed a two script blind deal at a major studio.
MATT: Several of our top writers placing even in the Second Round (top 10%) have found great success after advancing. 2010 Finalist Christopher Cantwell had his script “Halt & Catch Fire” (co-written with partner Chris Rogers) ordered by AMC as one of four projects this year to go to pilot, with filming slated to begin this year. Appearing on the 2012 Black List are 2011 Comedy Screenplay Winner Max Taxe for his winning script “Goodbye, Felix Chester” and 2012 Drama Finalist Austin Reynolds for “From New York to Florida”. 2010 Comedy Winner Julie Howe currently has her winning script “Jasper Milliken” in development with Sony-based Zhiv Productions. Julie will also participate in the panel discussion in LA. 2010 Second Rounder Lee Hoverd had his script “Ex-Men” optioned by Mike Fry (“Over the Hedge”) after hearing Lee’s pitch as a judge in the annual Pitch Competition during the Conference. Kevin Miller, 2010 Comedy Finalist, signed with manager Peter Meyer through a relationship that began at AFF and his script “Mother’s Day” was quickly optioned after placing in AFF by Sony producer Harry Gittes (About Schmidt). VJ Boyd, 2008 Teleplay Finalist, is currently a staff writer on the FX show Justified.
Q: What is the best script you’ve read or best film you’ve seen lately?
GREG: I still have some catching up to do from awards season but I really enjoyed “Argo” and “Lincoln.” Given my daughter’s love of all things animation, I have to mention “Wreck-It Ralph,” which was wonderful and unexpectedly moving. I recently watched four seasons of “Breaking Bad,” two seasons of “Sherlock” and the first season of “House of Lies” and was impressed by those achievements. And whenever I run across “Lawrence of Arabia” on TCM, and I can’t stop watching.
FRANKLIN: Best film I’ve seen lately: THE INTOUCHABLES, if only for Omar Sy’s performance.
MATT: I have two favorite films from last year: “Moonrise Kingdom” for its pure joy and originality and “Perks of Being a Wallflower” for its simple yet eloquent writing. I also read the scripts for both and I particularly loved the interactive storybook version of the script for “Moonrise Kingdom” released by the studio.
Q: Screenplay competitions are obviously not the only way a writer can break in. What other ways can a writer get attention?
GREG: Making short and feature films independently. Working on other filmmakers’ independent shorts and features. Working in Hollywood at an agency, production or managerial company. Working on film and television productions when they shoot in your region. Attending film festivals and screenwriting conferences. Attending film school. Connecting with college alumni in film and television and asking for advice. Targeting well-selected agents and managers with query emails, letters and phone calls. Et cetera. Finally, be persistent – and most importantly, keep writing new screenplays.
FRANKLIN: The Black List (http://www.blcklst.com)
MATT: Writing is such an isolated craft that the mere sound of the word “networking” can make any recluse screenwriter shudder. It’s so important though to meet and work with the right people that can help get your script made or get you hired for a project. I recommend joining a writer’s group and attending screenwriter’s conferences (like AFF of course!) to build a strong network of friends and collaborators. While it’s not entirely necessary, consider working in LA if you’re not already. Get a job working at an agency, production company, or TV studio. In the land of feature films, screenwriters don’t always get their due credit but in the world of TV, the writer is king (or queen). A lot of TV writers get hired to write features. And of course, keep writing and stay persistent.
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