Whether you have already written and even sold a number of screenplays, or you are embarking on your first screenwriting adventure, be wary of the bounty of screenwriting advice available from well-meaning “experts.”
Take any advice, including the following, with a heaping teaspoon of salt. As the Buddha said, “believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it…unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense”.
1. Your idea will get stolen.
Myth: Execution of a script idea, not the idea itself, makes a movie, so don’t worry about theft of concept.
Also, contrary to popular belief, most producers are perfectly willing to acquire material legally. And if a registered script is stolen, you should receive help in court. Don’t be in a rush to sue, though, because writers who file lawsuit for theft often lose.
2. Write a screenplay to appeal to the four-quadrant demographic: the young, the old, men and women.
Myth: Write a movie you love, not a movie you think the market will like. Don’t add random elements or extra characters solely to broaden a movie’s appeal: all you will do is alienate the target audience. Instead, focus on including “re-watchable moments”, scenes the target audience enjoys so much they return to see the film over and over (these moments sell oft-criticized single quadrant romantic comedies).
Remember also the first people who need to like your film are producers and agents, but don’t waste time playing the guessing game of what their personal tastes may be.
3. Signing a release signs your rights away.
Myth: Often a release form (either provided by the reviewing company or written yourself) is necessary to get screenplays read. Include response expectations, whether you are submitting elsewhere and a clause specifying your retention of copyright.
4. A writer should have complete creative control over the screenplay.
Myth: Neither the writer or director should have full control. Film is collaborative, and writers must be open to making changes in their scripts. However a film production company cannot ethically ask a Writers Guild member to change a screenplay without payment.
5. Write what you know.
Half-myth: Writing what you know (or can research and learn) makes for a believable screenplay, but if everyone followed this rule too many movies would portray struggling artists. Imagination is necessary to write fantastical and extraordinary films.
6. You must have film industry connections.
Myth: Film producers are also interested in new talent, and even first-timers can make big box-office runs (think of the strong critical and public reception for writer Diablo Cody’s debut, Juno).
7. A rejected screenplay can be revised and resubmitted to the same company.
Myth: Most companies will only look at a screenplay once, so tweak carefully before that one-shot pitch.
8. Reading your pitch to the studio executives works.
Myth: Selling a script is one of the most important parts of a writer’s job. First, focus on producers and production companies because they are the real target decision-makers.
As you pitch, maintain eye contact and engage the listener in the presentation. Your script will have a much better shot at being picked up than through a verbatim reading. Use framing techniques at the beginning to draw the listener in, but don’t waste time telling the listener how you got the story idea.
The written pitch can then be presented in a “leave behind”, a one-page treatment for producers to read after the writer has left. Proper treatments are brief, double-spaced, dialogue-free synopses.
9. Material trumps formatting.
Myth: As with many things, improper formatting can be a weeding out tool. Use proper spelling, punctuation and script guidelines to ensure your script is read. Always include scene headings, action, character names and dialogue, and keep a feature script between 90 and 100 double-spaced pages.
10. More money is available to independent films now than ever before.
True: With many burgeoning independent film festivals, from Sundance to Raindance, the time is ripe for indies.
As a final note, consider the oft-discussed concept of turnaround. When a screenplay is abandoned by one company another production company may pick it up. While both E.T. and Forrest Gump rebounded well after a turnaround, the high fees required to repay development costs often mean a movie in turnaround will never get produced. Be wary.
So go forth then, and write, and rewrite, keeping this advice in mind – but only so long as it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.