o Screenwriting Tip Of The Day by William C. Martell - Be Indespensible

BIZ TIP TUESDAY:

BE INDISPENSABLE


2005s top film

I have a few pre-pro friends who have day jobs studios, two of them have the exact same non-creative job at two different studios... and both have been employed at these jobs for about the same amount of time and are equally qualified. That's where the similarities end, though.

Friend A thinks his day job is just a way to pay the bills until he sells his first script. So he "goes through the motions" at work for 8 hours a day. He shows up, puts in the minimum amount of work for eight hours and goes home.

Friend B works his butt off at his day job. He does as much work as he can fit into the day, usually more than he's been assigned. His theory is: even though this job is far removed from screenwriting, he's still working for a studio - his boss may someday come into contact with someone in the company who might buy scripts - and he wants to be the employee his boss wants to help. Plus, he's there for 8 hours a day, why not do a good day's work?

I'm sure you've heard that box office was down back in 2005 - it was a bad year for Hollywood. Studios were tightening their belts, laying off employees... and guess who had to find a new day job? Friend A! Though everyone likes him, he's just not a very hard worker. In fact, I'm amazed at how little he knows about what happens in his division - he knows less than I do! I get what little information I know from reading the little business blurbs in the trades (he never reads the trades). I even knew the layoffs were coming before he did.

So, you're wondering, what does any of this have to do with screenwriting?

Well, screenwriting has a creative side and a business side. Most of us love the creative side and completely ignore the business side... and our careers may suffer. That bad box office year trickles down to screenwriters. The studios took fewer chances with scripts in 2006 and only bought scripts and developed projects that seemed guarenteed to make money. Today, in 2014, they are doing much less development... fewer paychecks for writers. Here's how I'm dealing with the problem, and how *you* can deal with the problem:

Be indispensable.

When they're handing out the pink slips, be like Friend B. Be the guy who they can't afford to lay off. Be the screenwriter they have to keep hiring.

How do you do that? Well, a large part has to do with the creative side - being a damned good writer. But there are many damned good writers, so the other part is that business part. The non-creative side of screenwriting. The part of our jobs that's actual work. Stuff we don't like and probably don't really want to care about. The "day job side" of screenwriting.

Remember, this is a business. We hate to think of it as a business, but the guys in the suits who pay us think it's a business. They expect us to be good employees.

One thing that will keep us employed is writing the types of scripts that generally make money. Yes, spec scripts are usually samples to land assignments, but if you are hiring a plumber do you interview architects? No, the boss looks for people who are good at the genre they are making. Studios are going to be making fewer dramas - that's because they generally don't connect with a large audience and don't make as much money. I know I've called drama "the genre of flops" here before - a straight drama isn't going to make as much money as a genre film. So, writing genre films is going to keep you employed.

I'm not talking about chasing trends, here. Look at the bigger picture. Think about popular genres. When I did pitch clinics for Sherwood Oaks I brought along a copy of the Sunday movie section of the newspaper and frequently asked people to find a movie similar to their story in there. Often they couldn't, because they are pitching some weird non-genre piece. Usually there are comedies, rom-coms, thrillers, action, and for the past few years we've had a bunch of low budget horror.

Best Movie Ever Made

People ask if horror is over-saturated. Is the genre about to die? Why should I write a horror script when that genre might dry up? Well, first - there have always been horror movies. There was a period, right before SCREAM, when horror was less popular... but they were still making horror films (and buying horror scripts) - just not as many. It wasn't like now, when every other film released is a horror flick. Now we are probably at the end of a horror boom, and when it finally runs its course, we'll be back to a normal number of horror films released every year. Even in the "slow years" horror was still a popular genre. So you want to look at genres that are around even when they aren't the most popular.

Chasing trends is writing a horror script with a creepy little dead girl and lots of running water because THE RING was a hit or writing some clone of PARANORMAL ACTIVITY because they are popular now. The horror genre is a *huge* tent, and when PARANORMAL ACTIVITIES start to flop, your demonic possession or underwater monster script might *start* the next trend. You want to think just about horror in general and try to find something original and exciting in that genre. Every genre contains dozens of subgenres, plus you can mix genres and come up with something like SHAUN OF THE DEAD. Writing within a popular genre doesn't limit you if you have an imagination.

Though most spec scripts are "job applications" for writing assignments, if your "job application" focuses on skills that don't match the available jobs you will probably not get hired. If a producer is looking for someone to write the next PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movie and your spec script is a small period drama about life on a farm in the Great Depression, chances are you will not get that job and the person with the horror spec that scared the crap out of the readers who covered it *will* get the job.

Writing within a genre isn't selling out, it's writing something you can sell. In the Ideas Blue Book I talk about tools like Magnification that can take your personal story and turn it into a high concept genre story. Every script I write is personal - even if it's about the last of the vampire hunters or the search for a sunken Spanish galleon. The key is to find the way to tell your personal story within the framework of a popular genre - and it's not difficult. When we look back at the Golden Age of Hollywood (30s & 40s) the movies were all popular genres and screenwriters were still able to deal with social issues and personal themes (which is why those films were great). The BFI has named the thriller THE THIRD MAN the best British film ever made - it's a genre story!

DEADLINES & COMMITMENTS

Best British Film Ever... a Thriller!

Another way to be indispensable is to do good work in a timely fashion. Be a good employee. I know I've mentioned this writing team I know who have never turned in a script on time. Here's the amusing part - they got an assignment from Warner Bros several years ago and turned in the first draft a few months late... and it wasn't some kick ass amazing first draft. It was a first draft that needed work. So they were given notes and sent away to rewrite. The second draft was also a few months late. So they were replaced by other writers who could turn in work on time. In fact, word spread about how late the first draft was, and these guys had period of time when they couldn't find any assignment work. Or, at least, none that paid well. A couple of lean years pass, and they manage to land another studio assignment at Fox last year. So I ask them how the assignment is going, and they say they haven't started it, yet. Time is ticking away, and they're still "thinking" about the script! It comes down to a month before their deadline, and they still haven't started. Needless to say, the first draft was turned in late and was written in haste and sloppy... and they didn't get a chance to write the second draft. When I talked to them before the holidays they said they were giving up on studio projects because they were too demanding and were going to make their own movies. I translated that to mean that word had spread again about how late their draft was and no one was hiring them.

If you can't turn in a first draft on time, you're dispensable and they'll flush you. So make sure you have good work habits even when it's creative work. Be the best employee at your job - even when the job is creative. I've had some insane deadlines (2 weeks for a first draft!) and always turn in my work on time... and it's of the expected quality (usually better than hey expected). I usually post my first drafts here instead of the "fixed" versions so you guys have an example of what's expected. Many of these first drafts have typos, but the story part works. BLIND TRUST was one of the 2 week wonders, and they signed an Oscar nominated actress for *below her quote* off my first draft. Of course, two weeks to write a feature is unusual - so there's no reason why you should be several months late on that half year you'll probably get. I have no idea how these guys could be so late *twice*!

Another way to be indispensable is to be pleasant to work with. I know, that sounds strange in a business where 95% of the time you are working alone in your office, but that 5% when you're working with others is critical. If you're a jerk or smell bad or are difficult to get along with or are a weirdo, people may not want to work with you. If you fight over every minor change to your script, no one will want to work with you. Save the fights for the really important things - then use logic to make your case. And if you can use *business* logic and explain how the change will result in less money at the box office, even better. You'll be speaking their language. Think about what is best for the movie. Often writers get so attached to their words that they forget that no one sees the words on screen - they see the movie. You may be fighting for some words that don't even matter in the long run! Pick your battles, and if you lose, lose with grace. Make the changes the best you can, even if you don't agree with them. It's stupid to sabotage your own movie through inferior work.

You may have thought I was joking about smelling bad, but I once got an assignment because the other writer didn't seem to bathe regularly. I assume our writing abilities were comparable... but the development exec didn't want to be stuck in the same room as the smelly guy for the next few months. Being smelly is a negative, but also think about the positives. How can you be the kind of person people WANT to work with? I know there are comedy writers who get work because they are funny in person. Development execs want to hang out with them. I'm not saying you should go out and buy a joke book, but you might need to work on your social skills. This is my problem, that I'm working on. I'm a typical shy writer type. Around my friends I can be the life of the party, but with strangers? Strangers who hold my career in their hands? I tend to be quiet and polite and... boring. So I'm working on that - I'm trying to be more like I am with my friends when I'm with strangers who can hire me. This isn't easy, by the way, but I have to do it if I want to become indispensable.

Everyone knows they need to have a *script* that no one can say "no" to - a script that is so well written that everyone wants to buy it and make it... but that's only half of screenwriting. We also have to consider the business side and become the *writers* that no one can say "no" to. We have to write the scripts that audiences want to see and do good work on a deadline and be pleasant to work with. We have to be completely indispensable.



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