Sunday, June 24, 2012

Opposing Opinion to By the Book - by Ruth Atkinson

I first met Jamie in Twitterverse (if you’re not already following her you should!). Her funny, entertaining and informative tweets got me hooked. I then had the good fortune of meeting her this June at The Great American Pitchfest where I was teaching a class. It was wonderful to finally have a face to put to the tweets. While our meeting was all too brief I could see that Jamie’s on-line personality was a true reflection of the live version. She’s witty, smart and an all round good peep. I’m honored to have an opportunity to contribute to her blog.

Recently Jamie posted a challenge to writers to choose their favorite screenwriting book and follow it to the letter, exercise by exercise, from first page to last. I couldn’t yell, “Don’t do it!!” loud enough. I’m a script consultant and story editor and I have a shelf full of “go to” books on screenwriting but I would never recommend someone undertake this task. “Why?” you ask. “Doesn’t Robert McKee sing the gospel? Isn’t following Blake Snyder the fastest way to write a Hollywood blockbuster?” In short, NO.

Don’t get me wrong I have enormous respect for many of the screenwriting gurus out there (Field, McKee, Seger, Synder, Vogler, Aronson, Bonnet, Truby among them) and what they say will give you the building blocks you need to write a screenplay. There are absolutely required reading. But they differ widely in their theories and approaches, many of books flat out contradict each other and everyone claims to have “the secret” to writing a screenplay that is not only amazing but will sell! At the end of the day they might be chock full of useful information that will help you write your script but none of them have all the answers. There simply isn’t a magic bullet. Success in screenwriting is based on many intangibles including productivity, talent and connections. You have to write (and rewrite a lot), you have to be good at it and you have to get your material to the right person at the right time. These are things that can’t be found by following a book to the letter.

So should you bother reading them at all? Well, YES. Because you still need a broad understanding of screenwriting theory in order to have a successful career as a screenwriter. Reading books on screenwriting will: 

  • Give you the building blocks you need to craft a screenplay – most importantly the three act structure.
  • Offer valuable tools and tips for developing characters, conflict, dialogue and theme (among others).
  • Introduce you to the format, language and jargon of screenwriting.
  • Guide you in the way to properly develop a script from log line and outline through to rewriting.
  • Give you ideas to improve your productivity and get to know your individual process of writing.
  • Introduce you to the varied approaches to screenplay development from Christopher Vogler’s take on The Hero’s Journey to Blake Snyder’s beat sheet for writing a high concept commercial blockbuster.
  • Explain the business of screenwriting from getting an agent to how deals are structured.

There’s a lot to be gained from immersing yourself in screenplay theory. Reading the “experts” is an absolute must for any new screenwriter. As you read you’ll also get a sense of what approach makes sense to you on an intuitive level. As you write you’ll see what ideas float back into your consciousness and what tools seem to be useful along the way. But don’t worry too much if things don’t add up exactly as you’ve been instructed. Trust your instincts and keep writing. If you’re stuck go back and reread that chapter that resonated for you. Find guidance and inspiration but don’t get too focused on any one idea or believe that any one of these theories have the secret solution. Ultimately you have to trust yourself more than any particular theory or book. This is why I wouldn’t recommend following any one book from first page to last because at the end of the day the only sure fire way to write a script that will sell is to sit down and write it!  

Ruth Atkinson is a Los Angeles-based script consultant and story editor with over 20 years of experience in the film and television business. Originally from Canada Ruth’s work in post production and on set led her to Los Angeles to work in development. Films Ruth has consulted on have won awards and been distributed around the world including The Perfect Family starring Kathleen Turner which was in theaters this Spring, the Genie nominated Who Loves the Sun, celebrated indie The People I’ve Slept With and the New Zealand hit Predicament. Ruth also reviews submissions to the Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program and was this year’s screenwriting instructor for FIND’s (Film Independent) Project:Involve which developed six short films that screened at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Ruth recently taught a class at The Great American Pitchfest on theme. She is available for script consulting, story editing and workshops and can be reached at

Blogger's Note: That means Jamie's opinion on this blog post. I love that Ruth had this reaction to my "By the Book" blog post. She's right! Which is why I didn't want to say which book I'm using. No book is a be all end all, but there is a lot to be gleaned from many books. "Take what works for you and leave the rest" is my favorite saying. But I'm still trying my experiment, mostly because I'm using it to get to the FADE IN: stage, not to write the script.

Friday, June 22, 2012

By the Book - Your Mission, Should You Choose to Accept

I've decided to try something new and fun for my next script I'm writing. The script I'm currently outlining got derailed by the crowdsourcing campaign for my short script, No One Knows. (blatant plug-->, so I decided to start over.

Then last night I had a "light bulb" moment. What if I followed the teachings of one of the screenwriting books I own, to the letter? 

So here's the mission:
Start a new screenwriting project, TV sitcom, TV drama, Feature...

Pick one of your favorite (or any for that fact) screenwriting books...

Now starting at Chapter 1, follow every exercise, suggestion, workbook, the book offers...

For this script you'll be writing...

Check back here each Friday, to chat about your progress. (or not, it's not imperative)

You don't have to reveal which book you're using (I'm not going to) until the end. Or not at all, if you don't want.

The idea is to take all of the information in the book (and only that information), and see just how good of a script you can write, just from that advice. No mixing and matching books, and it must only be for the one script.

Are you up to the mission?

When I'm done, I'm going to do a quick rewrite, then I'm going to give my script to a trusted reader, and see if the advice was worth the paper (real or electronic) that it was typed on.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Great American Pitchfest, Part 3 - The Pitches

Yeah, this blog post is a little late, but holy cow, crowd funding takes a LOT of time!
This post is all about the pitches. And we heard a wide variety of pitches at Great American PitchFest this year.

The way it works: There is a room full of tables with managers, agents and production companies just waiting to hear that pitch that will knock their socks off. The one that makes them stand up and shout, "I GOT ONE!" Sadly, that didn't happen to us.
Yes, we were a table of three. And in reality, I wish every writer that ever pitched could sit through a day of pitches like Sarah and I were able to do. I think it would do wonders for them to make their pitch stand out from the crowd.
Every pitch gets 5 minutes, but if the pitchee is interested, they can keep you longer. After your 5 minutes, you go back out and wait to come in in another wave of pitchers.

First I want to talk about pitching, and I'm bringing this up from the pitchee POV.

Not just for you, but maybe offer a small travel size to the person you're pitching to. It may well be the thing that gets you remembered. Assuming your pitch didn't already do that.
Take a deep breath, a shot of tequila, or a Xanax, or both (you think I'm kidding), but follow the Patron with a Listerine strip, so the producer/agent/manager doesn't ask to share your bottle.
This isn't brain surgery, hell, it's only a job interview, and if you already have a job, it's an interview for a job you don't need. So relax, you'll give a much better pitch.

Nothing is a bigger turn off than not being sure of yourself. I'm not talking cocky here, I'm talking about knowing you have a great script, and feeling good about sitting down and talking about it.

The best pitch we had came from a woman who walked up to the table like she knew us, and said, "I need a manager. My script has been requested by a lot of producers..." She wasn't making this up, she had great presence and a great pitch.

And I don't mean have a well rehearsed pitch, those are a dime a dozen. I mean know your story/pitch like it's your house in a tract house neighborhood of identical homes, like it's your baby in a nursery where they mixed up the names, like, well, you get it by now.
And tell your story like you've been telling it since you were twelve. That funny story everyone keeps asking you to repeat.

I beg you, learn how to shake hands!!! The biggest turnoff is a limp, half, or soft handshake! Shake a woman's hand the same as you'd shake a man's. Take the full hand with confidence and shake like you're glad to meet them.
When you sit down, say something about the company you're talking to (yes, this means doing your homework, whether it's before you arrive at the pitchfest, in your room the night before, or while waiting in line). Know something about them, so they know why you chose to pitch to them.
Tell the a little (very little) about yourself, and then BOOM! you get to start your pitch.

First, don't sit down and say, "Well, I have three different scripts, a romantic comedy, a thriller, and a civil war. Which one would you like to hear?" Are you fucking kidding me? Pick the one you plan to pitch, and tell them what you are pitching! The person listening to pitches doesn't want to make that decision all freaking day.
You're there to pitch your best piece, so pitch the hell out of it. And if you did your homework, and read the books I recommended, you'll kill it!
If there's extra time, you can tell them about other work you have, but you choose what you're going to talk about.
Offer up your high concept, knock their socks off, they want to reach over the table and hug you, logline!

Then when you see their eyes light up, give them another paragraph! Yup, just a paragraph. If you are killin' it, they'll be saying, "And then..." They'll be leaning forward, waiting for more. And if they are, then you have all the answers. And you answer and carry on with confidence because you know your story like, well, you know...
Speaking of answers, if you're interrupted with questions, be cool with it, answer the questions and know exactly how to pick back up naturally. This can be practiced by pitching to friends and having them ask you questions along the way. Or by knowing your story like...

Hollywood doesn't buy ideas. Well, at least not if you are pitching your first screenplay, they don't. Your script MUST be fully written, and polished before you go out trying to sell it. If you pitch and they love your story, you don't have months, or even weeks to finish it and send it off. By two weeks after the pitchfest, even if your story was KILLER, the producer is going to figure you aren't that interested in their company, or at the very least, you aren't a professional.

Yes, Hollywood makes a lot of expensive films, but not yours. As a first time writer you need to have a story your manager/producer/agent can sell. By this I mean, no period pieces whether it's 1893 or 2154, no blow them up action pics, and no exotic locations that can't be faked in the US.
You wouldn't believe how many of these scripts were pitched to us. Yeah, there's a chance this type of film will get made by a newbie screenwriter, but it's more like a chance in hell.
Some good advice for first time screenwriters (by first time, I mean never had a TV or feature screenplay produced):



Remember, Hollywood is first and foremost a business. You need to treat it like one. Before you start pitching your script, get to know some Hollywood folk, or read the books about the business side, not just the craft of screenwriting. If you educate yourself, like you would for any other professional career, you will be that much ahead of 99% of the other people pitching.

Bob and Signe offer up lots of chances to schmooze with Hollywood folk both before and after the pitching. If you don't take advantage of these opportunities, then you may as well stay home. I've made more lasting contacts at the lunches and cocktail parties, by just having a conversation with the professionals. NO! you don't want to pitch them at these functions, you just want to chat, talk about movies, the industry. If they want to know what you're working on, you can give them the logline, but don't offer it if they don't ask. By all means, have fun, producers/managers/agents are people too!

Zac Sanford would like to add:  Always have a one sheet of your script available and ready for what you pitch. 
 Also, no loose business cards.  Your contact information is (and should be on your one sheet).  If you want your business card to be part of the one sheet, staple that sucker on there.  Otherwise it just becomes a collection of cards that mean nothing at the end of the day.

Monday, June 18, 2012

No One Knows - a short film

I posted back in May about my short script, No One Knows, being filmed in Oklahoma in August. Well, we've started our crowd funding campaign to raise $7000 to pay for the costs of filming.  You can check out and donate to our campaign here:

Be sure to watch the powerful video that accompanies the film page on the IndieGoGo site, as the actor who plays our main character, Hannah, really tells it like it is for children being abused.
I promised to write part 3 of my Great American Pitchfest blog when we got to $1500,  little did I know we'd raise $1860 in less than 24 hours. So my post will go live tomorrow.

I want to thank everyone who has donated, posted on Facebook, tweeted, or RTed the link to our campaign. We hope this film will bring awareness to a subject no one seems to want to talk about.


Sunday, June 17, 2012

GAPF, part 3

I know I promised the part 3 of the Great American Pitchfest, but I'm kicking off a crowd funding campaign this week. So I've decided to put off the pitching blog post of the pitchfest, and all of the juicy nuggets of information gleaned from my day of listening to pitches until the crowd funding is under way.

I'm planning an elaborate post with great info on the business side of pitchfests, and producers, but I want to give some incentive to get there.

When our campaign reaches the $1500 level, I'll post the GAPF, part 3 post.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Great American PitchFest, part 2

Saturday morning started with 9am FREE sessions. Bob and Signe really compiled a diverse and informative set of panels for this day of learning.

The sessions lasted 1.5 hours each with half-hour breaks in between. There were so many good panels to listen to, I had a hard time choosing. I finally decided to go to the TV writing panels, since that's where my current writing interest is leaning.

Writing the Killer Procedural
9:00am to 10:30am – Academy Six Ballroom
with Jennifer Dornbush
Learn to ace the procedural with step-by-step instruction from Jennifer Dornbush. You’ll learn how to structure it, pick the best type for you, create a monster antagonist, lay out a crime scene, use scientific evidence, build a compelling string of clues and solve the crime with an emotional pay-off.

Jennifer gave a 16 point breakdown of the average procedural, which really resonated with me. And at the end of the day I had the chance to thank her for the session when she sat at our table for drinks. It was fun discussing her writing career. I'm sending out positive vibes for her pitch meetings at the end of June. She's pitching a police procedural to several network and cable stations.

How to Get, Keep & Manage Your Agent or Manager
11:00am to 12:30pm – Academy Four Ballroom
with Sheree Guitar (Mgr), Mike Kusciak (Mrg) & Chad Gervich
Every talented writer wants an agent or manager, but how do you find one? Our expert panel will share tips and insights on getting an agent or manager, selecting the representation that’s best for you and what your next steps are. Learn about the writer/rep relationship and what you can do to make sure you’re getting the most out of your team. Their advice will help you find the right agent or manager for you and teach you what you need to do to keep them in your corner.

There were actually four people on this panel, and I'm so sorry I don't have all of the names. This was standing room only, as people piled into the room to listen to the agents and managers dole out tasty morsels of information.

After the extremely informative session, the crowd mobbed the panel, so Sarah, Kiyong and I decided to flee.

In the lobby, I was able to speak to Mike from Samuri MK about writing and movies. We had so much in common, it was uncanny. After a short discussion on adapting screenplays into novels, we decided we should do a panel on this very subject next year. (Hopefully, Bob and Signe will agree that this would be a great session for the 2013 GAPF)

Had a tasty lunch with Zac Sanford, Sarah Newman, and Mike Alber. We had so much fun at lunch that we were late to the afternoon sessions and arrived to more "standing room only" rooms.

The afternoon sessions I attended were:

Write a TV Pilot Script
2:30pm to 4:00pm – Academy Four Ballroom
with Jen Grisanti
Since launching Jen Grisanti Consultancy Inc., Jen has helped develop over 300 pilots and had 11 clients sell pilots. In this class, she’ll cover how to find a concept, story structure, finding your voice in your story, defining a dilemma and having a clear goal from it, building obstacles, elevating stakes, adding theme, symbolism and message and setting up your series. She’ll review common mistakes, explain how to write a pitch document and bible and include her workbook “How to Write a TV Pilot Script.”

The Comic Premise
4:30pm to 6:00pm – Academy Five Ballroom
with Steve Kaplan
What are the keys to writing a comedy that works? Why do some comedies work more successfully than others? This session will explore the heart of a comedy—its initial premise. The session will explore how to construct a great premise that has the potential to develop into the sharpest, funniest version of your comic idea.

The grueling day of learning was followed by a poolside "Schmooze Fest" of drinks and appetizers. In other words, hours of drinking and being pulled in a hundred different directions and just as many conversations. Again, I was able to meet several more ScriptChat regulars and guests. The highlight of my evening was seeing a friend I'd met at GAPF the year before. We'll call him "Schmidt." He's a true professional, and I hope the best for him in his screenwriting career, as he has a great script he's shopping.

Another highlight of the evening was meeting the Russian journalist, and horse enthusiast, Lena. We had an intriguing conversation, and now I want to go to Russia to see her husband's play. Lena is a fabulous photographer who is in California for the filmmaker school at USC.

I'm sure I'm forgetting many conversations, but there was just so much going on that night. One conversation I won't forget was with film editor Eric Brodeur. Great fun, and a very interesting guy. We talked about everything from bio-fuel to beer. The night ended way too soon.

Sunday was all about the pitches, and I'll post about those in Part 3, tomorrow...

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Great American PitchFest, Part 1

I'm writing this blog post as I sit in the airport waiting for my flight home from the 2012 Great American Pitchfest. I wanted to write while the experience was fresh in my mind. Regarding the GAPF, Bob and Signe do a fabulous job in coordinating this daunting event.

I know there must be glitches along the way, as with any event, but the attendees wouldn't know it, as the event ran extremely smoothly. The Marriott Burbank is a beautiful location, with an excellent banquet staff. And GAPF makes so much available at this location.

The weekend started with a Friday night meet up, planned by Jen Grisanti, at the Daily Grill. Lots of TV writers attended this event, which is a fabulous networking event for aspiring and currently staffed TV writers. Personally, I was lucky enough to have dinner with 2 of my favorite TV writers, Mike Alber and Kiyong Kim. We had a tasty meal and talked about Mike's job at Nick, fellowships, and short films. Kiyong is crowd funding a short film called You Will Meet a Sexy Stranger,and I'm in the pre-funding stages on a short script I wrote, called No One Knows, being produced by Daniel Hoyos and directed by Bunee Tomlinson. It was great fun to discuss this process, as I'm just a writer and have so much reverence for producers and directors.

 Sarah Newman, a fellow screenwriter, joined the three of us late during dinner and made the conversation that much more intriguing.

The goal of Friday night was to not drink too much, so we could enjoy ourselves at the free screenwriting sessions on Saturday. But with so many people to meet from ScriptChat and TVWriterChat, there was barely time to sip between conversations.

 I felt so lucky to meet the great participants of Scriptchat,(who i won't try to name because I'll inevitably leave someone out) and get to put actual faces and voices to the Twitter personalities. The night was over too soon, but then we did have to prepare for a day of learning on Saturday.

Great American Pitchfest, Part 2 GAPF Saturday session tomorrow...