Ask the Expert: How Do I Get My Material Seen?

Question: How do I get my material seen? 

As a producer, script consultant and former VP of development for production companies based at Sony, Universal, and Disney, one of the most frequently asked questions I hear from screenwriters is “How do I get my material seen?!!” In response to this and other commonly asked questions, I wrote this article to provide insights into the minds of industry professionals and their decision-making process when buying material.  Having a better understanding of how executives and agents think may enhance your abilities to navigate the landscape, get your project seen, and advance your careers.

“How do I get my material seen? What is the common denominator to success? Aren’t a lot of Hollywood executives jaded and simply don’t ‘get’ my material?!”

It may be true that many Hollywood executives, producers and agents are jaded; however, it’s because we read thousands of scripts, books, and pitches every year. We’ve seen and heard just about everything.  Therefore, the responsibility rests with the creative talent to present material that is fresh and well-executed.  The answer to “What is the common denominator to success?” is simple and yet highly challenging:  WRITE A GREAT SCREENPLAY.   A great screenplay will get attention and recognition through a myriad of resources such as:

Pitch fests, screenwriting contests, submissions to companies and agencies that are willing to look at unrepresented material, writing an effective query letter, networking, attending writers groups, and asking a friend who might have connections for introductions.  A great script will start to get attention.  It might make it on industry lists and websites such as ScriptShadow or the Black List, resources that highlight outstanding screenplays and are read by executives and agents.

In truth, every time an executive, agent, producer, reader or assistant sits down to read a new submission, they are rooting for you.

“But you just said that most executives, producers and agents are jaded, so why would they root for me?  It seems that a lot of them just can’t even recognize a good script!”

To succeed in Hollywood, it is essential to understand the paradox that both diametrically opposed dynamics exist in the entertainment industry. Hollywood’s decision-makers are inclined to say “no” to your project and the odds are stacked against you.  At the same time, they want you to succeed.  Why?

We want the next great thing! How easy our lives would be if your script is amazing.  If we’re an assistant and become responsible for pointing out a script that will eventually get made and become a hit, that assistant is likely to get a promotion and move up the Hollywood ladder.  If we’re a studio executive or producer and this happens, we will get a raise, increase our quotes, our percentage points and our status.

Put yourself in the executives’ shoes. You come in to their office, you pitch a project that you think is the most original, most fantastic idea.  Maybe it is.  But there is also a good chance that the executive has already heard a version of it before.

The individuals who ultimately have the power to green light a film are investing millions of dollars in a movie.  If it fails it’s their ass, livelihoods, and pocketbooks on the line, not yours.

Screenwriters often get wrapped up in the rejection process and lose sight of the above.  It’s important to make an honest assessment of your work by asking yourself the following:  “Have I done everything possible to create a compelling story?  Is the dialogue fresh and gripping or is it expositional?  Is the situation engaging?  Are the characters interesting? If you cannot honestly answer “yes” to all of these questions, then ask yourself this next question: “If I had millions of dollars at stake and could risk it all, would this be a script and story I’d want to stand behind 100%?” If the answer is no, it might be time to get back to work.

“Isn’t it true that Hollywood is reactive?”

Yes.  If a certain type of feature comes out and does poorly, projects in a similar genre may fall out of favor at the studios and be dropped. Conversely, if a marginally perceived film does exceptionally and unexpectedly well at the box office, suddenly the studios may clamor for that type of project.  But it is also true that there are Hollywood executives, agents, managers and producers who are visionaries and risk-takers, who stand by the courage of their convictions even if what they are trying to sell goes against the status quo.  It is the visionaries who set the trends.  If they didn’t exist, we would never have movies like “The Artist”, “Up”, “The Hurt Locker”, or “Juno”, movies which go against the grain of high-concept, commercial films.  Once again, the common denominator to success:  START WITH A GREAT SCREENPLAY.

Take another example, “The Ex-Files”.  There had been nothing like it on television before.  Once it became a huge hit the networks were flooded with copycat or “Ex-Files” wanna-be’s.  None succeeded because almost nothing is ever as good as an original idea that comes from a true sense of creativity (as opposed to a replica that stems from a calculated vs. inspirational place.)

Because Hollywood often operates from a reactive rather than purely creative place doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone who doesn’t “get” your script is a jerk.  The submission process is often a numbers’ game to find the right person who eventually will “get” your material and want to fight for it and use their resources to get it made.

“But doesn’t Hollywood make bad movies? I’ve seen Hollywood make lots of bad movies!  How do they get made?!”

When I hear screenwriters ask these questions, it puzzles me.  I recognize the frustrations of getting turned down, but it’s almost as though these declarations are license and justification for not having to write a good screenplay. Just because Hollywood makes some bad movies, do you want your script to be one of them?  Ask yourself, what is it you really want?

Do you want the fame and glamour of getting a movie made?  Or do you want to create a great piece of writing that will make a lasting impression? If you’re diligent and committed to the task of creating excellent work, the fame and fortune should be the by-product.  If your focus is fame and fortune and not a commitment to your craft, chances are you might not obtain the fame and fortune.

While bad movies might be useful guides to help you avoid certain similar pitfalls in your own film, using negative comparisons as a barometer for your own work is not productive or constructive. There are a thousand random reasons as to why mediocre and bad movies get made, or start out with good material but then wind up poorly executed. Rather than look at the negative examples of such films, it is best to look at successful models of the types of movies that you are writing. If you look to these for inspiration, they may trigger your imagination further, and stimulate new and exciting ideas for your own movie.

“What if I write a great script and it still doesn’t get sold or made? How does this serve me?”

In spite of all the glamour we see 24/7 in the media about Hollywood fame and fortune, the truth is that this is one of the most difficult businesses to break through.  It is not for the faint of heart.  It is for those who are diligent and persistent and have the ability to sustain themselves while pursuing their craft and passion.

If you do write a great script and that script gets exposure – even if it doesn’t get made — there is a good chance it will lead to screenwriting jobs where executives and producers will want to hire you.

Many screenwriters forget that the screenwriting idols they look up to have worked on projects for YEARS before they ever got made.  A few examples include critically acclaimed, Oscar-winning films such as: “Crash”, “Shakespeare in Love”, “Ghost”, “In the Line of Fire”, to name just a few.  If it’s taken brilliant filmmakers such as Paul Haggis years to get some of his movies made, why should a writer starting out expect to hit a home run without having put in his or her dues?  A writer/director/producer such as J.J. Abrams is another example of someone who did not achieve success overnight.  If you look at his bio, it’s clear that even though he is relatively young to have such a successful career – he has in fact been working at his craft for a long time.

In 1991, nearly 21 years ago he wrote a very strong “spec” script, “Regarding Henry” which attracted Harrison Ford.  Nine years later Abrams created his first TV series hit “Felicity”.  He then went on to create “Lost”, direct “Mission Impossible” and “Star Trek”.  He is one of Hollywood’s most in-demand directors but again, his success did not happen instantaneously.  It happened through hard work and a continuous commitment to evolving his craft.

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The above are a few examples that are intended to provide “tough love” and a realistic assessment of the business with respect to insights that can help you better navigate the Hollywood landscape.

That it can be both the most magical, inspiring, and rewarding, while at the same time difficult, fickle, and disheartening businesses in the world is a paradox that exists within the entertainment industry.  If you are looking for immediate gratification, you are probably in the wrong business.

If on the other hand, you have the discipline and perseverance to painstakingly hone and refine your skills, and you are armed with good sense and self-awareness, the entertainment industry can be the greatest business in the world, and a myriad of possibilities awaits you.

Want more of Wendy Kram’s great advice? Her How to Sell Your Film and TV Scripts: Treatments, Loglines, Synopses & Marketing Platforms webinar is live on Wednesday, October 3, 2012. Even if you can’t make the live event, as long as you sign up in advance, you’ll get a recording emailed to you! Sign up today!

5 thoughts on “Ask the Expert: How Do I Get My Material Seen?

  1. elle

    great advice, factual hard… I think all we aspiring writers more so ‘underground’ writers should come together, form groups to support each other for success. hit me up people… linked in script writers

  2. Jeff McMahon

    I’m always inspired by an extract from Thoreau’s ‘Walden’: “If one advances confidently in the direction of his dreams and endeavours to live the life he has imagined, he will meet with a success unimagined in waking hours.”

    Hang in there, work hard, know where you are going.

  3. Leona Heraty

    Wendy, thanks for this realistic assessment of what it really takes to sell our scripts in Hollywood. Your article is to-the-point, honest but also very encouraging. I think that in our society today, we’re so used to instant everything (drive-through Starbucks, microwaves, ATMs, tweets, chats, texting, etc.) but, like you said,the truth is that it can take years of hard work and discipline to break into Hollywood, whether you’re a screenwriter, agent, producer or actor, or any other creative person in the business.

    I read a quote a while back by Harrison Ford, and I’m paraphrasing here, but he said something like, “I came to Hollywood years ago and there were lots of really talented people I knew who were also wanting to break into the business. The only reason I made it and they didn’t is I refused to quit and they gave up and left. I stuck around and they didn’t.”

    I also remember reading an article about Kate Winslet in Vanity Fair several years ago, and the interviewer was sort of implying that she was an overnight success after she starred in the movie Titanic, and Kate said something like, and I’m paraphrasing here, “Well, I wasn’t an overnight success. It’s taken years of bloody hard work to get to where I am today.”

    So really, if top stars like Harrison Ford and Kate Winslet have told us that they were not overnight successes, why should we as screenwriters trying to break into the business be any different? The good news is, like you said Wendy, if we’re willing to work hard, constantly improve our writing, network, and write an outstanding screenplay, eventually we too will break into the business, sell our screenplay and be on our way to a great career.

    Also, Wendy, I agree with what you said about screenwriters complaining about bad movies that are being made. One of my favorite motivational writers and speakers is Brian Tracy, and he says that if you want to be successful, model yourself after other successful people in your field. So, like you mentioned in the article, we need to find the movies that inspire us to greatness, and be inspired by them, and hold the bar high for our own writing, to match their greatness.

    We should NOT model our writing after bad movies, rather, we should challenge ourselves to write like the Oscar winning screenwriters! Brian Tracy also says when it comes to success, spend your time focusing on what you want, and NOT on what you don’t want. So, let’s spend our time watching great movies that inspire us to excellence. If we do watch a bad movie, we should try to find ways that we would make it better if we had a chance to rewrite it, or at least find one good thing about the movie, such as a actor we admire or the costumes, makeup, etc. 🙂

  4. Patrick T

    Some hard truths just realized. I think many of us who are wanting to break in to the industry feel it should happen soon. A lot of that comes from spending what would feel like an eternity editing a script to the best of our efforts. As the article states, it takes more than that. I honestly had no idea J.J. Abrams took as long as he did. granted it is still very impressive, but it is good to know “the greats” had to pay their dues as well.

    And I 100% agree with writing a great piece of writing as opposed to something “getting made” for the sake of fame.

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