BREAKING IN: Breaking the Rules

There are a lot of rules about how to sell your first script.  But rules are made to be broken.  Sometimes. Here are some common “rules” of the business, along with my best tips on which ones you can break– and which you must follow.

Rule to BREAK…or Rule to FOLLOW?:

YOUR SCREENPLAY MUST BE UNDER 120 PAGES

FOLLOW. Yes, some very successful movies are longer than two hours,  and were based on scripts that were over 120 pages.  But most of those scripts were written by writers who were already famous, and had earned the right to break the rules.  It’s true that, occasionally, I’ll find a spec script that is way over 120 pages, and it’s still excellent.  But that’s the rare exception.  I’ve hardly ever read a script that’s much longer than 120 pages and wouldn’t have been better had it been shorter.  As a script analyst who works mostly for writers rather than producers, I don’t mind reading scripts that are too long.  But if it’s over 120 pages, I mention this in my report, and tell the writer how to trim it before he submits it to the marketplace.

Actually, these days most spec scripts written by the pros are considerably less than 120 pages.  If you’ve written a spec script, and it’s a drama, aim for about 110 pages.  If it’s a comedy, shoot for 95-105 pages.  Don’t go below 90 pages.  These are rough estimates, and opinions on this will vary.

What if you’ve written the next Doctor Zhivago, and it’s a big epic that just HAS to be over 120 pages?  Go ahead–  be my guest.  Just know that if your script is significantly over 120 pages, while it’s not a deal-breaker, the producer’s script reader is going to start out questioning whether you know the rules of the business-  and that’s not a good thing.

“WE DON’T ACCEPT UNSOLICITED SUBMISSIONS.”

FOLLOW AND BREAK. Huh? Let me explain. This is a rule you must follow–  except there’s a loophole.  If they don’t accept unsolicited submissions, this means that they do accept “solicited” submissions, right?  So how do you get them to solicit (request) your script?  Send them a really great pitch/query letter. Do NOT enclose any other material.  But if they think your pitch sounds interesting, they will request your screenplay.  And if they do?  Voilå!  You’ve gotten around the rule!

Of course, if they are interested in reading your script and you don’t have representation, they will probably ask you to sign a release first.  Read it carefully and ask a lawyer if you are unsure about whether to sign it.  But this is usually pretty routine.

Are there producers and agents who proudly state that they welcome unsolicited screenplays?  Yes, absolutely.  You don’t want to work with those people.  Any producer or agent worth his salt already has so many scripts to read, the last thing he wants is any more of them.  Unlike script analysts, producers don’t really get paid for reading screenplays, they get paid for setting up successful movies.  They are reluctant to read material that hasn’t been vetted even before it reaches them.  If a producer or agent is so hard up or so new that he’s saying, “Sure! Send me a zillion screenplays!  I’ll read anything!”, he probably has not made any successful films.  And if he hasn’t, it probably won’t help your career to work with him.

By the way, some producers won’t open a letter or e-mail from anyone whose name they don’t recognize.  Some have lawyers who won’t permit them to, in case the writer turns out to be crazy and later sues them for having “stolen” his idea.  So is it possible that if you send out a query letter or e-mail, the recipient may not even open it?  Or he might even send you a reply from their lawyer, warning you that the film company didn’t read your pitch, and touched your letter only because they were wearing Hazmat suits at the time?  Yes.  But thems the breaks.  Don’t let that stop you from sending out brief query letters (only one per company, please; don’t be a pest).

WHEN YOU’RE JUST STARTING OUT, DON’T SHOOT FOR THE MOON.  WORK WITH DIRECTORS, PRODUCERS, AND ACTORS WHO ARE NEW AND UNKNOWN, TOO.

BREAK. If you are trying to advance your career as a writer, only work with the best.  You should be approaching people who have a track record for getting movies made that made a profit and got good reviews.  If you want to get an actor “attached” to your script, don’t aim for the guy who played Urkel on “Family Matters”– go for Tom Hanks.

The rare exception?  If you’ve actually made movies with or personally know some talented and driven, young, up-and-coming directors or actors who are “about” to be discovered, it’s fine to roll the dice on them.  Perhaps you went to film school, and got to know some very gifted young directors there.  After all, when I was in college at NYU film school, one of the other screenwriter-directors sitting next to me in class was a nice young guy from Ohio named Chris Columbus.  But if you decide to work with directors or producers you know personally, make sure you’re taking a chance on each other because you’re all budding geniuses with a strong work ethic and a bright future ahead of you in the film business—and not just because you’re friends.

IF YOU WANT TO CONTACT AN ACTOR OR DIRECTOR, GO THROUGH HIS AGENT

BREAK. That’s a rule for agents and producers, not for you.  If you’re a screenwriter hoping to break in, and you want to try to get a star or famous director to read your script, there are no “rules” about how to get your pitch letter to them– except don’t send your script without their permission, be polite and professional, respect their privacy, and don’t “stalk” them.  So, if you want to mail a brief query letter directly to a famous director’s film production company (do some research, find out the name of his Director of Development, and address the letter to that person)– that’s a good plan.  I can’t promise they will read your letter, but it’s certainly possible, and definitely worth a shot.  Or, if your cousin is Tom Hanks’s hairdresser and you can give her a letter to give to him–  good for you.  Just don’t ask her whether Tom dyes his hair or wears a toupée.

Keep pitching.  See you next month.

8 thoughts on “BREAKING IN: Breaking the Rules

  1. Steve

    Great insights! Does anyone know to what extent you should tailor your letter to each company? If you show a knowledge of what they have recently produced and make a case for why your project might fit (or break) that mould, is that advantageous to you or just lengthens your letter unnecessarily?

  2. Peter Collington

    Good advice. I was recently given what I thought was a business card by a well-known actor. I slipped it into my jacket pocket not wanting to scrutinize it openly in front of his all-too-brief penetrating gaze. Later, clutching a red carpet martini I excitedly fished it out. Instead of his contact details there was just a quote:

    “When you are sinking don’t wrap yourself in the chains of failure. Every problem can be unpicked. Every surface is waiting for you to emerge with shimmering hope.” – Harry Houdini

  3. Jessica

    Thanks for the info. I have a co-written screenplay that I is about to wrap up and my co-writer and I have no earthly idea what to do with it once we feel it is complete. Now we have an idea 🙂

  4. Pingback: The Athletic Nerd Screenwriting Blog | The Screenwriting Spark Volume 6 | The Athletic Nerd

  5. Tim Manning

    BREAKING IN article… Very good information and the timing (for me) is perfect. As an aspiring screenwritere, I feel like I am gazing at the “wall” that encircles Hollywood… Much as a prison wall, it is perhaps easier to break-OUT of than to break-IN…

    I currently have two screenplays undre construction that I hope to enter into the next BIG BREAK contest (2011), So, I am fully determined to give it a crack.

    Tim Manning

COMMENT