Jeanne’s Tuesday Screenwriting Tips: Listen to Greg Beal

How often do we writers enter screenwriting contests and wonder what goes through the minds of the decision makers? Grab a seat. You’re about to find out.

Meet Greg Beal. Since 1989, Greg has administered the Academy Nicholl Fellowships in Screenwriting. One can only imagine how many screenplays have crossed Greg’s path in that time. I’m thinking, when Greg talks, it’s time to listen.

I shot Greg a few simple questions to crawl inside his head and get a glimpse of the life lessons this industry has bestowed upon him. Hopefully, some of his insights will help you too. Don’t miss the late deadline for the competition, May1st (5pm PDT).

Greg Beal

Greg Beal

JVB: I’m always being curious why people do what they do, what got you started in this business?

Greg Beal: Realized as a history undergrad that I loved movies and decided I wanted to try to work in the field in some way. That took me to film graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin where I was a history/crit person who also wrote some screenplays and worked on a few shorts.

JVB: Looking back at your career, and reading as many scripts as you have, what thoughts do you have on how many screenplays it takes for a writer to really “get it” in terms of style and polish? Do you think a formal education in screenwriting is necessary to reach that level of quality?

GB: It’s entirely dependent on the individual. For instance, one of last year’s Academy Nicholl fellows won with her first screenplay – and then sold it. So she got it right away. Of course, she attended film school, worked on the production side for five years and then worked at a management company for a couple of years before tackling that first script. Most screenwriters need some time and scripts under their belt before they begin to get it. As for film school, good for some, unnecessary for others.

JVB: What advice would you have for the new writer who just finished their first script?

GB: She should put it in a drawer and immediately begin writing another script. Once the second script is finished, take the first script out of the drawer and decide whether it deserves a rewrite.

JVB: Outside of screenwriting contests, have you discovered any out-of-the box actions that writers have taken over the years that actually work at getting them noticed? Or action that got them “noticed” in the wrong way?

GB: I’ve heard dozens of different stories – leaving a script on a star’s front doorstep on a rainy Sunday, tossing a script over a producer’s fence, handing a script to a star after an event, attending a screenwriting workshop and being invited to submit a script by a producer, having a high school buddy call and ask if you’d like to write a script, attending film school and getting an alum to read a script – and some have worked quite well. It’s about persistence – and being in the right place at the right time. More often than not, that right place is in Southern California.

JVB: What’s the most common mistake writers make, either in the craft and/or in the business? Speaking of business, many writers want to stay in their caves, churning out scripts. How important would you say it is for them to get to L.A. and come out of the shadows?

GB: Part one. Not having interesting stories to tell. Not taking the time to learn how screenplays work and look. Part two. Yes, screenwriters need to come out of the shadows. As wonderful a connector as the Internet is, more screenwriting jobs arise from personal relationships developed over time and proximity.

JVB: What percentage of scripts that come across your desk make you sit up and take notice? Would you say those that do follow a classic structure? Or do you even notice “structure” when the script has you totally enthralled?

GB: At most, a handful each year – if by come across my desk you mean entered in the Academy Nicholl competition. An intriguing story well told is what matters most to me, not whether it conforms to a classic structure.

JVB: If you could go back in time, what advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

GB: Figure out what you really enjoy doing and then figure out a way to make a living doing it.

Don’t miss the late deadline for the Academy Nicholl competition, May 1st, 5PM PDT. 

Don’t miss the chance to meet Greg in person at Screenwriters World Conference in L.A. in August when he participates in the panel, How to Make the Contest Cut.

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3 thoughts on “Jeanne’s Tuesday Screenwriting Tips: Listen to Greg Beal

  1. KdiggsKdiggs

    As a writer, I have made plenty of these mistakes. I went to film school and I learned a lot. But, I don’t think my career really began until I finished school. This interview was great!

  2. Pingback: If you’re submitting to #screenwriting fests, then… | ScripTeach

  3. FDFD

    Greg makes a great point when he says the most common mistake writers make is not having interesting stories to tell. Instead of focusing on what your story is about and how to write it, I think you need to ask yourself: Why do I want to tell this particular story? What’s in it for me? Another good question: How do I make readers care about my characters. When readers care what happens to a character, the story will seem interesting to them.

    So how do you make them care? Not by your writing skill. You need to be emotionally invested in the story. The more you care what happens to your characters, the richer the story will be. The more you care what readers feel about these fictionalized projections of yourself, the more interest your story earns.

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