An icon in the world of screenwriting education, UCLA’s Screenwriting Chairman Richard Walter has seen his share of Hollywood fame stories. Just a few of those who have taken his classes and gone on to sell award-winning screenplays include Alexander Payne (Sideways, Election, Citizen Ruth), Paul Castro (August Rush) and David Koepp (Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Spider-Man, Mission: Impossible). How did success find these writers? Walter expands on the ins and outs of Hollywood in his new book Essentials of Screenwriting: The Art, Craft and Business of Film and Television Writing. Script sat down with him to get a sneak peak on how best to break into Hollywood.
SCRIPT: If a new screenwriter has no contacts in Hollywood, what’s the best way to get someone to read a script?
RICHARD WALTER: Six degrees of separation. Everybody knows somebody who knows somebody. It takes time, of course, but eventually every writer can find someone with a connection who can refer a script, if he/she truly likes it, to a reader for a potential agent or manager. Another technique is the old fashioned query letter. My new screenwriting book contains the actual letter Gregory Widen wrote to a number of agents, all of whom agreed to read the script, then called Shadow Clan, ultimately released as The Highlander. It is now, amazingly enough, being re-made. In the book, I also suggest a strategy whereby a writer writes a series of letters to a successful screenwriter (they all have the same address: c/o the Writers Guild of America, West, Inc). In this first letter, the writer does not seek a reference to an agent, but asks an innocuous question about the writer’s writing habits. Will the superstar writer answer? Try to shut him up. Writers will do anything to avoid working on whatever they’re supposed to be working on. This is why they’ll answer the letter. This evolves into a bit of a seduction that leads to the professional writer eventually agreeing to refer the correspondent’s script to an agent.
SCRIPT: Are screenwriting contests a good way to get noticed? Are they worth the entry fee?
RW: Some are, some aren’t. I can’t endorse or disqualify any particular ones, here. Generally speaking, the better known, older contests that are still in business are probably trustworthy. In the contest process, the judges are often industry people, or at least people with ties to industry people. Beyond that, winning prizes exposes the writer and his/her name to the community. I often receive calls at UCLA from agents and production executives seeking contact info for a writer who won a contest.
SCRIPT: Are film festivals a good way to network and meet people who might be interesting in moving your script to the next level?
RW: Meeting people and networking is pointless if you don’t got the goods, that is, a script or two or three that is professional, personal, provocative, and engaging. That said, however, there’s nothing wrong with meeting people and perhaps even having a chance to pitch a notion or two. Reiterating, though, it’s not about meeting people. It’s about writing. People who were on the scene in Paris in the ’20s say that Hemingway was never around in the bar because he was upstairs in his room writing.
SCRIPT: Is the concept half the battle of selling? Can a script be sold just on the pitch?
RW: Concepts are a dime a dozen. What’s the concept behind Star Wars? Psycho? Casablanca? The Godfather? Concepts, notions, and ideas are the most over-appreciated entities in the biz. When you have a really, really good idea for a script, that’s all you have. What remains after that? Everything. You have to invent the characters, the story, the dialogue, the scenes and settings and much, much more. As for pitching, it’s not called screen talking; it’s called screenwriting. I’ve heard great pitches that made dreadful movies. I’ve heard stumbling, mumbling, oh-yeah-I-forgot-to-tell-you-this-part kinds of pitches, that turned out to be beautiful scripts. Writers can do the one thing nobody else can do: create something from nothing: a screenplay. Actors can’t do it; not directors; not producers. Only writers. And that’s what they should be doing. There are many, many other reasons that are covered in “Essentials of Screenwriting” regarding the reasons it’s a mistake for new writers orally to pitch their scripts.
SCRIPT: What kinds of scripts sell in 2010 when spec sales are down to nearly only 1% of the market?
RW: Just about the biggest mistake a writer can make is to try to get in on the latest trend. First of all, there really aren’t any trends. They look like trends, perhaps, after the fact, but they never start out that way. If something could be identified as a trend, it would be too late to get in on that trend simply because it is the trend. That is, it would have had to be in the works two years earlier for it to be on the screen now. Smart writers forget trends and follow their hearts. If the writer herself doesn’t care what she’s writing about, why would any audience? Regarding spec scripts, selling them should not be the focus. All sorts of rewards may flow even from a script that does not sell. It may lead to a development deal; it may lead to a rewrite assignment; it may lead to representation. It certainly makes a more experienced practitioner of the writer, and it becomes part of her inventory. Some major, Oscar-winning scripts (Unforgiven and In the Line of Fire are only two of more than several) that initially failed to sell but eventually, even twenty years later, found a buyer. The purpose of the spec script is to build inventory and demonstrate craft in the interest of building a reputation, gaining prestige, and winning representation. Sure, it’s nice to sell a spec, not failing to sell it is not the end but merely the beginning.
SCRIPT: There are so many action movies out this summer, should new screenwriters look to these films for ideas?
RW: No! There are always action movies. When have there not been action movies? Reiterating from my answer before, writers should follow their own hearts and souls and write about what’s important to them, what’s personal, rather than second-guessing what they think an audience might like or a studio might buy. A writer in my class won great success by writing a western when everybody in town was writing Beverly Hills Cop-type police action melodramas. He didn’t sell the western, but it stood out. It won him attention. Ultimately, it won him a rewrite at a major studio, plus representation from a powerful agency. To look to current films for ideas is to be led by one’s intellect instead of one’s heart. Life has a place for intellect, to be sure, but movies ain’t it. Movies are not about thinking but feeling.
SCRIPT: How can a screenwriter who doesn’t live in LA or New York expect to break in?
RW: Except in series television, where writers need to be available to pitch and, ultimately, to join the staff and come to the studio daily, screenwriters are better off outside of Los Angeles and New York. There’s a certain cachet that applies to writers from the midsection. I know one Hollywood writer who launders his scripts through a phony Tennessee address because it makes him special. He’s not just another writer from the San Fernando Valley, or at least he makes it appear that way.
SCRIPT: What’s your best advice to new screenwriters who have just finished the first draft of their screenplays? What’s next?
RW: The first person to read that first draft should not be an agent but another writer or a writing consultant. It’s becoming more and more routine in Hollywood, even among writers who have deals at networks and studios, to consult with someone who can ask the hard questions before the producer asks them. Writers should develop kitchen cabinets of writers they love and trust who can give them honest, loving support in responding to their various drafts. My former student superstar screenwriter David Koepp (Spider-Man, Jurassic Park, Carlito’s Way and much more) says the secret of his success is his ability to tolerate seventeen drafts before feeling a script is truly ready. The biggest mistake writers make: we write too much. Too many scenes. Too many pages. Too much dialogue. The second biggest mistake: we show our scripts before they’re truly ready.