I never set out to become Dr. Format. Oh, no. In the mid to late 80s, I was a marketing executive and doing good work.
One day, my Muse Betty whispered to me, “Teach. Write.” I whispered back, “Let me think about it.”
So I thought about how much I enjoyed teaching marketing to employees and colleagues. And I recalled how years before, I had made a Super 8 film with friends (just like in the recent movie entitled Super 8), which won a local film competition. That led to a screenplay with the same friends called Zorro, the Comedy Adventure. I contributed little to that script because I was at my real job being responsible, so I never received a writing credit when the eventual film was released: Zorro, the Gay Blade.
So Dave, what did you decide?
I followed Muse Betty’s advice, and in my spare time (“Sorry, Boss, I can’t stay late tonight”), I earned an M.A. in 1987 by writing two theses. One thesis was a script and one was a business plan for The Screenwriting Center, later to be named keepwriting.com.
Years later, the script was in the hands of Richard Walter, who, in exchange for an undisclosed amount of halvah, referred me to someone who got it into the hands of Disney execs. Readers of The Screenwriter’s Bible will recognize this script as The Secret of Question Mark Cave. Yes, that one.
Four producers wanted to produce it, but Donald “Doggone it” Deline passed on it. Not all was lost, however; I still had a shot at a development deal for the sequel to Honey I Shrunk the Kids. When the title was first mentioned, I responded with unbridled enthusiasm, “Honey, I Faxed the Kids!” They liked it, but I said, “Nah, it’s not visual enough; you’re probably going to have to blow them up.” And then they mentioned the Muppets. I loved the Muppets.
So I prepared a 20-minute pitch and treatment for a Muppet hockey story. They loved it. Jim Henson, who was in New York, approved it in principle. A few days later Mr. Henson died (September 16, 1990), and so did the deal. In fact, his death effectively dissolved the relationship between Disney and Henson. A huge abyss between the two companies formed and I fell headlong into it.
But Dave, you promised to tell us about The Writers Store
I’m getting to that. Okay, to cut to the chase, I’ll tell you that I used “Cave” as a sample script and got a deal writing Igor’s Revenge, which was produced but not distributed. I sold a couple of other scripts as well, including my only farce, Kumquat. Hercules Recycled enjoyed an extremely limited direct-to-video release.
When I started teaching screenwriting classes, a curious thing happened. Nearly half the questions from budding writers were formatting questions, and the only formatting book available at the time (by Cole and Haag) was sometimes difficult to understand and apply to spec writing.
I concocted a plan. To hush all the formatting questions so I could spend more time in class with pure writing issues, I wrote a 36-page formatting guide entitled Correct Format for Screenplays and Teleplays. And guess where I took it?
You guessed it—The Writer’s Computer Store on Santa Monica Boulevard.
I parked my Super Beetle and stepped in. They sold gargantuan personal computers which contained a full 8 megabytes of disk space. And you could choose between the white typeface or the fashionable orange typeface. Anyway, due to my previous marketing experience, I saw an opportunity. I asked the kind and gentle people at the store if they wouldn’t mind taking some copies of my formatting guide on consignment. They did, and the guide was a hit!
So Dave, did you get rich?
Nope, but I learned two things:
Number One: That formatting is an integral part of screenwriting and needs to be understood to be an effective screenwriter. My formatting guide was helping writers understand that and write better screenplays.
Number Two: That my marketing background helped my writing and teaching business. My workshops became more popular. In fact, I traveled to Hawaii 17 times to conduct workshops at the University of Hawaii. I grew to love the “high concept” of “Dave takes business trip to paradise.” Take that, Mr. IRS agent!
In the meantime, ABC TV was about to produce my feature A Window in Time, but got cold feet when the ratings for a time travel TV show dropped. At about the same time, I secured a development deal with a small production company in the Valley for The New Musketeers.
Then, on a singular cloudy day, a ray of light pierced through, and an idea formed in mind: “Heck Dave, you read the Bible just about every day. Why don’t you write one?”
So I did.
But I couldn’t find a publisher. I kept hearing, “Dave, a screenwriting book [by Syd Field] has already been written. One book for this market is plenty.”
I retorted, “But mine is not a book. It’s a ‘bible’ consisting of several books, including Correct Format for Screenplays & Teleplays.”
So I self-published The Screenwriter’s Bible in 1994.
Dave, don’t tell me you took it to you-know-where?
Yup. By this time, The Writer’s Computer Store had become The Writers Store.
They agreed to add the “Bible” to their shelves. That helped me convince other bookstores to stock it. Eventually, Silman-James Press agreed to publish it. To date, nearly 300,000 copies have been sold. Thank you, oh kind and gentle people at The Writers Store!
Sometime later, I was told that The Screenwriter’s Bible was one source used to create ScriptThing, an incredible formatting application. They even sent me a free copy. I no longer needed Muse Betty; I had ScriptThing. Later, ScriptThing was sold to the Write Brothers, and it became Movie Magic Screenwriter.
By this time, I was enjoying teaching so much that I began to teach college credit courses for the University of California at Irvine and the University of Phoenix. In the year 2005, I was honored with a distinguished teaching award.
Dave, stop bragging and get on about Dr. Format
To be honest, I don’t remember when the concept of Dr. Format first entered my mind, probably while delivering “bibles” to The Writers Store, but I can’t prove that. Maybe it was when Muse Betty returned to me. I don’t know. But here is what I remember.
The first industry publication to my knowledge was The Freelance Screenwriter’s Forum, published in Baldwin, Maryland, by expert horsewoman and literary genius Shelly Mellott and others. The first issue was published in 1989. I was one of the first contributors to the publication and sometimes brainstormed with them about the publication’s direction. They eventually created a new publication (in 1997) called Script Magazine—the first screenwriting magazine. And I was a senior writer.
Shelly wanted a column on formatting and I decided to call myself Dr. Format. At the time, I thought the column would last two years tops. I mean, how many formatting questions can there be? Somewhat not surprisingly, Dr. Format continues to answer questions right up to the present day. Perhaps you have one you’d like to ask.
I’m justifiably proud of my association with The Writers Store and Script Magazine, and I am grateful to both for their contributions to my career. Script Magazine has always provided timely and useful information to screenwriters, and the Writer’s Store has evolved by design, keeping current with the needs of developing screenwriters.
Join Dave’s upcoming webinar class on 7 Common Blunders Screenwriters Make (and How to Avoid Them) on June 6, 2012, 1 PM PDT.