No B.S. for Screenwriters: Changing the Way You Read

Having worked as an intern, an assistant, an executive, an independent producer, and a script consultant, I believe I can shine the light on this elusive business in a different way that hopefully will help you realize what you need to do to get ahead. It’s my hope that this column will give you the no-holds-barred truth and tools you need to succeed as a screenwriter, and help you see Hollywood and their craft from a different perspective – the executive perspective.

Whether that means how to connect with an executive (and how not to connect), how to write to grab their attention (and keep it), what the outlets are for screenwriters outside of Hollywood, how to increase your chances of success at different events, and how executives read a script, we’ll go through it all – and we’ll do it with humor and honesty.

I don’t pull any punches and I don’t sugarcoat. But I love writers and I want you all to be as successful as you can be – and make your scripts as strong as they can be. So hopefully this column will help you better your own projects or your plans on how you’re going to break into the business – and stay there.

I have been writing since I was old enough to hold a crayon. I used to write short stories and at the age of nine, I wrote a novel. Okay it was 27 pages, but for a nine-year-old, that might as well be War and Peace. And thankfully, years later, my parents didn’t scoff at the idea of joining the whoredom that is Hollywood. I moved to L.A. after college – along with every prom queen, theater geek, techie, writer and A-type personality from towns around the world. Due to bad timing, I was unable to find a job as a P.A. on a TV show, so I took a job as an assistant at an independent film production company and began working my way in and up.

I often suggest that writers try and get an assistant job in the industry, especially in a development exec, manager, or agent’s office because you will learn a side of the craft of screenwriting that you can’t get from writers groups, classes, or sitting in Starbucks strapped to your laptop. It’s a viable and very productive way to break into the business because even if you only spend a couple years as an assistant or junior exec, you will make enough contacts to send your script to everyone in town without needing an agent or manager, or you will be able to land one much easier.

I never forget that I originally moved to LA to write and that’s what always connects me to screenwriters, but being in development taught me my strengths and weaknesses – not only when it comes to story and talent, but also in regards to self-motivation, self-generation of material, setting deadlines for myself, and bringing my ideas from my head to the page. And I would offer an unscientific guess that 40-50% of development executives originally came to L.A. to write. Being in development affords us the opportunity to be creative, write treatments and help write scripts, without having to depend on our ability to self-motivate to pay our rent.

There are a number of things executives specifically look for in material, and a certain way of thinking while they read. When I was interning, and even for the first few years as an assistant and junior executive, I was still looking at scripts as a writer – because that’s what I considered myself. While reading, writers have a tendency to ask the following questions – “Is this a better line or scene than I would have thought of?” “Is this a better idea than the ones I’m working on?” and “Does this make me feel better or worse about my own talents?” It was more about jealousy, dominance or self-re-assurance than it was true analysis.

But somewhere along the way…that changed. Now, I can appreciate both sides of the equation because not only do I understand what the writer was thinking when they wrote it, but I know how to make it better and make it more sell-able. Thinking like an exec opened my eyes to how to really evaluate scripts and read them in a different light. The real shift in perspective from writer to executive revolves around the three easy questions executives ask – ‘Can I sell it?’ ‘When can I sell it?’ ‘Who can I sell it to?’

‘Can I sell it?’ means – is it commercial? What demographic is it for and is that demo big enough to matter? Is it what the marketplace is favoring right now? Is it what buyers are looking for? Can it sell internationally? Is it something that is already in development elsewhere? Can I picture the poster? The trailer? Is there a great logline and tagline?

‘Who can I sell it to?’ – Are there enough places out there looking for this type of material or is it a one-stop shop? Is it something that only one specific company would go for or is it broad? Can I package it? Can I get an actor or director interested in this material? Can I sell agents on why it would be a good project for their clients?

‘When can I sell it’ – How many notes and drafts is it going to take to get it to a sellable place? How much work still needs to be done? Is it the genre that people are looking for at that moment or are we going to have to wait for the next cycle? Is it a prestige Oscar movie or a holiday movie where the release date will really matter?

Some might argue that looking at a script through these glasses ruins the creative aspects of writing, and when I looked at scripts as a writer – I believed that too. But actually, it allows you to see the script from all different angles, resulting in the ability to find a way to improve story or character or dialogue, etc.

Now you shouldn’t worry about all this stuff while writing your first draft! But before you start pitching and submitting your script, you should try to go back and look at it with a different pair of eyes – those of an executive.

How to Sell a Script and Build a Screenwriting Career, Screenwriter Blogs, Screenwriting How-To Articles, Writing Routine and Outlook
Danny Manus

About Danny Manus

Danny Manus is one of the most in-demand script consultants as CEO of No BullScript Consulting and author of No B.S. for Screenwriters: Advice from the Executive Perspective. He was ranked one of the “Cream of the Crop” script consultants in CS Magazine and named one of ScreenCraft’s “25 People Writers Should Follow on Twitter.” His clients include finalists or winners of the ABC/Disney Fellowship, Austin Film Festival, PAGE Awards, Nashville Film Festival, Scriptapalooza, etc. He has consulted on projects including Strangerlands starring Nicole Kidman, I, Frankenstein starring Aaron Eckhart, and In-Lawfully Yours starring Marilu Henner. He’s a Development Consultant for Symerra Productions and was previously the Director of Development for Clifford Werber Productions (Cinderella Story), where he sold “To Oz” to United Artists and was a production exec on Just Add Water and Sydney White. He was also the Development Consultant for Eclectic Pictures (Lovelace) and the DOD at Sandstorm Films (The Covenant, 8MM2), which had a first look deal at Screen Gems. Danny has appeared on numerous podcasts, BBC radio, is a columnist for ScriptMag, a judge six years running for PAGE Awards, and has been a speaker at Austin Film Festival, the Producer’s Guild of America, Kansas City Film Fest, and dozens of other major writing conferences. You can follow him on Twitter: @DannyManus.

8 thoughts on “No B.S. for Screenwriters: Changing the Way You Read

  1. Danny ManusDanny Manus

    Thanks everyone, for reading the column. There will be more to come very shortly. I did want to reply to a couple things that were mentioned. I wanted to make clear that I don’t think that you should be looking at your script from this perspective on your first draft – that IS just to get the ideas out onto paper. But then again, if it’s a completely ridiculous idea that you couldn’t sell, then it may not be worth your time and energy to write it. It just depends on why you’re writing – is it to break into the business and become a professional screenwriter OR is it because it’s your therapy or hobby or just something creative to do in your day. If it’s the former, then don’t kid yourself – this is a business! It’s not ALL about artistic vision. Yes, that’s a huge part of it, but that’s not the be-all and end-all.

    And to Joseph, there’s no reason why you can’t be a suit AND a creator. I am. Though thankfully unless you’re an agent, you don’t have to actually wear a suit in this industry. Why can’t “suits” be creative? I think if all the “creatives” out there were able to see their scripts from the “suits” perspective just a LITTLE bit, their script would probably be a whole lot better. Sure, you can ask yourself “how can I find the people who will buy it” – but what if there’s no answer to that questions because those people don’t exist?

    The idea that there’s SOMEONE out there who will pay for your project, you just need to find them – is simply untrue. Mark Zuckerberg knew he had a product millions of people would be itnerested in, so he just had to find the money. If a writer keeps writing stupid ideas that aren’t cinematic or visual or engaging or well-written, and no one would possibly want to see it, then there’s no money to be found.

    And to Hank, yes, there’s a ton of shit produced out there. No question. And much of it IS because studios don’t want to work that hard anymore. They want a pretty package of actors, director and a concept or brand that people already know before they even get involved. BUT, that’s different (in my opinion) to looking at your script and looking at the market and seeing if you are writing something that’s viable. Every genre is cyclical, and originality is coming back, but if your script is about an octagenarian alien transvestite robot who comes to Earth to ressurect Jesus and save the earth from global warming…well…that script ain’t getting made. And maybe realizing that before you start writing and wasting peoples time forcing them to read it, would be a good idea.

    Keep the comments coming, guys. I’ll be covering some more controversial topics in the weeks to come. Good luck and keep writing!

  2. Joseph Sullivan

    Screenwriters are too often in the position of “asking permission.” May I? Can I? Please? Lawrence Lessig’s review of “The Social Network” in the New Republic made the point that Mark Zuckerberg created Facebook without asking anyone’s permission. A screenwriter who had the brains and the insight of Zuckerberg would not ask, “Can I sell it?” but instead would ask, “How can I find the people who will buy it?” Or to put it another way, are you a suit or are you a creator?

  3. Andy Nandapala

    I always love your articles because they consist of advice that comes from your shared real-life experiences. The most important fact of your most recent article is the business aspect of screen writting. A screenplay is only useful, if it is viewed as a sellable item, regardless of it’s artistic quality. Thank you.

  4. Hank Isaac

    I can’t dispute what you say because you’re there and I’m not. But I’m concerned about the ‘Can I sell it?’ ‘When can I sell it?’ ‘Who can I sell it to?’ philosophy. Why? Well, it begins to sound a bit like the U.S. public school system wherein, in order to get funding, schools teach to the national tests for the purpose of raising scores. Higher scores = more dollars. ‘Course the generations of students taught under this umbrella gradually become less and less capable. Now look, for example, at the rash of really bad [IMHO] film remakes over the past several years. Someone “sold” them, I guess. We keep lowering the bar in U.S. films so that successive movie-going populations no longer care about good character development or good storytelling. Is it just possible that the ‘Can I sell it?’ dictum is really more like ‘Can I sell it without much effort on my part?’

  5. Paul Engelhardt

    I always think that the first draft should be crazy, inventive, no holes barred – a brain spew of creativity. Second and third drafts should be when your literary police come in to assert their authority and point out that 40 actors in sperm costumes may have seemed brilliant at the time, but two hours of talking bodily excreations probably won’t play well in Peoria.

  6. laurence de B. anderson

    Interesting, but reinforcing of the “Hollywood is a factory” viewpoint. Just read of the ‘Final Symphony’ script – same thing. From outside the US it’s all rather daunting, indeed a virtual impossibility to get noticed. As far as re-writes and notes goes, well it’s more of the same, creativity by committee. How can the original voice shine through? Hollywood seems to become more and more commercially driven, and exclusive rather than inclusive of new voices. Think I’ll just stick to hoeing my row out here in the third world. Sigh.

  7. Ginger Sugar Blymyer

    Thanks for the advice. I am also reading Television Writing from the Inside and Out.
    I worked in the industry as a hairdresser for forty years (Hairdresser to the Stars, A Hollywood Memoir) and have seen how the industry works. My daughter Xochi has been an assistant director and my grandson is a grip. I feel fortunate to have that back ground. I appreciate your suggestions. I know how difficult it is to get started. Everything helps. Ginger

  8. Wanda Kight

    Always enjoy your words of wisdom to the aspiring screenwriters. I finally finished my fifth screenplay, “Psychomania” and will be getting it to you soon for your critcal analysis. Thanks for giving two hoots about those of us trying to break into this crazy industry.