Remember Rocky Balboa, when Rocky gives that awesome, inspirational speech to his son? Winning isn’t about how hard you can hit, Rocky tells him. It’s about “how hard you can get hit and keep moving forward.”
That’s a message we screenwriters need to hear. After all, we desperately hope to break in overnight. We take classes purporting to help us write a feature screenplay in thirty days. (Good luck!) We submit scripts that are far from ready. (You actually sent that agent a third draft?) Some of us even move to Hollywood for a naively short period of time (really — a year?) to see if we have what it takes.
But veteran screenwriters like me know the hard truth – there is no fast track, no easy path to riches and respect. You’ve simply got to write and re-write draft after draft, script after script, year after year. And once you’ve done all that and submitted your work to someone who matters, you have an even more daunting obstacle to confront: The Big R.
I’m talking about Rejection. I’ve sold scripts to Hollywood studios and gotten movies made, and I can tell you that the first twenty-or-so times an agent or producer read my work, I got bitch-slapped. And each rejection sucked worse than the previous one. And it doesn’t stop after you earn your Guild card or attend your first premiere.
A few weeks ago, I finished a new sitcom pilot. I’d spent months pounding on it, endlessly re-writing it, scratching my head over every line of dialogue. Then I sent it to a manager who loved the concept.
Thirty minutes later he emailed back, serving me The Big R with a side of criticism. In his words, “The voice-over in the cold open felt too set-uppy, and the joke in the first scene evokes other scripts I’ve read with something similar.” And that was it. The extent of his notes.
Naturally, this stung. And it left me wondering: “Did this moron even read the rest of the script?” But I’ll never know because that was the last I heard from him.
I spent the following couple days hating that manager, myself, my writing, and writing in general. I ate ice cream like it was going out of style, binge-watched bad TV, and broke stuff. I knew I needed to get back on the horse, but I couldn’t bring myself to face the page. My fingers wouldn’t touch the keyboard. In desperation, I went to YouTube and searched “Rocky Balboa monologue.”
Over and over I watched Rocky tell his son “how winning is done.” Then I put the ice cream away, turned off the TV, cleaned up all the broken stuff… and got back into my writing chair.
And what did I write? You’re reading it.
If you want to make a living as a screenwriter, stop what you’re doing … and start writing plays! Sounds silly, huh? After all, why would you sidetrack your screenwriting career by writing for the stage when it pays, basically, nothing? And when most Americans go to a play about every… well… never.
Answer: Because it will make you a better screenwriter. And Hollywood knows it.
We are living in the Golden Age of Dramatic Writing. Writers with a strong grasp of drama are spreading their wings over a variety of media. It’s no longer that rare bird – a Mamet here, a Sorkin there — who writes for both stage and screen.
Now there’s loads of playwrights kicking ass in TV and film: Theresa Rebeck (Smash), Beau Willimon (House of Cards), Eric Overmeyer (Treme), Kenneth Lonergan (Gangs of New York), Jill Soloway (Transparent), Tony Kushner (Lincoln), Gina Gionfriddo (Law & Order: True Crime), Jon Robin Baitz (Brothers and Sisters), Adam Rapp (Flesh and Bone), Sheila Callaghan (Shameless), Tom Stoppard (lots and lots of movies), etc…
And while most cinefiles and film students won’t recognize those names with regard to theater, drama school geeks and Off-Broadway theater-goers know them well. So do Hollywood agents and producers, because they know that dramatic writing is dramatic writing. If you can tell a story using characters, scenes, dialogue and action, you can write a play, a screenplay, or a teleplay. As I’ve learned by writing for both stage (my plays have been produced in NY & LA) and screen (Bride Wars, Saving Silverman), what makes playwriting similar to screenwriting vastly outweighs what makes it different.
But when I visit film schools, most students – and sadly, most faculty — seem to think playwriting bears little relation to screenwriting. Thus, the screenwriting students never take a playwriting class, and vice versa. Unsurprisingly, the film faculty are often caught up in the cult of the seventies, with its adoration of the director-as-author. There’s little room in that cosmology for any acknowledgement of the writer at all, let alone a nuanced understanding of what dramatic writing really is and how to cultivate it in their student-writers.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. As I said before – and as I discuss in my life-altering new book Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter — this is the Golden Age of Dramatic Writing. And it’s changing how writers create for theater, film, TV, and online. Some examples of this Golden Age in practice:
I run a writing workshop in Manhattan called Stillwater, where working dramatic writers come together to show and critique plays, screenplays, TV pilots, webisode scripts, comedy sketches… you name it. I’m also a member of a production company in New York City that produces plays and films using the same writers for both. It’s called The Collective-NY, and it was co-founded by Amy Schumer and Kevin Kane, among others.
The same principles of writing begets writing are encouraged at the prestigious Sundance Institute and the Austin Film Festival (where I’ve served on various panels). Both of these institutions have made serious investments in theater, creating playwriting workshops, contests, and readings to complement their film and TV programming. These venerable entertainment industry institutions know — it’s all dramatic writing.
So, my aspiring screenwriter friends, I say this – if you want to improve your craft, consider writing plays.
And to those who teach screenwriting, get hip to what’s happening on the stage. Study plays, see theater, get to know active playwrights. After all, they may be writing the next movie, series, or webisode you watch.
If you’re channel-surfing on a Tuesday night and briefly land on This is Us [pilot script], you might think you’ve stumbled on an episode of Parenthood. After all, This Is Us also airs on NBC, also gives us a saccharine look at American family life, and also uses the adoption (more or less) of an African-American male child by a white family as its primary contribution to onscreen diversity.
But look a tad closer and you’ll find that This is Us is actually a remarkable series for three reasons that screenwriters should take note of, especially if we want to further understand the changing landscape of TV drama. Here are three ways that T.I.U. has shaken up drama TV:
1. It’s the first Multi-Era Ensemble Show.
That’s right, I just made up a new term for what Dan Fogelman, the show’s creator, has given us. Sure, lots of shows use flashback. In fact, you can’t throw a stick in TV drama without hitting a flashback. Game of Thrones, Orange Is the New Black, The Walking Dead, you name it… everybody’s flashing back with reckless abandon. It’s all the rage. To be clear, a flashback is when a story goes back in time to explain or support the goings-on in the present. In a flashback, the scenes or sequences that take place in the past don’t usually have full-bodied integrity as independent stories. Once they’ve carried water for the primary, current story line, they’re usually dropped. Yup, left by the side of the road like a bag of unwanted kittens.
But T.I.U. does more than merely flash back. Jack and Rebecca Pearson, the young married couple whose story takes place decades ago, do a lot more than simply set up the present-day narrative of their children, Randall, Kate, and Kevin. Jack and Rebecca are living their own, expansive story; it just happens to be set between 1979 and the present.
If it feels as if T.I.U. wanders through time, that’s because it does. It’s a little like Modern Family meets Interstellar. We see all five protagonists in various stages of their lives, interacting, loving, fighting, crying — you name it — throughout the entirety of the first season. It’s all happening at once, shown in concurrent time streams. That’s the Interstellar part, and that’s where Fogelman is breaking a craft barrier that writers like us must take note of and learn from.
2. Fogelman cares not for verisimilitude.
T.I.U. is where believability goes to die. I say this because all drama stretches verisimilitude. After all, writers must construct dramatic situations, which usually requires finding hard-to-believe ways to keep the principle characters in the same place long enough to have conflict. How many times have we seen a Christmas or Thanksgiving-themed episode of a sitcom in which all the characters have some hokey reason to spend the holiday with their work friends. Sure, it’s hard to believe, but the audience wants all their fave TV stars in the same room every week, so the writers find a thin reason to keep them there.
But T.I.U. is more outlandish than most shows. Fogelman lowers the bar on believability to bring his time-scattered lead characters together for all the drama you can stand.
Consider the show’s premise, which hinges on the moment that Randall, one of the three middle-aged siblings going through their lives in the present, is adopted by the Pearson family back in 1979. After Randall is abandoned on the doorstep of a fire station, he just happens to be brought into the hospital where Rebecca, who lost one of her triplets during childbirth, is convalescing. When Jack, Rebecca’s husband, sees a newborn in a crib right next to his two surviving children, he figures he might as well just walk home with baby Randall and, thus, he could still have three kids. So he does. Voila!
But when can you just saunter out of the hospital with a baby that’s not yours? Answer: never. That’s why Fogelman doesn’t parse the details about – or even show us — Randall’s impossible-to-believe adoption. He just cuts away from that moment and we find out thirty-six years later that Randall became a Pearson. That’s the kind of garish sleight of hand you wouldn’t see in Parenthood. But then, a lot of folks absolutely love T.I.U., so maybe I’m just poking more holes in Fogelman’s Swiss cheese out of envy. The point is — it works.
Oh, and there’s plenty of other unbelievable stuff Fogelman does so that he can keep putting his leads together in the same place and time. Remember when Kevin moved into Randall’s house even though Randall’s dying biological father was already living there? Why in God’s name would Kevin do that? We’re told he made three million bucks a year until he quit his job — but he can’t find a nearby hotel? Of course not. Because Fogelman wants Randall and Kevin in the same house. Again, it’s a massive stretch, but it works. Fogelman shoots and scores.
By the way, did you see the episode that took place in the eighties where Randall plays football against Kevin, his brother? It makes total sense because Randall went to a private school while Kevin went to public, right? And Randall played linebacker while Kevin played quarterback, which worked out well because that way Randall could actually sack his own brother during a game and… Oh, hell, I don’t buy it any more than you do. But the show’s audience did, and that’s why Fogelman is eating at Matsuhisa and I’m searching my couch for enough spare change to buy a Whopper Jr.
3. T.I.U. violates the Rule of Escalation.
As I tell my screenwriting students at N.Y.U., you should always raise the stakes and escalate the situation. You never lower the stakes, right? Well, Dan Fogelman says “No” to that jive. And every once in awhile, he de-escalates the dramatic situation. He actually lowers the tension, refusing to listen to screenwriting gurus like me — and the audience loves him for it.
Remember the scene where Beth, Randall’s wife, sits Randall’s destitute biological father down and demands to know where he’s been going every morning when he leaves their house? She’s just as sure he’s going to buy drugs as the audience is. And Fogelman wants you to think that, too. But no, we learn, he isn’t taking the bus to buy crack. He just has a cat. In Philadelphia. That he feeds every day. He didn’t want anybody to know about it, that’s all. And just like that, all the tension of the moment is relieved. Big, warm, fuzzy hug time. No more drama. And it works. So go figure.
Those are three big lessons you can learn from This is Us that you won’t find in my otherwise groundbreaking book, Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter. But then, This is Us isn’t really a comedy, so I guess that lets me off the hook for not writing about this excellent new show until now.
Folks, I’ve sat through six somber hours of Westworld and lemme just say that, given the recent death of comic Kevin Meaney, I have only one critical response to all that I have seen in HBO’s highly anticipated new drama series ... I don’t care.
Seriously. I don’t give a hoot. By comparison, six episodes into The Sopranos, I was in love with everything about the show. I wanted to move to North Jersey and feast on pasta fazool. Six episodes into Game of Thrones, I was full-on addicted and ready to don some stinky, lived-in leathers and start slicing up members of rival royal houses.
But with Westworld, despite the gifted actors and lavish sets, I remain distinctly uncompelled.
Here’s why –- nothing matters. It’s a basic rule of dramatic writing that conflict requires stakes. If the hero doesn’t storm the tower and defeat the beast, the princess dies. And we don’t want that. No, not that sweet princess. We need her to live. If Captain Miller and his squad don’t find Private Ryan before the Germans do, his mother back in Kansas will suffer a grief too onerous to bear. Not just for her, but for us. We don’t want to see that sweet woman cry.
But when Ed Harris draws his gun to shoot it out with a bunch of badasses in a town called Pariah, we ask ourselves ... Who gives a hoot? After all, they’re just robots. They don’t have moms or sweethearts or kids. And the one living, breathing human in the fight – Harris -- can’t be killed. Guns don’t work on him. So the stakes are low and the shootout doesn’t matter. There is action, yes, but we’re not watching to see what happens next. We know what happens next – Harris shoots them all down without breaking a sweat. We’re just watching him go through the motions.
To be fair, I do actually care about Thandie Newton’s character -- the hooker with a pre-programmed heart. As she has acquired memories, sought her origin, and started to see herself as oppressed, I’ve actually begun to give a hoot about her. I want her to survive and escape her oppression, which means I’m somewhat invested. But Thandie’s curious saloon gal can’t save this slow-moving show all by herself, nor can she justify the fact that I’ve spent almost the equivalent of a full work day watching Westworld while waiting for stuff to matter.
It just goes to show that good acting won’t keep you glued to the screen without dramatic situations that grab you by the lapels. I mean -– do I really care if Jeffrey Wright finds out who’s secretly communicating with a bunch of automatons? He’s lost his son and his romantic relationship with his taciturn boss. What more can happen to him? Not much. And if there isn’t more to lose, there aren’t stakes. And without stakes, as I said, there’s no drama.
Anthony Hopkins walking around saying cryptic things? So what? Evan Rachel Wood staring off into the western sky while struggling to understand why people talk to her like she’s a piece of furniture? They do it because she’s an object, of course; she just doesn’t know yet. Which brings up another problem Westworld has in spades –- we’re ahead of the characters. We know lots more than they do. And that breaks another crucial dramatic writing rule -- characters should always be ahead of us. That makes us want to tag along.
I suspect that recorded episodes of Westworld will likely pile up in my DVR cue until after Christmas, when I may find the time to go back and peek at how they finished the season. But even if it drastically improves, I’ve paid too great a price in time for it to all be worthwhile. Like Ed Harris’ character – and Ed Harris himself -- I’m lost in a drama-less maze and I can’t find my way out.
* BTW, can I just mention -- I'm appearing at THE WRITERS STORE in Burbank on November 19 @ 2PM to talk about Bring the Funny. I'll also teach a short, FREE comedy screenwriting class. Love to seeya there. You can register here!
1. Read Every Book on Screenwriting.
I’m gonna win your respect, and be totally discrete here, by not even pushing you to buy my book, which is prominently featured below this article. But you really should read every book on screenwriting ever written. Books by writers who’ve sold scripts and had movies made (Me!) and books by writers who haven’t. Books by writers who talk truth about how hard it is to write a great script (Me!), and books by writers who offer paint-by-numbers systems and promise easy gold at the end of rainbow. Books by really talented and good-looking, but tragically undersexed writers (Me!), and ... OK, I’ll stop. You get it.
But seriously, for the cost of a single class at USC or NYU you can buy every book on screenwriting ever written. So do it. Now. Stop writing whatever script you’re working on, sit down, and read the living bejeezes out of those books, underlining as you go. Become the nationally-recognized scholar of “How to” screenwriting books. Know them inside and out. There’s no excuse not to do this, and you never know – you might actually learn something. Different approaches work for different writers; finding the right one is up to you. And you need to spend the time doing that, because nobody’s going to just walk up and hand you an Oscar. (Well, OK, it could technically happen, at the actual Oscars, if you write an amazing script and get very, very lucky.) Point is -- anything you learn from a book about screenwriting is going to help you get there.
2. Take Every Screenwriting Class.
I’m serious. Every class taught by anybody who may possibly know something they can teach you. And speaking of classes, don’t miss my FREE CLASS in Comedy Screenwriting, which I’ll be teaching at The Writers Store in Burbank on Saturday, November 19th at 2 PM. I’ll be working interactively, helping you write better scripts and break into the business. You’ll be writing down every brilliant thing I say. And probably asking annoying questions that I will pretend to know the answers to. But it’ll be fun. And it costs ... well, it’s FREE, silly! Come to the class.
You should also take every class in screenwriting taught at UCLA Extension, where I’ve taught, and where they have more veteran, produced screenwriters in their stable than most film schools. And most of those writers broke in the hard way – seriously, check out their resumes – so they won’t waste your time with empty theory. They’ll put your nose to the grindstone and push you to write your best work.
If I could go back in time and show up in L.A. again in my twenties with the goal of becoming a working screenwriter, I’d fill my week with screenwriting classes. More than I could stand. Why? Because it’s not just about the knowledge, it’s about all the other hyper-competitive, fellow screenwriters you’ll meet -- and especially the useful ones whom you’ll become friends with. Maybe even start a writer’s group with. Yes, a writers group. If I haven’t said so before now, I say it now – Join a writers group, start a second one on the side, and write like the wind in both. I never saw a writer whose work didn’t improve from friendly competition.
3. Be Super Nice to Everyone (in the industry).
Even if you don’t live in smilingly vacuous Los Angeles, it still pays to be excruciatingly sweet to all you meet. In the entertainment industry, that is. If you want to piss off the guy down the street, or some schmuck you are forced to deal with in your day job, go ahead. Be snarky, rude, even cruel. But if you’re speaking with anybody in this industry, watch out. The default standard is always good behavior and gracious compliance.
A couple years ago I and a partner sold a pitch to a major studio in a deal that called for only a single draft. The studio president would then read that draft and decide if he wanted to engage us further to re-write it. So we wrote Draft #1 and he didn’t like it. We met with him in his office, where he politely told us we could totally re-write it from scratch using his notes, or we could graciously bow out of the process before it got more expensive for him. We had another paying job in the wings at another studio at that time, so we made the wrong choice – we bowed out. After all, he was so nice when he told us we could do that and face no repercussions. Why not believe him?
A week or so later our agent called to tell us the president was talking us down all over town. He was incensed and insulted – why didn’t we buck up and get back to work? Who were we to walk away from a paying studio gig? We were shocked. He had been so soft and cuddly in his office when he told us we could walk. But deep down he turned out to be yet another passive-aggressive Hollywood player. The moral of the story – they won’t tell you to your face they hate you. You have to figure it out. And just about anything you do or say can be taken the wrong way.
So be nice. Say Yes to everything and everybody. Ruffle no feathers. Then go home and write your butt off.
4. Write on Election Night.
I have a Super Bowl Sunday ritual I’ve been following for over a decade. I write. All day, all night. I never see a single snap. Seriously. I do the same for the Oscars; I start writing in the afternoon and don’t stop until long after the last statuette is handed out. And I never turn on the TV. Yup, I avoid obligatory national TV events like the plague because they drag on for so long. Oh, and they’re irrelevant. You can see who won Best Sound Editing – as if you care – the next day anyway. Trust me – the newspaper will tell you the next morning whether it’s Clinton or Trump.
I mean you’re a screenwriter, right? Not a ... TV watcher-person. Water cooler conversation shouldn’t interest you because you don’t actually want to succeed at your dreary day job. You want to sell a script so you can give your boss the finger and ride off on your white horse laughing at him as you enter Beverly Hills and take possession of your new bungalow.
In fact, another great time to write is Christmas. I mean – do you really wanna hang out with your family when you could be breaking into Hollywood? Trust me – agents aren’t hanging with the fam. They’re reading scripts and sending frantic emails to producers, who also aren’t spending any quality time with their kids – and that’s if their kids even live with them. I spent years in Hollywood and never met a happily married family-type person. The real movers and shakers all eat, breathe, and sleep entertainment. You must do so as well.
So don’t spend time buying presents. It won’t get you closer to fame. If you absolutely must drive by your ex’s house and see the kids between drafts of your nest spec, give them something you have plenty of. Like brads. Kids love brads. They can put them in a slingshot and really hurt someone. Yeah, do that. Who needs presents? You’re a screenwriter, not Kris Kringle!
5. Stay Single.
Here’s a tip: if you come to my book signing and FREE CLASS in Comedy Screenwriting on Saturday November 19th at The Writers Store, you will only meet other writers. Other writers who will all be following my advice and, thus, there’s no chance to hook up with any of them after the event. Trust me, if one of them asks for your number, it’s only so they can call and ask you to read their script and give them notes. And you can do that, right? For a fellow screenwriter? A sister or brother of the page? A co-sufferer? A member of the Secret Society of Holly-Scribes? Yes, you can.
Look, here’s the deal. If you really must get married, have kids and be blissfully happy, then, by all means, go forth and multiply. But know this – it won’t get any easier to write than it is on the day before you get hitched or make a baby. So write now. While you’re single.
Hah! Tricked you. You think there’s any half-way to achieve screenwriting fame? There is none. Whatever you do to succeed in this biz, you must do it ALL the way. So start writing today, and don’t stop until they crown you the King or Queen of Hollywood.
I just returned from the Austin Film Festival (the best event for screenwriters in, well, anywhere) where I spoke on panels and chatted up screenwriters both veteran and aspiring. It was a script-tastic whirlwind! If you haven’t done the AFF, it’s totally worthwhile and puts you in great screenwriting company. You should go. I insist. But if you just couldn’t make it because you had to stay home and take care of your ailing schnauzer or something, here’s a few droplets of screenwriting wisdom I picked up during my seventy-two hour journey into the storytelling labyrinth.
1. Screenwriters are some pretty nice folks, all in all. We work like dogs on our scripts and almost never sell them. We weather constant rejection. We deal with idiotic notes from producers. And yet… we persevere. We also party like rock stars, as anybody who hung out at The Driskill Hotel Bar on Saturday night can tell you. I clicked beer steins with screenwriters from all races, creeds, genders and corners of the country (not to mention the world — Canada! Australia! Djibouti!), all of whom flew to Texas to talk screenwriting. And most of the films screened were set right here in the good ol’ U.S.A. So the American story is getting told and we are telling it – in more diverse ways and voices than ever before.
2. New Media is not replacing Old Media. Instead, the two are co-existing. I learned this from Geoff Betts, Business Agent for the Writers Guild East. The Guild is fighting to show the money to writers of shows like Orange is the New Black, who make far less per episode – because it plays on Netflix – than do scribes writing less-watched shows on broadcast TV. And I say Go, Guild go! If the public has an insatiable appetite for content, as it apparently does, then producers should pay us what we’re worth so we can keep cooking up this feast that brings so many billions to their table.
But this doesn’t mean the times aren’t a-changin’. The HBO/cable/YouTube revolution has proven the viability of all kinds of new storytelling techniques. And in this age of ever-escalating technology screenwriting may be the only job left once drones are serving burgers and changing diapers. In fact, all that time spent doing nothing while your car drives itself will probably mean more time watching screens. And, while that may lead to insane levels of obesity, it’s great for screenwriters. Hurray! So write, scribes, write!
3. West Coast entertainment lawyers are still holding out for five percent. I learned this while speaking on a panel when a writer, who was recently offered a deal, asked what she can expect to pay her lawyer, as in Do I really have to pay this schmuch five percent? So I answered with the truth: Legal fees and commissions are negotiable. After all, as I’ve experienced first-hand, you can sometimes bring that five percent down. Depends entirely on your leverage. If you’re offered a two thousand dollar option you’ll pay the full five (and you should probably throw in a bottle of Chianti for the poor lawyer who has to work that deal for almost nothing). But get yourself a great, big offer from a studio and attorneys from large LA firms will line up to cut their fees for you. Naturally, as soon as I said this, another attorney (Yes, I practice law, too) chimed in to claim I’m dead wrong and that never happens. And… surprise! He works at a big LA firm. Go figure.
4. Comedy is in great shape.How do I know this? How can I take the pulse of an entire genre of expression? Here’s how — when I showed up in Austin I had plenty of copies of my book Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter. I had to check bags to get them all on the plane. And when I came home — empty bags. Thank you, Austin! I appreciate the love.
5. Austin is America’s Number Two Entertainment Town. Sorry New York, but it’s true. I know the Big Apple shoots more film and TV than Austin, but most of the creative decisions that prompt all that shooting are made in LA. I can’t give any hard stats on this, but the number of screenwriters and filmmakers with serious credits who live in Austin is rapidly expanding – and not just during the festival. I’m talking about folks who live there full time. Plus Austin has live music on par with Nashville and theater that rivals… well, OK… it doesn’t rival New York in theater. But I’ll stick with my assertion that Austin is Number Two for entertainment and see who says different.
And by the way, have I mentioned my book Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter? If not, well, I just did. And I hope to see all of you at the Austin Film Festival next October!
This fall thousands, or I dunno, maybe tens or even hundreds of thousands of aspiring filmmakers will go to film schools across America. Why do they do it? Because they think it’s the path to success in the entertainment industry. And, according to statistics I’ve painstakingly compiled, two of them will be right.
But since this is LA-Screenwriter.com, it behooves us to focus on our fellow scribes and ask – Should aspiringscreenwriters go to film school? In fact, should they study screenwriting in college at all? Or would they be better served by majoring in something practical and writing on the side? Or becoming pole vaulters? Or anything else that affords one a greater chance to feed their family?
The answer depends on what exactly an aspiring screenwriter actually gains from a particular institution. I should admit right now that while I didn’t go to film school (I got an MFA in Playwriting from Catholic University before moving to L.A. and breaking into the biz), I know from experience that, to make it as a screenwriter, you need serious talent and a rock hard work ethic. Neither of those can be found in a classroom. But if you have those two prerequisites and you’re considering film school (or a screenwriting program at the college or graduate level), here’s three questions to ask about a school before you apply:
1. Where do they spend their money?
Schools with big endowments love to show prospective students their brand-spanking-new next-generation digital cameras, sound stages, blue screens, and editing bays. But they’re kidding themselves – and prospective screenwriting students – if they’re implying that all that bling will help a writer tell a story. It won’t. Aspiring screenwriters need good coffee (or tea) and access to experienced writers who can mentor them as they slowly hone their craft.
For instance, at otherwise humble and unheralded Long Island University in Brooklyn you can get an M.F.A. in Television Writing and work in a mock TV staff writers’ room while getting notes on your latest script from Norman Steinberg, veteran TV writer and, wait – Did I mention? – co-writer of Blazing Saddles! Is that writers’ room made of gold? It may as well be. Does L.I.U. have the most up-to-date equipment for its filmmakers or a five-star gourmet eatery on campus? Actually, I don’t know. But who cares? To repeat – you will be taught by the guy who wrote one of the great screen comedies of all time. End of discussion. Apply now.
Oh, and by the way, another good way to tell if a school is really, really good is if they have copies of my book, Bring the Funny, The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter, in their bookstore. If so, buy it. But on to my second question…
2. What is their vision for screenwriters?
Everybody knows the landscape is changing for scribes. There are fewer opportunities to write traditional feature flicks and more hyphenates out there trying – and sometimes succeeding – to become the next Sorkin. The old model, still adhered to by most film schools and universities with screenwriting programs, makes the screenwriter a servant of the director. It’s auteur theory all over again. Like the business hasn’t evolved since the sixties. Or maybe the professors just haven’t.
But the new, improved, 21st Century Screenwriter is a 365-degree, all-around dramatic writer – able to write sitcoms, webisodes, drama TV pilots, stage plays, and yes, feature screenplays. The new, dramatic writer does all that and more. Heck, did I mention video games? How about little two-minute comedy videos that can be watched on your phone, or on that screen you now see in the back of every New York taxi? Yup, screenwriters write that stuff. We do it all.
A school that doesn’t recognize the crossover potential of each of its students is denying them a fighting chance in the new marketplace and failing to serve their needs. An example of a school that totally gets this and has The Vision is N.Y.U. Tisch’s Dramatic Writing Program. Students there leave with a full tool kit – having taken classes in most, if not all, of the formats I mentioned earlier. Their grads are ready to face the future as screenwriters in the grand sense. The more-likely-to-be-employed sense. Tuition-paying parents take notice.
Meanwhile… faculty at DePaul University in Chicago (no relation, just pure coincidence) tell me that playwriting students in their vaunted theater program and screenwriters in their film school rarely take classes together. What’s that about? Explain that to John Patrick Shanley, Kenneth Lonergan, David Mamet, or any number of crossover A-list writers working in Hollywood today. Trust me: they’ve all re-paid their college loans.
3. Who the hell is teaching?
Does their screenwriting faculty have anybody who’s ever sold a script or made a movie you’ve heard of? I’m not talking about the glamorous guest speakers they occasionally fly in to impress the student body en masse. I mean real, veteran screenwriters who actually roll up their sleeves and teach from experience on a day-to-day basis.
Hard to believe, but there are whole screenwriting and film departments out there without a single screenwriter who’s ever broken through the paper ceiling (Yes, that’s my new term for the big, white wall that separates aspiring from working screenwriters. Like it?) I won’t mention which schools I’m talking about because it might shame them, and because you should do the research yourself. It’s easy to do: just point and click your way through their faculty profiles. USC, UCLA, Chapman University, Boston University, Emerson College … all have real, working writers teaching you how to become a real, working writer. Kudos to them. So do a handful of other film schools and universities that teach screenwriting. Go to those schools if at all possible.
The other option, of course, is not to formally study screenwriting at all. Instead, get in your car and go to Los Angeles and get a head start on a career that’s mind-blowingly difficult and wildly time-consuming to break into. You’ll cut four years off your learning curve and save mom and dad (and maybe yourself) a buttload of money. And by the way, if you do that and you wanna write comedy, I have a killer new book you should take with you. It’s called Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter.
Wanna buy BRING THE FUNNY in a bookstore? In Los Angeles, it's at Samuel French Bookstore, The Writers Store and Skylight Books.
In New York City, you will soon find BRING THE FUNNY at Strand Bookstore, McNally-Jackson Books, and NYU Bookstore, where I will appear on October 17 to discuss it and sign copies.
Ain't that grand? I'll keep updating you as more bookstores carry it!
-- Greg DePaul, author, Bring the Funny: The Essential Companion for the Comedy Screenwriter
Before you pay some script consultant (including me) a bunch of money to read your latest spec script and give you notes… and before you take that sexy new writing class at the school of professional studies of your choice (Write an Oscar-winning Screenplay in 8 days!)… and before you buy the latest software that purports to write your screenplay for you (which you know isn’t possible, yet you buy it anyway)…
You should join a writers group. Today.
I know what you’re thinking: the last thing you want to do is get together on a weekly basis with a bunch of other screenwriters, read each other’s work, and give each other criticism. Writing is hard enough as it is. You don’t want to hear why your stuff won’t sing. It saps your morale. You don’t need to get dressed down by a bunch of hacks. Right? Wrong.
Here’s five reasons you should get your butt into a writers group as soon as possible if you want to break into the entertainment industry as a writer:
1. Competition improves you. Here’s my rule: Never be the best writer in the room. That means I go wherever better writing talent can be found and I make friends with it. If better writers can be found at the bottom of the deepest ocean, then I’m putting on a wet suit. OK, that was hyperbole. I don’t scuba.
But I do attend writers groups regularly. In fact, I’ve co-founded a couple of them, such as The Stillwater Writers Group in NYC (See stillwaterwriters.com). There I regularly meet with lots of smart, talented writers. Which is great because when the day ever comes that I find I am the smartest or most talented screenwriter in the room, I should move on. Nothing to learn there. Might as well find better writers to hang out with, and fast.
2. You need notes. Yes, I know you think you don’t need notes on your latest spec script. And I know notes can hurt. Nobody wants to be told how badly their writing stinks. Certainly not me. But you must ignore the vainglorious voice in your head that tells you to turn away from criticism. Ignore it and kill it dead.
You absolutely need to hear some other screenwriter tell you how badly you handle exposition or how clunky your dialogue sounds. Otherwise – as we both know – you won’t change it. You’ll assume it’s the bee’s knees, perfect in every way. And, as a result, that bad exposition and clunky dialogue will send your script to the bottom of the readers’ pile as quickly as you can say, um, quickly.
3. You will socialize with folks that can help you advance. Here’s a little fact that, well, isn’t a fact — but I’m gonna tell you anyway because it’s as true as the mother-loving day is long: You need other writers to respect your work. Especially those writers who are respected for their work. Because some of them will have agents, managers, connections, etc. And they might introduce you to those important people. Remember: nothing will happen for you as a screenwriter until somebody important respects you. And they need to read you before they can respect you. See how that works? It’s a circle, but it’s a circle that leads to screenwriting glory.
4. Criticism is a dish best served warm. By this I mean it’s really, really helpful to get notes from someone whom you actually know. Or even better — someone whose writing you know. That’s why, by the way, you should consider getting feedback on your latest comedy spec script from, say, me, Greg DePaul – which you can do by emailing me at firstname.lastname@example.org and inquiring about my rates — as opposed to someone who’s not me, Greg DePaul. I’ve written screenplays that were sold and produced. Therefore, I’m the guy who can tell you what to change to make your comedy better.
And if you’re writing a thriller, get notes from someone who’s done that. Maybe they’ve sold a script and maybe they haven’t. But if you’ve read their work in this awesome writing group that I’m encouraging you to join or start, then you’ll be familiar with their writing chops. And when they give you notes you will have adequate context with which to consider them.
5. Four seemed like a lame number of reasons so I added a fifth.
But now that I’m here, let’s add the sanctity of marriage to the list. After all, I met my wife in a writers group. And you could do the same — but with someone else, of course. My wife is taken.
Seriously, writing groups are the bomb. I’ve been in a lot of them over the years and any success I’ve had is directly attributable to my involvement in writers groups. Whether you have actors read the scripts out loud or writers read them beforehand and give notes in person, the exposure and criticism are absolutely necessary for screenwriters, veteran and aspiring. Most of the successful screenwriters I know have been in writers groups for years and swear by them.
So go join a writers group today. Call me in a year and tell me how it’s going. Who knows? Maybe your group will look like mine, which you can again view at stillwaterwriters.com. It took me three years to get going, but it was totally worth it.
about the Author
Greg DePaul is a screenwriter, playwright, and teacher of writing at NYU and The New School in Manhattan. He's mostly harmless.