So You Want to be a Screenwriter?, Part I: To Develop or
Not to Develop
by Anthony Kaufman
This past weekend, the IFP's 7th annual edition of its "Script to
Screen" conference attempted to tell its packed audiences of wanna-be
scribes the ins and outs of writing films (with panels that included
veteran screenwriters and directors), as well as business lessons on
everything from development, to query letters, contracts, and cable TV.
Admittedly, it is daunting to see how many desperate writers there were in
attendance, from every age and ethnic group. What must have been even
more daunting for executives like Jack Lechner (development, Miramax) and
Rachel Horovitz (production and acquisitions, Fine Line) or producers Richard
Stratton ("Slam") and John Kilik ("Dead Man Walking") was facing off to
hundreds of bloodthirsty writers looking for a sell.
The conference began with opening remarks, from the president of
Forensic Films, Herbert Beigel (also the namesake of the Beigel
Screenplay award which endows one of the conference attendees with a
$5,000 cash prize and along with 4 finalists, a possible industry in for
their screenplay), "Unlike many screenwriting workshops or courses,
here, there is a real attempt to treat the screenplay as part of the
whole process of filmmaking, which I think these days, is lost in all
the talk of structure and writing the script as if it's the final end
product." Beigel's final words summed up the sometimes futile, but
always rewarding act of writing, "When I was a kid, everybody wanted to
write the great American novel, now it seems like everybody wants to
write the great American movie script. I don't think either has been
done, but there's no harm in trying."
The subsequent early morning, first panel was stacked with a few
bleery-eyed industry powerhouses gathering to discuss the process of how
development execs and producers develop material with indie filmmakers.
But the discussion quickly turned to the question of how do beginning
screenwriters get their fims made, not developed. "When you're trying
to get in your first screenplay, there is the sort of mystery on how the
process works," says Jack Lechner, Executive Vice President, Production
at Miramax, who gives the same advice as "Dr. Spock gave in his book,
which is 'you know more than you think you do' -- there is no magic
formula, there is no path to getting a movie made, getting a script
read, getting a script represented."
Rachael Horovitz, Vice President of Production and Acquisitions at Fine
Line Features, said, "You have to understand that there is a groundwork
that one needs to lay," she explains. "Generally, the relationship that
exists before the project that comes in is usually what helps a
filmmaker get a foot in the door. . .I advise people who are starting
out to have a contact, a producer with a track record, or an agent, or a
rep like a John Sloss. They make all the difference."
"It's important to know your target," says Black Swan Productions'
Connie Kaiserman who agreed wholeheartedly with Horowitz's advice.
"Figure out how to find who's interested and then figure out how to find
a way to those very people. If you can't figure out who's going to be
interested, then you'll never find an audience to begin with -- that's
number one. Number two," she continued, "is the first thing that
anybody with a screenplay ought to do is find somebody else who's as
enthusiastic about it as you are and build from there." There were
approving heads from all the panelists on this point. Lechner later
said, "You've got to have some reason to get them to put your screenplay
closer to the top of the pile. And if you're an unknown screenwriter,
that's got to be getting somebody else to make that connection."
All the execs on the panel, from Miramax's Lechner to Good Machine's
Mary Jane Skalski explained that unsolicited manuscripts are just flat
out returned. Skalski said, "At Good Machine, we used to take some
unsolicited scripts with just a letter, but now we actually take query
letters first with the synopsis. You should call up the places and ask
what the policies are." Horovitz said that Fine Line will not look at
unsoliticed screenplays either, but agents are not necessarily the only
way to get a script in, citing a dedicated producer or even some
respected connection as means to get a screenplay looked at. Another
word of warning from Miramax's Lechner, "Don't write a treatment unless
it will lead you to do it [write the screenplay]. This is the cardinal sin of
trying to get your script set up. Unless you've already got screenplays
that people have read and responded to, if you write a treatment and send
it to us, there's absolutely nothing we can do with it. A movie is about
execution; it's not even about ideas, it's about what you do with it."
"Chances are, if you're writing a screenplay and you send it to me, I'm
not going to develop it," says Lechner. "You have two choices. One
choice is if you want to get it made at Miramax then you're probably
going to have to get a package together of some interesting actors, that
will reduce the risk factor of going with this first time director."
But if the "movie can be made very cheaply. Why don't you just get a
bunch of really good actors, save the money, and the time and energy it
would take to get name actors, and just make it really cheaply with the
money you put together from a limited partnership -- dentists, rich
relatives, or whatever." The only writer/director on the panel, Alison
Maclean ("Crush") added, "There's a lot to be said about just finding
enough money to make something very cheaply, and not necessaily having
to go find big names."
In short, it seemed the general feeling among the panelists is not to
bother with development at all and just go out there and do it. But if
you do absolutely need the affirmation (and money) of execs, Lechner and
Horowitz both agreed the best way to get a script read is to write a really
good one. When asked by a writer in the audience to pin down three
things they are looking for in a screenplay, Horovitz finally acquiesed
to a question that really has no simple answer, admitting, "marketability,
potential to turn a profit" and "freshness and originality."