Wednesday, February 15, 2006

Submitting Scripts to Hollywood

What do the tea leaves say? Is there a face of Gandhi in my cereal? My, what games we play to divine how to get our scripts read by the industry big-wigs...

One Thanksgiving, as a quasi-experiment, I marshalled my (wonderful!) friends into stuffing 92 query letters to Hollywood agents for 62 Blocks to Battery Park. My results were six responses, three of which were positive, and no takers.

After reflecting on those results, I chose a more focused approach. There was a specific actress I had in mind for the lead role... and getting a named talent attached would certainly fast track my chances of getting that script produced. I sent one letter to her agent and got a positive response. Ultimately, she didn't accept the role, but at least the script got read.

92 letters to agents
—> 3 positive responses
—> 3.2% return on time invested

1 letter to a specific agent
—> 1 positive response
—> 100% return on time invested

Based on the numbers alone, it became extremely clear that identifying and targeting my query letters to the agent of an upcoming actor would be a much, much better use of my time. Why? Because people like to think they're special, that you're writing to them only. And because these new actors are looking for a great new role to expand their resume. There was, however, a deeper lesson here: instead of shotgunning 92 agents with a form letter (even if had been mail merged), by focusing my energies to individual agents, I was leveraging my time to its maximum effect. I had found a pressure point.

In David Marcinko's book, Rogue Warrior, he tells the story of how his mission was to attack an enemy base. He sets out to find the base, but gets sidetracked by the difficult terrain—by many, many hours—which has the fortunate result of landing him directly behind the enemy base, where they least expected an attack because it was so difficult to get to. His lesson from this was to do exactly what the enemy least expects, because it's their weakest spot. When Norman Schwarzkopf told his commanders to move their tanks 100 miles to the West to outflank Saddam Hussein's army, his subordinate officers said, "But that's impossible! We can't do that." And Schwarzkopf replied, "That's exactly why we have to do it, because Saddam will be thinking the same thing."

Find the weak link in the chain. And pull.

Hollywood's weakest link is that it's like one big roulette table where everyone wants a winning number and they're desperate to find out what that winning number will be (curiously, this is not unlike screenwriters trying to get their scripts read). If they find out someone else is reading your script and is interested—really interested!—they'll fall over themselves to read it, too. Some producers are now using Inktip to read scripts, which helps excise agents and managers acting as "goalies" by asking for percentages that kill a project before it even gets off the ground.

So it's no surprise that these screenwriters are yielding such amazing results (the boldface is my own):

I live in Spokane Wa, and my writing partner and I have made over a hundred script submissions to every major production company and studio in Hollywood WITHOUT an agent. I'm talking about Universal, Bruckheimer, Dreamworks, etc. All we have is a Hollywood Creative Directory, a cell phone, and balls. The best part is that every submission has been in email format, so it's instant and free. 8 out of 10 times, it doesn't even matter if the company claims to not accept unsolicited material. They will take it anyway because our pitch is air tight. We just speak their language and don't tell them we're the writers until they ask. It's not lying, it's more of a strategic placement of facts. We were able to get 37 submissions in 2 days once. The point of all this, is that the boundaries all of us aspiring writers take for granted aren't real. If you call up a studio, get a VP of production or a Director of Development on the phone, tell them what they want to hear, they'll take it and thank you for it. You call them and say, "Hey, I've got this hot script that came my way, and it's being shotgunned to everybody around town. But it really seems like the type of project you'd be interested in, so I thought I'd let you take a look before any exclusivity is set up with anyone else." Usually at this point, they'll take your script without even knowing what it is about, but always have a logline ready. Face it, Hollywood is a business. Yes, art is important. But if you can't get your scripts read, then what's the point? Anyway, I thought I'd shed some light on the whole "getting read" thing. I'm 24, and I've only been writing for 2 years. Every script I've written has been read and the most recent script (only my second) was very close to purchase. It just didn't quite get off the ground at Universal. But I do have an open door now at every studio/production company you could dream of. All thanks to my shameful telemarketing background.

It's taken time for me to realize it, but I know in my heart I'm not a salesman or telemarketer, at least not enough to make 100 phone calls over and over again, so their approach probably won't work for me... except maybe for a limited time. One day when I have five finished scripts ready to produce, I might go this route to give each script a fair run.

Years of my life were wasted writing and not seeing anything produced because 15 years ago it was too expensive for me to produce anything myself. Since everything is digital now, and podcasting is fast emerging as the new distribution market, the world got a whole hell of a lot flatter.

Do I want to live in Los Angeles to be a small screenwriter swimming in a big pond? No, I'd rather do something which separates me from all the other screenwriters out there, something that exploits the weakest link in the chain. That's why I'm a local writer-director-producer (which is vastly different than all the thousands of screenwriters out there), with the goal of building up my directing portfolio so that one day I can pitch my $100 film ideas with some credibility behind me.

At the end of the day, I can have five scripts that, after 2,000 phone calls and five years, maybe one of them will get produced. And that's still a maybe. Those are horrible odds. Screw that! I would rather be master of my own small little ship by getting financing to shoot my own scripts locally. That way, at least I know that my script is going to get produced. At the end of a year, I could have four scripts, plus a finished film to show a producer. And the year after that, three scripts and two films. And so on.

As far as I'm concerned, screenplays are only a blueprint—films are the stand-alone product. And since it's waaaaaaaay easier to watch a film than read a script, I feel I have a better chance showing big-budget producers one of my stories than telling it to them.

There is no one path to Hollywood. But pulling on those weak links in the chain—that approach will never change.


Anonymous said...

Ross, your insight never ceases to amaze me and you post with such clarity. On top of that you are looking out for yur fellow artist for easily you could hav kept this to yourself and let others find out for themselves.

I was honored to work with you on T.O.D. and was even more impressed by your talent, drive and professionalism.

I do hope we get to work closely together one more time or at least throughout our careers.

My best wishes to you, give your family my warmest regards.


Ross Pruden said...

You are too kind. I appreciate the good words and look forward to working again together in the future!

Anonymous said...

Now you know why I prefer novels, dude.