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When Will My Script Be Ready?!?

As a producer and former VP of Development for production companies based at Sony, Universal and Disney, I’ve had the privilege of working with award-winning writers, directors and actors, and the most successful ones always put in the most work.  Over the years, I frequently hear eager new writers who are working on material make the following comments:  "I want to hurry up and get it out there!" "When will it be ready?!?" "When will it be good enough?"

Twenty years ago, it was easy to sell concepts on purely a log-line, and scripts didn’t have to be great to sell.  If a script wasn’t well written but a studio loved the concept, they would option the script and hire a preferred screenwriter to do the re-write.  But the economy has changed.  With the exception of adapting a best-selling book, graphic novel, comic book or other established source material, fewer companies are spending resources developing screenplays the way they used to.  Today, they want to buy a product that is tangible, that they can see and know is already well-executed, as opposed to gambling on one that might never fulfill its potential.  This shift places much more responsibility on the writer to create a script that stands out on its own merits.

To be a true success, motivation needs to stem from taking pride in one’s work and wanting to execute and deliver outstanding writing vs. the desire to chase the Golden Fleece.  With rare exceptions, the writers, directors, and producers who have become rich and famous achieved these results by focusing on the work itself, the journey in making the project the best it can be.  Many times, great films were underdogs with respect to their commerciality.  The rewards were a by-product of the effort and the quality of execution that went into them. The Oscars prove this truth over and over again.  In shooting the film The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow most likely did not take it on because she thought she’d be a shoe-in for an Oscar.  Most likely, she took it on because she fell in love with the project and the screenplay.  These factors led to the creation of a vehicle that would inspire and funnel her greatest work as a director.  Mark Boal, the writer of The Hurt Locker, didn’t set out to write an Oscar-winning screenplay; that’s not where his dedication and inspiration came from.  Rather, he drew upon his experiences as a journalist in Iraq and wrote a script that resonated with him deeply, which in turn resonated with others.  Jeff Bridges, in accepting his Golden Globe and Oscar, said over and over again that he and the producers were hoping they'd get a distributor for Crazy Heart.  The film was not something they felt was a guarantee at all.  The bottom line:  the best work comes from passion, lots and lots of effort, fine-tuning your craft, honing your creativity and taking the time to make your script impactful.  These components will capture the attention of the people – actors, investors, directors, production company and studio executives – who can get your movie made. 

A lot of people don’t realize that many award-winning films were in the works for at least seven years before getting made.  A few examples include:  Shakespeare in Love, Crash, and Forrest Gump.  Of course a lot has to do with timing, having the right talent attached at the right time and finding financing; but much also has to do with the evolution of the script itself.  It has to be at a high enough level good to attract the people passionate enough to want to invest their money, time, and talent. 

Another case in point:  Judd Apatow is a comedic icon and every comedic writer would love to emulate his career.  His status is well-deserved and well-earned.  Do you think he became a success overnight?  He has been writing for years and years, continually evolving his craft.

Whenever I see Charlie Rose or Tavis Smiley interview award-winning actors, film-makers, and best-selling authors, 9 out of 10 times, the guests will tell their host that they have been working on the project that has won so many accolades for several years.  If great artists take years to create a great piece of work, why is it that the person just starting out expects to create a masterpiece, big-sale or high-profile project in just a few months?  Sure it can happen, but that would unequivocally be the exception.

So, the "Tip" is:  Be excited, be enthusiastic, have the energy and desire to move quickly - but never without realizing that great films and series come from a lot of hard work and consistent effort.

To answer the questions "When will it be ready?" and "When can we take it out," the answer is:  "It will be ready when it's ready," or in other words, when it's good enough to be an exciting "read," one that’s emotionally engaging, has a compelling, well-thought out plot, reads with freshness as opposed to clichés, has dialogue that is authentic and natural as opposed to expository, and is well-formatted, consistent with industry standards and expectations. How do you know the above and can qualify what’s "good enough?" Isn't "good enough" subjective?

To a degree, the response to every piece of art is subjective.  However, there are general tell-tale signs of an amateur and flaws you will want to avoid, such as expositional dialogue or bland characters.  If you are working with someone whose opinions you respect and trust and they offer feedback for improving your script in ways that make sense, it's a good idea to incorporate those suggestions and work on the revisions until you both feel satisfied.  Once this happens, I would recommend test-flighting your project by sending it out to friends in the business (again people whose opinions you trust and respect) before sending it out to your dream list.  These can be fellow writers, an assistant at a production company, agency or management firm. By pre-flighting your project, you can address red flags that come up before blowing your chances prematurely with the big guns, e.g. the people you really want to be in bed with and make a lasting impression.  

In the above process, it is important to be receptive.  You need to be honest enough with yourself to know you want candid comments and constructive criticism as opposed to validation.

Further ways to determine whether or not your project is "ready" occurs when you send it out to a number of people who give you consistent feedback along the lines of: the dialogue doesn’t sound believable, the plot is predictable, the characters are not as dimensional as they could be, and so on.  If you are lucky enough to get honest feedback, listen to what your readers are saying.  If it's just one person who has a problem, you can evaluate whether or not to address the note.  If however, there are several individuals with the same comments, chances are they might be right and others will have similar concerns as well. 

Inexperienced writers will often boast about the various companies they sent their script to and how these companies "all liked the script" but passed because it just wasn't right for them.  One time, years ago, a writer sent me his material along with a package of responses from the companies that reviewed his material and had passed.  He was showing me "look at all these companies that wanted to read my script! And they liked it enough to send me a response!"  What this screenwriter didn't realize was that these were "polite" rejection letters and more or less a standard form executives use when they don't care for a project.  Denial won’t help you improve your craft and become a better writer. I have the utmost respect for writers, taking your ideas and putting them on paper, shaping your story and continuing to fine-tune it, like a sculptor who continues to mold, carve and define his material until it emerges as a magnificent work of art.   It takes bravery to expose your work to others. It takes even more courage to be open to feedback, process it through your filter, take what’s viable, learn from it, and transform that feedback to make it your own, make it work for you.

I am often reminded of the time I heard the great South American author, Jorge Luis Borges, speak while being honored at Columbia University.  His career spanned over six decades and included hundreds of published works and the highly coveted stature of being one of the greatest writers of the 20th century.  He was in his 80's, still writing, and nearly blind.  And he said something that has stayed with me to this day.  He was grateful for his long life and the depth of experiences he lived through, as these provided a great wealth of resources which he could pool from for his works.  He concluded that he was only now starting to get good at his craft.  This statement, coming from a man who had been writing for over 60 years, was astonishingly insightful and humbling.    

If a writer of his stature could assess his work with such humility, there's a valuable lesson in his words for all of us.


In summary:

1) Don't buy everything you hear just because it's flattering.

2) Take your craft seriously and do the work.

3) Learn to recognize and appreciate the process.

 


Wendy Kram has developed and produced projects with Oscar-winning talent for Walt Disney, Universal, Warner Brothers, Sony Pictures, HBO and primetime networks. Her credits include Mad Money with Diane Keaton, Queen Latifah, and Katie Holmes;Making Mr. Right with Dean Cain for Lifetime; and the award-winning miniseries Sally Hemings: An American Scandal for CBS. Currently, she has projects set up with CAA, Sierra Affinity, Out of the Blue, and Anonymous Content (True Detective; manages Ryan Gosling, Steven Soderbergh, and Emma Stone).

She also founded L.A. FOR HIRE, a boutique consulting company for international screenwriters, filmmakers, and production companies seeking development expertise and Hollywood connections to sell their projects. She is responsible for securing high six-figure deals for clients and getting their projects made.

Creative Screenwriting Magazine ranks her in the Industry's Top 3 Picks for "Best Script Consultants" with expertise in marketing.  To learn more about Wendy's services, success stories and how she may be able to help you advance your projects and careers, visit: www.la4hire.com or email wendy@la4hire.com.

Written by: Wendy Kram
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