NJ Film Fest

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This article by Angelina Sciolla

was prepared for the March 20, 2002 edition of

U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

From Main Street to Big Screen

It’s late on a Saturday night and you’re rubbing your

eyes after watching Sunset Boulevard for the seventh time. You can’t

believe the life of a screenwriter could be as bleak as William


character suggests, but then how can you argue with a man who ends

up floating face down in a Bel Air swimming pool?

Nevertheless, you fire up the laptop and have a go at your own


vowing to avert a similar fate. Your level of expertise includes the

viewing of thousands of movies, a collection of every important


cut" on DVD, and an 11th grade writing prize. Plus, you have a

friend of a friend who knows an agent. So what if the agent only


cookbooks, she surely knows someone who will read your script.

Clearly, the cinema is the most influential and exciting art form

of the last 100 years. Like its most celebratory event, this week’s

Academy Awards on Sunday, March 24, cinema crosses cultures, time

zones and plays with our perceptions of reality. Movies are the great

conversation starters, the tribal bonfire for our increasingly broad

and diverse communities. And how many millions of us will find


huddled in the warmth of the TV screen to watch the awarding of the

Oscar statuettes. Moreover, movies are the great escape into fantasy,

comedy, vengeance, horror and happily ever after love.

So why wouldn’t someone with a little creativity and good typing


want to be a part of that. The increasing number of would-be


hatching new careers from unsuspecting suburban hamlets, and the


of screenwriting courses and workshops offered at colleges and


centers, indicates that the next wave of script scribes may not all

be L.A. film school alums and movie star offspring. They might, in

fact, include your neighbor, or the guy that does your dry cleaning

or, perhaps, with a measure of extraordinary luck and tenacity —


Extraordinary is the operative word in the equation that adds up to

success. As Jay G. Milner, a screenwriter and writing coach who


a course on screen writing at Mercer County Community College


"Over 45,000 screenplays were registered with the Writers Guild

of America last year, and yet worldwide, only about 700 films were

actually made." Even writers who flunked math can recognize that

those are long odds.

Moreover, only a fraction of those films grew out of fresh stories.

Most screenplays are based on novels, true-life events, comic strips,

video games, or pitches. Throw in the popularity of sequels and


and there’s not much room left in the market for original stories,

let alone original stories from first-time writers.

The pitch is an oral presentation of your script or story idea that

is known as the ultimate sales tool. Pitching often requires


verbal skills since you only get about three to five minutes to win

over a producer or an agent.

With all of these road-tested options available to producers, it’s

easy to see how there is not much room left in the market for original

stories, let along original stories from first-time writers.

These seemingly insurmountable odds might deter even the most


aspirants, but they still sign up in droves for the classes and log

onto screenwriting web sites in search of inspiration.

Jim Breckenridge calls himself a "script doctor." He’s a


consultant who has worked with writers nationwide for over eight


Recently he headed a workshop at the Bucks County Writers Room in

Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Several weeks prior to the start of


class, over 60 hopefuls came to the Writers Room to hear local success

story Stephen Susco discuss his screenwriting experiences. This is

a man who has found success selling scripts; although he has yet to

see any of his scripts on the big screen. The big turnout surprised

even him. Who would have guessed there were that many budding Nora

Ephrons, Akiva Goldsmans, and Christopher Nolans ready to ditch the

SUV and pee-wee soccer practice life for rewrites and rejection slips?

Yet, as Jay Milner notes dryly, "Everybody and their mother has

an idea for a screenplay."

Breckenridge began his six-week course with a staggering

laundry list of statistics designed to provide the ultimate reality

check. "The odds are 140,000 to one that a first-time screenwriter

gets his film sold," Breckenridge told the class. And yet, he

contends, "there is no magic pill for success — just common

sense, hard work and knowledge of the three-act structure."

After the first class it wouldn’t have been unreasonable to assume

that, of the 12 students present — all of whom were astonished

by the statistics — half might not return. Breckenridge admits

that underscoring the slim-to-none odds of success can help to weed

out the dabblers.

The next week, attendance was at 100 percent.

Among the group were three published novelists, an animation artist,

a poet, and a stay-at-home mom toying with the idea of turning some

of her original thoughts into dialogue and camera angles.

The focus of Breckenridge’s workshop is to cover the fundamentals

of structure and assist the writer in developing a solid premise.

An actor who has worked with developmental theater companies in New

York, Breckenridge turned his own frustration with writers who weren’t

seeing their own mistakes into a new career as a script doctor.

"There was no set of criteria from day one," he explained.

"Writers would have their work read and discussed and then come

back later with the same script and throw it against the wall to see

where it fell."

Breckenridge, whose demeanor is calm and sage-like, sets his workshop

guidelines immediately, offering writing tips as if they were biblical

commandments. "The goals is to create a clear, credible, and


organization of events propelled forward by ever-increasing


he says.

Eloquent but not easily done, contends Jay Milner whose Mercer County

class covers similar elements. "This is a very specific and


writing form," he warns. "It’s not like writing a play or

a novel. It’s its own little being. Getting the rhythm for it is


Milner also advises his students on how to win the wallets as well

as the minds. Something, he says, many writers overlook.

"This is a business and there’s a market for what you do. You

have to know what producers are looking for and you have to know how

to put your story together so that it’s the most appealing to


Perhaps Milner’s best angle is the "learn from me and my


one. A former English teacher and corporate executive, Milner faced

a critical decision five years ago when his company wanted to transfer

him from New Jersey to Houston. "I wanted to be a screenwriter

my whole life and I figured maybe now was the time to finally do


He declined the transfer, took the stock options and, as he describes,

"sat down seriously and attacked it."

Since he entered the field five years ago, Milner has written 10


had two optioned, and a third, currently titled "Dead Easy,"

going into production this spring. "Dead Easy" is a suspense

movie with a plot that involves a young man’s elaborate caper to


a wealthy woman and her daughter out of millions of dollars.

Milner’s professional success story is music to the

ears of budding writers who hope one day to ditch their day job for

the lure of the silver screen. He is quick to offer practical advice

about following his lead.

"I think people are always under the impression that they can

write something as good as what they see on the screen," he says.

"That’s not realistic. If you can’t do it any better than those

already getting paid to do it, you’ll never get paid to do it."

That also means becoming a fierce self-promoter.

"You’ve got to develop an enormous ego," Milner advises.


also means you have to develop a skin as thick as a rhinoceros. You’ve

got to be willing to take those rejections for what they are and


Yet while examples are not plentiful, Hollywood miracles do happen.

Just look at one of this year’s Oscar nominees for best screenplay.

Writer Rob Festinger, a former script reader for HBO, peddled "In

the Bedroom" — his first script — for nine years (and

even received a rejection from HBO) before partnering with Todd Field

to make the film. Festinger is a front-runner for the golden statuette

this year and is now at work on the biography of Jackie Gleason, a

project that’s being built as a star vehicle for Nathan Lane.

To be sure, it’s these kinds of stories that fuel the quixotic dreams

of so many writers, including those whose experience involves little

more than personal journals and grocery lists.

Eileen Sak is a student in Jim Breckenridge’s Doylestown class. A

stay-at-home mother of three and big fan of classic films including

"The Women" and "Rebecca," Sak signed up for the


"because it seemed interesting."

"I always liked thinking up movies in my head," she explains,

"but I never knew anything about the process."

Though she contends her writing experience is minimal, Sak would


like to write comedies and murder mysteries. "It depends on what’s

going on in my life. If things are going well and I’m in a good mood,

I want to do comedies. When I’m not having such a great day, I want

to write mysteries."

Sak keeps a diary to capture moments of inspiration and plans on


some general writing classes to work on her craft.

"I think a lot of people are interested in screenwriting because

they see that other people, not unlike themselves, are successful

at it," she observes. "The guys who wrote `Good Will Hunting’

(Matt Damon and Ben Affleck) weren’t famous when they wrote that


They were just a couple of college kids. People see that and they

think they can do it too."

No doubt Jay Milner would have some sobering words for Eileen Sak,

but, despite caveats and spirit-crushing tales of rejection, the story

of the average Joe scoring in Hollywood is what drives most of us

would-be screenwriters to tempt fate. Moreover, as Eileen Sak


it is no longer necessary to live in an entertainment capital to


a screenwriting career.

"Technology has made it so that you don’t have to live in


or New York to be connected to the industry," she says. "You

can do it right from your own home."

The impact of movies on our culture and even on our own personal


has been debated since the medium first emerged at the turn of the

20th century. Epic filmmaker Cecil B. DeMille once said the art of

cinema allows man "to see the face of God." Jesse Jackson

told reporters at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival that "access to

movies should be considered a human right."

Sounds a bit weighty, but it appears one of the most popular pastimes

has evolved into one of the most popular career objectives.


the former can offer preparation for the latter.

"With movie writing," Milner explains, "the student has

to literally see what will be on the screen as if he were directing

the film himself."

That’s how it started me, a freelance writer and 9-to-5 working

stiff. A movie buff since I was old enough to crawl down the steps

to the living room and watch the "Late Late Show" from behind

the rungs of the banister, I dreamed of turning my imagination into

a Hollywood commodity. I began to pursue my dream more vigorously

last year when I attended the Cannes Film Festival and won a movie

pitch contest with Variety Magazine. This May I plan to return to

Cannes to try to sell the script on which the pitch was based. It’s

my first screenplay and I’m packing the armor, but I know that even

the great ones had to get knocked down a few times before watching

their names roll serenely across the screen in the final credits.

So rewind your copy of Sunset Boulevard and, this time, laugh at Billy

Wilder’s mercenary Hollywood fable. When the rejection letters start

to pile up, you can comfort yourself with the fact that you’re not

face down in the swimming pool. That only happens after you start

selling your scripts.

And if your aspirations take you no further than the local multiplex,

you’ll still be ahead of the curve. After all, whenever cocktail party

buzz begins to wane, you know how to resurrect any conversation:

Seen any good movies lately?

— Angelina Sciolla

Mercer County College, 609-586-9446. In the Professional

Writers’ Certificate program: "Screenwriting," six sessions,

taught by Jay G. Milner.

Middlesex County College, Edison, 732-906-2556.


to Screenwriting," eight sessions, taught by Jeffrey Cohen.

The Writers Room of Bucks County, 4 West Oakland Avenue,

Doylestown, 215-348-1663. www.WritersRoom.net. "Filmwriting


six sessions, taught by James Breckenridge.

Top Of Page
NJ Film Fest

New Jersey Film Festival screenings are Fridays through

Sunday in Scott Hall, Room 123, Rutgers College Avenue campus, near

the corner of College Avenue and Hamilton Street. Thursday screenings

are in Loree Hall, Room 024, Douglass College campus, near the corner

of Nichol Avenue and George Street; with selected free events at


Books, Route 18 South, East Brunswick. $5; all programs begin at 7

p.m. Call 732-932-8482 or on the Web at: www.njfilmfest.com.

Tundra, a Movie, directed by Victory Furniture and Bruce

Conner, Borders Books, free, Wednesday, March 27.

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