NJ Film Fest

Screenwriting: Getting Started

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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

Holden’s

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

masterpiece,

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

viewing of thousands of movies, a collection of every important

"director’s

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

handles

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

ourselves

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

skills

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

screenwriters

hatching new careers from unsuspecting suburban hamlets, and the

proliferation

of screenwriting courses and workshops offered at colleges and

community

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 —

you.

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

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

teaches

a course on screen writing at Mercer County Community College

explains:

"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

remakes

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

supersonic

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

thick-skinned

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

script

consultant who has worked with writers nationwide for over eight

years.

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

Doylestown, Pennsylvania. Several weeks prior to the start of

Breckenridge’s

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

convincing

organization of events propelled forward by ever-increasing

stakes,"

he says.

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

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

restrictive

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

difficult."

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

them."

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

mistakes"

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

it."

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

screenplays,

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

swindle

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.

"It

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

persevere."

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

course

"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

someday

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

taking

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

script.

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

indicates,

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

pursue

a screenwriting career.

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

California

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

realities

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.

Fortunately,

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.

"Introduction

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

Basics,"

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

Borders

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.

Top Of Page
Screenwriting: Getting Started

If your adrenalin rush watching the Academy Awards this

Sunday night is so great that you find yourself scurrying to the

bathroom

mirror to practice your acceptance speech for best screenplay, you

might also want to consider a few practical steps towards achieving

this nearly impossible dream.

Writing is, by nature, a solitary job, so do your best to

connect with other writers via professional organizations,

conferences

and even community writing circles. Read, commiserate, workshop and

discuss your project. You’ll learn a great deal about how (and if)

others understand what you’re trying to create, and you’ll be inspired

and motivated by the company of other writers.

Spend some time on the Internet. More and more,

screenwriters

are finding markets for their work online. A number of reputable

producers

and writers have created sites for shopping your screenplay. These

sites typically offer critique, contact lists, and will connect you

with interested producers. Some, like www.scriptsharks.com,

www.writerscriptnetwork.com,

and www.zoetrope.com (Francis Ford Coppola’s literary site), are

fee-based. Others, including www.InZide.com and

www.Hollywoodlitsales.com,

are free. All boast a success rate for writers of about 25 percent

(hard to believe given the improbable statistics of number of

screenplays

vs. number of movies actually produced) and claim to have matched

unknowns with producers surfing for fresh talent.

Enroll in an introductory class or workshop. Find one

that suits your goals, and most importantly, your particular skill

level. A lot of novelists, journalists, and playwrights turn to

screenwriting

and although they’ve got a slight advantage because of their

professional

experience, they still need to understand this very specific form

of writing. Novices with little or no professional writing experience

might do better with an introductory class, supplemented by some

general

writing courses.

Don’t think you have to plunk down hundreds of dollars either. A

reasonably

priced day-long workshop is a better investment of time and money

for a beginner than a pricier semester-long class. If, after you’ve

completed an introductory course, you wish to study more, then

investigate

the more intensive — and more expensive — options. Be sure

to check out the credentials of your instructor as well. You’ll

benefit

from the expertise of someone who is active in the industry either

as a writing consultant or screenwriter with a few credits.

Visit the bookstore. Syd Field and William Goldman are

two names you should commit to memory. Goldman, the award-winning

writer of numerous films including "All the President’s Men,"

is the author of "Adventures in the Screen Trade: A Personal View

of Hollywood and Screenwriting," a mix of practical advice and

amusing Hollywood dish that will have you chuckling between rewrites.

Syd Field gets to the heart of things with "The Screenwriters

Workbook" and "Screenplay: The Foundations of

Screenwriting."

You’ll learn about basic three-act structure as well as how to

properly

format your script, right down to the type of binding and font you

should use. Visit www.scriptfly.com for other must-have titles.

Attend writer’s conferences and film festivals. They are

a great way to network and learn about the industry. Many of these

events, notably Sundance, also sponsor screenwriting contests and

offer seminars and panel discussions for the further edification of

the film professional. These are also great places to discover trade

secrets and upcoming industry trends — the sort of impromptu

commentary

that doesn’t make it into movie magazines.

Finally, make a small investment in Final Draft software.

This simple-to-use program handles the formatting work for you and

allows you to create outlines and organized script notes. Once you

are ready to commit dialogue and scene changes to paper, you’ll be

amazed at how easy Final Draft makes this process.

A little reading, a little guidance, and a little study can

go a long way. And pay attention to details. Producers and agents

are fickle about what they want and how they want to receive material.

When you’ve uncovered their idiosyncrasies and accumulated the

necessary

knowledge and tools, you’ll have a better excuse for practicing that

acceptance speech.

— Angelina Sciolla


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