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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
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
Writers’ Certificate program: "Screenwriting," six sessions,
taught by Jay G. Milner.
to Screenwriting," eight sessions, taught by Jeffrey Cohen.
Doylestown, 215-348-1663. www.WritersRoom.net. "Filmwriting
six sessions, taught by James Breckenridge.
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.
Conner, Borders Books, free, Wednesday, March 27.
If your adrenalin rush watching the Academy Awards this
Sunday night is so great that you find yourself scurrying to the
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.
connect with other writers via professional organizations,
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.
are finding markets for their work online. A number of reputable
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,
and www.zoetrope.com (Francis Ford Coppola’s literary site), are
fee-based. Others, including www.InZide.com and
are free. All boast a success rate for writers of about 25 percent
(hard to believe given the improbable statistics of number of
vs. number of movies actually produced) and claim to have matched
unknowns with producers surfing for fresh talent.
that suits your goals, and most importantly, your particular skill
level. A lot of novelists, journalists, and playwrights turn to
and although they’ve got a slight advantage because of their
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
Don’t think you have to plunk down hundreds of dollars either. A
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
the more intensive — and more expensive — options. Be sure
to check out the credentials of your instructor as well. You’ll
from the expertise of someone who is active in the industry either
as a writing consultant or screenwriter with a few credits.
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
You’ll learn about basic three-act structure as well as how to
format your script, right down to the type of binding and font you
should use. Visit www.scriptfly.com for other must-have titles.
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
that doesn’t make it into movie magazines.
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.
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
knowledge and tools, you’ll have a better excuse for practicing that
— Angelina Sciolla
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