Barri Evans discusses the tricky world of breaking into the business.
Why does the industry say no so often to aspiring writers? They’re looking for talent? The next hot thing? If you want people to eat at your restaurant, you don’t keep the front doors locked, right? Or do you?
Advice for aspiring writers can seem random, contradictory, even useless. Worst of all, it simply doesn’t work! Some specify a certain page length. Another cautions against too many characters. Others warn against writing in certain genres. “No period pieces ever or dramas without names attached”.
Often writers are in the dark when it comes to the reasoning behind the “rules.” Firstly, rules are not rules but rather guidelines which become problematic when they are taken as the law.
Many career consultants offer valuable Conventional Wisdom, but in itself, that’s not a formula for success. When it comes to advice, consider the source. Did it come from a working screenwriter?
Other aspiring writers unwittingly give bad advice. Their counsel stems more from ignorance than experience. Since what works seems like a mystery, making up rules makes it less scary. Sometimes it’s bitterness. There’s always a writer determined to prove Conventional Wisdom wrong. “I saw it posted somewhere that some of the ‘annoying’ signs of an amateur screenplay writer are: more than 120 pages; too many characters (20 to 30 or more) and long dialogue that goes over 3 lines. While this is good general advice, scripts don’t automatically get rejected if they dare go into 121st page.
Case in point; Jerry Maguire has 132 pages, 42 characters. I’ll stick to what works for the story and let the people who read it tell me what to trim.” This example and others like it are irrelevant for the budding screenwriter. Why? Because a script by an established, successful, writer/director begs the apples to oranges adage. There is no comparison to your breaking in script. Do we toss a 124-page script aside? No way. But if your script is 157 pages, it makes us think you might not know the difference between a movie and a miniseries.
If you have more words and scenes than are necessary to convey your story, we’re not likely to be impressed with your writing. Do we count characters? No, but if you include characters that are extraneous and don’t contribute to the whole, it shows a lack of focus to your storytelling.
The three-line dialogue rule? Arbitrary Internet Fabrication. Why is there a grain of truth here? Because when we see lengthy blocks of monologue or pages of montage, we question your ability to move a story forward dramatically and cinematically. However, a Presidential speech is rarely three lines long.
You need to prove you’ve mastered the rules and conventions of screenwriting and have the potential to be a professional. When you’re trying to break in, you can’t afford a “I’m an artiste and not changing a word” attitude. If you don’t edit your own work before sending it out, you won’t get a chance to let the pros tell you what to cut.
Creative executves are desperately hoping to find a story to fall to love with – an exciting idea with solid writing that they think we can get made. The film industry is a bizarre hybrid – a high-stakes business based on an art form. Reaction to story, like all art, is highly subjective.
When it comes to saying “no,” would you want a producer to say “yes” to your project who wasn’t truly enthusiastic about it? It takes years to get a film made. You need someone who is passionate, determined, capable and shares your vision for the story.
You are going to hear “no” a lot this business, kiddo. Get used to it or get out. The hit parade of rejection is a long one in the film business, and it doesn’t end once you’re on the inside. There’s the project that goes from merrily moving forward to imploding when a new studio head steps in. The passion piece where sheer determination is no match for the relentlessly steep hill. And that illusive slam-dunk set up that dies an equally quick yet painful death. Rejection is hard, but not as hard as writing a greati screenplay.