The hazardous journey down Contest Road

May 16, 2017
Flat tire in formal attire

A savvy driver is prepared, no matter what they encounter

I’ve lost count of how many screenwriting contests there are. A whole lot, I believe. But out of all of them, only a handful actually mean anything in terms of helping build one’s career.

The Nicholl. Austin. PAGE. There are others of high prominence, but these three are the ones that really matter.

This isn’t to slight the smaller or lesser-known contests, but someone who’s a finalist in the Nicholl probably has a better shot at being able to use that to their advantage than, say, the Greater Cedar Rapids Screenplay Contest (not that such a thing actually exists, but you get the idea).

As evidenced on my My Scripts page, I’ve done moderately well in some of the bigs, but have also totally fizzled out. I’ve also been fortunate to have done well in some of the second-tier competitions. Every year yields different results.

Sometimes the first thoughts that race through your head when you read that email from the contest organizer that includes the word “Regretfully” somewhere near the beginning makes you think “Does this mean my writing is lousy?”

No. It means it didn’t click/connect with the reader or readers from that contest. A lot of the contests give you at least two reads. Sometimes I’ll receive praise from the first reader, only to have the second one not like it, thereby stopping it in its tracks. Or both readers like it, but not enough to advance it to the next round. Nothing I can do about it. C’est la vie, and better luck next year.

And even if you win, or at least place highly, in a high-profile contest, that’s no guarantee to getting work. I know a Nicholl finalist who had zero traction with their script, as opposed to the PAGE winner who is now super-busy with assigments.

I know writers who’ve never won a contest, and they got work. I know writers who’ve never entered a contest at all, and they’ve gotten work. How? Because the writing wasn’t just good; it was really, really good. That’s what it comes down to. That and somebody liked it enough to want to do something with it or with the writer.

A few years ago, I was a lot more likely to enter almost any contest. And there weren’t even as many then as there are now. Time and experience has shown me that, yes, it’s a nice validation to get that certificate from that small contest you’d never heard of before you entered, but how much did it actually do to help you get your career going?

A lot of contests offer “industry exposure” to the winners, and you do get that – to a point, and it’s probably a safe bet not to the extent you imagine. Your script might get checked out by maybe a handful of reps and production companies, and even then there’s still no guarantee anybody will be interested. I’m speaking from experience on this one.

Contests are just one of the ways in. As someone who’s in it for the long haul, I’ll continue to try my luck with the big ones while also exploring other avenues. Whatever it takes.

And no matter what contest you may have entered this year, I wish you the best of luck. Except for the ones I did. Then all bets are off and it’s every person for themselves.


Fine-tuning in progress

February 28, 2017
lady-scientists

Aha! Almost missed that extra “the” in that sentence!

As of this writing, the early bird deadline for the Nicholl is about a week away. After some back-and-forth, I decided that, yes, I’ll take the plunge and once again submit my western.

Last year it made it to the top 15 percent, which isn’t bad, but I know it can do better.

And that’s what the next couple of days are all about: taking what I consider to be a pretty solid script and doing a little more editing/tweaking/polishing to make it even stronger.

For a long time I was convinced there was nothing else to be done on this script. Now I’m thrilled to have been so completely wrong. It doesn’t need a lot, but probably just enough to make a significant difference.

Earlier this year, I got some really good professional notes on it that raised some questions I hadn’t considered before. Implementing the suggested fixes really would make a difference.

So that’s what I’m currently in the process of doing. Nothing major, but some little tweaks, modifications, and minor rewriting here and there. And as is usually the case for me, these aren’t as insurmountable as I’d expected.

Part of this also involves going through the entire thing line by line, red pen in hand, just in case anything catches my eye as if to say “CHANGE ME!” Surprisingly, there have been quite a few of those.

I couldn’t say the last time I actually read through the script, but it’s definitely been a while. And it’s probably safe to say that this long stretch of not looking at it has definitely helped in enabling me to identify what needs editing/fixing.

And not to toot my own horn, but gosh this is a fun read.

In retrospect, I probably should have done this before submitting the script to PAGE, but if all this helps it do better with the Nicholl, who am I to complain?


Looking back, planning ahead

December 30, 2016
champagne-toast

Auld Lang Syne and all that

Well, 2016 is pretty much in the books. I hope it was a good year for you, writing-wise.

Mine was okay.

Among the more noteworthy events:

-I completed the first draft for 3 separate scripts. 2 comedies, 1 sci-fi.

-One of those comedies was written, edited and rewritten/revised over 10 days.

-My western made it to the top 15 percent in the Nicholl and was one of the top 100 in the Emerging Screenwriters competition, but did not advance with PAGE or Austin.

-Several read requests from managers and production companies. Unfortunately, everybody passed with the commonly-used “Just not what I’m looking for.”

-Built up my network of talented writers located all over the world, along with numerous getting-to-know-you in-person chats with those in the immediate geographic vicinity.

-Organized and hosted a very successful and enjoyable networking event for screenwriters. In a deli. A block from the Pacific Ocean.

-Took part in script swaps for somewhere in the neighborhood of 15 scripts.

Not a bad compilation.

As for 2017, the usual objectives:

-Along with the aforementioned rewrites, complete the first draft for at least 2 or 3 new scripts.

-Continue the quest for representation. Already a few potentials on the horizon.

-Based on how my western did in the Big 3 contests, I’m torn between seeking professional feedback for one more polish, or just leaving it as is and trying again next year.

-Continue providing notes and doing script swaps.

-Look into hosting another networking event, probably at a bigger venue.

-More networking and establishing connections with more talented writers.

-More getting-to-know-you in-person chats.

-Watch more movies.

-Read more scripts

-Stay confident. Be patient. Not lose hope, even on the shittiest of days.

-Keep trying to make this work. Eyes on the prize.

And a final note to all you loyal readers – thanks for coming along on this rollercoaster ride of a journey. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing about it.

All the best from me to you for a very happy and successful 2017. Fingers remain, as always, firmly crossed that this is The Year It Happens.


Disappointed, yet still driven & determined

September 9, 2016
uphill

One step at a time

The results are in for my western’s involvement with the major screenwriting contests for this year:

PAGE – nope. Didn’t get notes.

Austin – nope. Notes expected later in the year. (They got over 9100 entries for shorts and features this year. That’s A LOT.)

Nicholl – top 15%, which isn’t bad. Two sets of notes; the first reader really liked it, whereas the second’s comments make me highly suspicious about their qualifications.

On a positive note, the script placed in the top 100 of the ISA’s Emerging Screenwriters contest, which is nice. Fingers crossed it advances to the finals.

But back to the big three. It’s a little frustrating that things didn’t work out, but that doesn’t mean the script’s bad. A lot of my readers, many of whom have done well in these contests, all had very positive things to say about it and thought it was a solid and entertaining piece of work.

Two things to keep in mind about these contests:

It’s all subjective.

Sometimes you just get a shitty reader.

These also happen to be things we have no control over. Yes, it’s disappointing to get that email that includes the phrase “Unfortunately…”, but just because you didn’t do well this year doesn’t mean you won’t do better next year. This is the mantra I’m going with for now.

I’m also taking a little time off from the western to focus on the comedy and at least one or two other scripts. It helps.

Something else for you to ponder: contests aren’t the only way in. More and more I’m hearing/reading from writers who do well in contests, but nothing comes of it. They might get a read, but that’s it. You gotta keep trying from every approach you can think of.

That’s my plan.

Will I enter the contests next year? Possibly. But they’re not a priority.

Making inroads into a getting a career going is.


Q & A with the Thornton Brothers

September 6, 2016

Thornton Brothers

Chris and Jason Thornton are professional storytellers who seek to entertain audiences via thematically charged films, TV shows, books and comics across various genres while specializing in darker, provocative, character-driven narratives ranging from “micro” to tentpole in budget. They are members of the WGAw and repped by UTA and Rosa Entertainment.

Cactus Jack is their feature directorial debut. It’s the story of a reclusive hate-monger who starts a venomous, vitriolic podcast from his mother’s basement and makes enemies far and wide—until one comes to silence him. Think a cross between Taxi Driver and Talk Radio for the podcasting generation. You can help the guys out with their crowdfund campaign (and see their totally NSFW red band proof-of-concept teaser)

What’s the last thing you read/watched you thought was incredibly well-written (Book, TV or film)

Fuck, that’s hard. Not because we look down on stuff, but because we’re so busy trying to make our own shit that we barely have time to consume like we used to. Hmmmm. Just rewatched Network lately, so that definitely should be mentioned. Paddy Chayefsky was an absolute beast. Sure. Network. Can’t go wrong with that.

What’s your writing background? What was the project that got things started?

We’ve kind of always been innate storytellers. We come from a strong line of liars and bullshitters, and as largely unsupervised kids in the projects outside DC we’d play out really elaborate, raw extended throughlines with our action figures and made our own comic books and honed our sensibilities between bouts of watching R-rated 80’s shit on free promotional HBO and Showtime and role playing. We started screenwriting together maybe fifteen years ago, but after writing three scripts that shall never see the light of day we stopped for a few years before coming back to it in ‘07. That project was a script called Heart, about a dying, psychotic Vietnam vet who gets an early release from prison and—since he can’t get on a donor’s list—tracks down the man whose life he saved forty years ago in ‘Nam: he wants the dude’s heart. It’s a very dark, fucked up, pulpy who-do-I-root-for story, which finished in the Top 30 out of like 5,000 entries for the 2009 Nicholl Fellowship (since dismantled and currently turning it into a truly dastardly novel). From there we started talking to managers but it was our next script Mechanicsville that really hooked our manager (shoutout to Sidney Sherman of Rosa Entertainment, who still reps us) and first agent (started at WME but since jumped to UTA). M-ville’s kind of a Kentucky-fried heist flick about how shit hits the fan when two gangs of bank robbers try to rob the same small town bank on the same day (Hell Or High Water stomps all over it now, unfortunately). That one started getting us legit meetings, led to our first assignment and opened the door to pitch shit, etc.

Your current big project is crowdfunding to produce your original independent film CACTUS JACK. What’s the story behind that?

Part of this is definitely about us tiring of being stuck on that movie/TV development hamster wheel, and all of these unproduced projects forcing us to look at our shoes and mumble “no” when people hear what we do and of course follow up with “Oh yeah? Anything I can see or read?” Part of it is about trying to make a feature film for relatively very little money, because screenwriters will never “move the needle” on a project like in-demand directors will… but for the most part it’s a sick little story we just have to get out there as quickly as possible. It’s very zeitgeisty, very of-the-moment as it holds up a twisted, frothing-mouthed funhouse mirror to this already “big top” election cycle. Once we started talking to our actor (Michael Gull, a very talented dude whose skills we tailored the very conception of the film to), we knew we had some dynamite shit on our hands, and as far as we were chomping to push the envelope into radioactive territory, we knew none of our contacts or fans in Hollywood would take a risk on this thing until it was made and we proved our point.

So we found a micro-investor to help us make a teaser for the film and launched a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo. We need all the help we can get, time is running out, and though we have recent some offline help from friends and family who couldn’t back us through the campaign, it’s pretty dire! We’re going to make the movie come hell or high water, but every penny helps push production value (plus pay and feed cast and crew) and you can preorder a copy of the flick for $25. So—please, lend us a hand in making this batshit, gonzo little monster of a movie!

Your writing style is very vivid and descriptive. Did that come naturally or was it something that took time to develop?

Both. It takes a long, long time for some people to hone their voice and honestly, it should be an ongoing process and evolution for your entire writing life. But you have to have a voice to be honed in the first place. A lot of writers are sadly like those poor souls on American Idol who have no business auditioning in the first place—but hey, who are we to deny the delusional their dreams? Whatever keeps them from shooting up a shopping mall. ;)

Have you always worked together? Is one of you the specialist in a certain area, like one does more writing and the other handles directing, or do you split it evenly?

We’ve sort of always worked together, for the most part. Though we each have our own skills we complement the other with, we do tend to each spearhead a project nowadays while the other acts as more editor and muse. So yeah, we each have our own pet solo projects, but they all fall under the Thornton Brothers umbrella eventually.

Do you only work on your own scripts, or have you done some assignment work as well? Do you have a preference?

We’ve done both, for sure. Hard to sustain a career, or even kickstart one, without doing assignment work. The nice thing about it is people actually give you money to commence writing something! It’s crazy. Not at all easy to do, trying to feed yourself or help provide for others in the arts. Some might even call it foolhardy, but yeah…we’ve done both. Selling something you wrote yourself, from your own mind and heart, is infinitely more satisfying. And while we’ve had some very fun, interesting experiences collaborating in a development sense with assignment work or on successful pitches that became scripts (if not movies), no matter how smooth or inspired a collaboration with an outside party it’s never quite as liberating or just straight up fun as going out into the creative wild on our own and coming back with a kill.

You’re also filmmakers as well as writers. What do you consider the benefits of working on a film, from both the writer and filmmaker perspective?

Making or even merely being witness to the construction of an actual film is pretty invaluable for screenwriters, in our collective opinion. You really start to see how to separate the meat from the fat, and how what works on the page might not be as impactful in the moment or on the screen. Editing film/video also really helps hone your sense of timing, pacing, and flow as a storyteller… and how effective and economical you can be with visuals, allowing characters to shut the fuck up sometimes, how to convey info without big, clunky dialogue exposition bombs, etc.

Also, if you can we say go for the hyphenate… again, no screenwriter is ever going to have the kind of clout a successful director has. That said, many don’t have the temperament or skillset required (not that there’s one narrow band of disposition that allows one to direct), but writers often have murkier personalities. It’s worth making a film or two to find out if you’re a writer-director or filmmaker versus just a writer is not a bad idea. But if you know off the bat you don’t get along with others, have trouble verbally conveying what you mean to say, then save yourself the grief. Take our word for it: directing even modest, “micro” films ain’t for the faint of heart. Also, keep in mind that some stories demand to be told in this medium. Others don’t. Some work better in prose, or even in poem of song. Marrying the right medium to the story is also part of the trick.

When working on a script, do you have a reliable source for notes?

We are our own most reliable source of notes. It helps that there’s two of us but honestly we’ve both tried to become total fucking samurais when it comes to self-editing. You have to be. It’s not only a matter of putting your best foot forward when you go to show your work to reps or the public, but even if you were going to Emily Dickinson that shit away in a kitchen drawer until it’s discovered posthumously years later—your story deserves to be the closest to “perfection” it can be (which is objectively unattainable, but approximated through the filter that is you. It is YOUR story, after all). Oh, and our manager is usually good for one killer note.

What are the 3 most important rules a writer should know?

Ew! “Rules!” Haha, in all seriousness though maybe Rule #1 should be: There Are No Rules. There’s no one way to get noticed, to have a career — and anyone who tells you there is is probably trying to sell you something. But if you want some real nuts and bolts:

1. Always approach storytelling with Character at the forefront.

Even if you outline a predetermined plot to get started with a map, veer off of it when you find it incongruent with a character you’re rendering. If there is falsity or fallacy baked into the behavior of your characters, no matter how tightly constructed your narrative, it will start to crumble.

2. Be careful with twists and “reveals.”

We see it all the time, from the stuff we watch and read (and have written in the past) to many of the scripts we’ve consulted on. It’s a natural storytelling tendency, to want to surprise an audience, but only do it with REAL PURPOSE. Be careful with the big climactic “backstory reveal that made the character tick all this time.” Very rarely works.

So much more satisfying is a simple story told well. If you do work with twists, make it work like The Sixth Sense. The film works with or without it until the point it hits, and it is truly revelatory. It’s not that M. Night held something back to show how clever he was. Don’t do that shit. It’s awful. Put your cards on the table and tell your damn story.

3. Don’t be a slave to the idea that a story needs a transformational character arc.

This is something that a Blake Snydered Hollywood succumbs to far too often, in our opinions. First: in film arcs very, very often feel shoehorned or forced in. Especially if not much time passes, or it comes near the end (must overcome his fear to succeed, or must learn to be a team player—blah, these themes have become true platitudes). If you open with a loving mother and wife whose husband and kids are murdered and she becomes a vengeful, murderous black widow from there—sure. Inciting Incident forcing a catastrophic arc that sets a character on a trajectory works. That feels authentic. And in TV, longform character change feels authentic. Some of the most potent stories of all time are great specifically because a character does not arc. Think Shakespearean tragedies, Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood, etc. Sometimes it’s “the right man for the right job,” and the transformation is supposed to occur in the viewer. That’s where real catharsis lives: in the viewer. Give it to them.

Reader of this blog are more than familiar with my love and appreciation of pie. What’s your favorite kind?

Well, there are two of us. Chris likes pumpkin, and Jay will eat anything. Literally, anything. There’s a reason we don’t include headshots.


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