Q&A w/Phillip Hardy about Hosting vs DIY

March 17, 2017

Phil Hardy

Phillip E. Hardy is a four-time optioned screenwriter who also runs The Script Gymnasium script consultancy. His work has recently been presented to Jay Roach, William Morris Endeavor, Tyler Perry Productions and A&E Network. He has placed and won at 45 film festivals and contests including Page International, Austin Film Festival, Cannes Screenplay, Shore Scripts, Screencraft, Beverly Hills Film Festival and Sunscreen Film Festival.

Today’s post stems from a discussion between Phillip and myself regarding the benefits and drawbacks of posting your script on a hosting site or taking a more proactive role and doing the work yourself.

You’ve had some experience with both handling your own material and hosting sites. Do you find one to be more effective than the other, or is it more of a case-by-case basis?

I’ve had varying degrees of success with different hosting sites. But it’s a total crapshoot, especially with paid hosting and pitching sites. One of my colleagues swears by Virtual Pitchfest (VPF). And, at 10 bucks a pop for a pitch, they look attractive to writers on a budget.  I’ve done ten pitches at VPF and though I received some very good feedback on one of my period piece dramas, nobody at that website has requested a script read.

When I first started out, I used Project Greenlight (PG), which was expensive and the responses I received were very sloppy and unprofessional. I did get one read request from a video game company. But I would never use PG again. I know of nobody who has scored with them.

Don’t ask me about the Black List. Okay, I’ll tell you. I hate them and everything they stand for. However, if you wish to pay their reviewers (frustrated writers with their own axe to grind) seventy five dollars a pop to review your script, then that’s the site for you.

International Screenwriter’s Association is fairly inexpensive for a premium listing. However, anyone that uses them can call themselves a producer or director. I’ve made several connections there but they led me nowhere and have netted no financial remuneration.

I’ve also hooked up with a few folks on Craigslist (CL), which can be a real pain and you have to answer a lot of adds to get any action. One of the best connections I made on CL was with one of the stars of the TNT show “Falling Skies”. So you never know who you’re talking to but you should vet them out before sending them your scripts.

I’ve had my best luck at Inktip, which allows you to list a script for four months at a price of sixty dollars for four months. Producers at Inkitp shop loglines and will read your summary or request a script read if they’re interested in your spec material. For example, I had multiple logline reads today and two of them read the synopsis as well. However, a lot of Inktip clients troll loglines and do little else. I’ve had a number of script downloads, which have also netted zippo. However, the Inktip Newsletter has been much more effective for me. The price is the same as the listing. The difference is you can pitch producers looking for specific genres and concepts. I’ve also written pitches for these clients, which led to a script option and three right-to-shop agreements with a producer that got my work into the hands of some big time production companies and cable networks. I’ve also bullshitted people and told them I had scripts I hadn’t written yet. And then banged them out in a week. This method is not for the faint of heart.

I’m sure most writers know that Amazon Studios has an open door policy about submitting television and feature screenplays. Unfortunately, that door leads to oblivion. And if you can locate one unproduced writer that has something produced by Amazon, I’ll buy you lunch at my local Sonic drive-thru. Several months back, I did some research on this and could find no unproduced writers who have made it out of development purgatory. And by unproduced, I mean you’ve never had a big budget movie made from one of your screenplays.

Lastly, I’ve used Stage 32 for paid pitch sessions and gotten script requests from four major players including Ridley Scott Productions and Good Fear Management. But if you do a written pitch, you better make sure your logline is catchy, your synopsis is clear and concise and you include the character arc for your protagonist.

The bottom line is use any means possible to get your work into the hands of people you are looking to make movies.

If you’re going the DIY route, what methods have worked for you?

Smack-talkin’, bold action has worked best for me. I hooked up with several producers looking for projects by telling them I had scripts already written about things they were looking for, including a story about Michael Rockefeller, who disappeared in the Papuan Islands more than fifty years ago. In this particular instance, the producer was advertising and I wrote a logline and synopsis in three hours and pitched it to the guy. He optioned the screenplay I wrote in six days.

In another instance, I did the same thing with another producer looking for an Angela Davis screenplay. However, when the producer asked me if I had a script, I said “sure, it’s sitting on the shelf with my screenplays about Huey Newton and Eldridge Cleaver.” He got the joke and we wound up working together on several different projects. The DIY Method should include whoring your wares at any given moment and making as many connections as you can. Also, make friends with writers like Paul Zeidman.

Never heard of him. Keeping that theme going, what do you recommend when it comes to using hosting sites?

Passive hosting sites where you don’t aggressively work the leads may be a waste of time. Just listing a script without supporting efforts offers little chance for anything happening to further your career.

What’s your opinion of hosting sites overall?

If you’re not living in Hollywood and getting meetings with producers, hosting sites, along with promoting yourself vigorously and IMHO, competing in film festivals and script contests to relentlessly build your brand, can be a very useful tool to get you access to producers and agents. As a direct result of hosting sites, I’ve had material read by A & E, History Channel, Emmett Furla, William Morris Endeavor, Jay Roach, Tyler Perry Productions, Ridley Scott Productions, Zero Gravity, Good Fear Management, Zane W. Levitt and many others.

After putting your script on a hosting site, what should you NOT do?

Don’t nag the contacts you make. Don’t be a pain in the ass if someone’s interested in your work.

As an experienced writer, what tips would you like to pass along?

-If you’re a delicate, sensitive woodland creature, then scriptwriting isn’t for you.

-Learn to suck up constant rejection. Never spend more than a few hours wallowing in rejection or failure. Remember, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. With each setback, learn how to sally forth with renewed vigor.

-The best cure for rejection is writing; particularly if it’s better writing.

-Sometimes a script just sucks. Everyone thinks they have a great idea for a script. More often than not, they’re wrong. Sometimes a script just sucks, no matter how many times you rewrite it. Therefore, don’t attach yourself to any one effort too much. It may take writing fifty scripts before you find something that really resonates with readers.

-If you see writing scripts as a path to riches and fame, you may wish to consider other options.

-There ain’t no such thing as writers block. There are only writers that write and ones that don’t. Look at Bukowski. Drunk or sober, he did great work every day of his life.

-Writers who build relationships, maintain their humility and help their colleagues will do better than ones who don’t.

-If you keep losing script contests, then write better scripts until you win one.

-Read books, take classes, seminars, and good advice about scriptwriting and then march to your own creative drummer. If I listened to every asshole who told me I couldn’t do something, I’d never accomplish anything.

What are some absolute “Do NOTs”?

-Don’t tell anyone “this is my first script”. But don’t think you’ll set the world on fire by writing one script.

-Don’t write something because you think it will have commercial appeal. Write something you believe in.

-Don’t worry about what everyone else is doing. Endeavor to be an original.

-Don’t ever rest on your laurels. Keep writing until it becomes second nature AND you can produce even under the most adverse or stressful conditions. You may one day have a job that presents you with just that set of conditions.


Opening doors with a calling card

March 10, 2017
reader

Hokey smokes! This is almost exactly what I’m looking for!

Amazing fact time!

Did you know that for as loved a genre the western is, there is an inordinate amount of hesitation to actually producing one?

It’s true. Shocking, isn’t it?

I can’t blame them. Westerns are an expensive undertaking. Locations, set design, wardrobe, horses. All that moolah really adds up. And fast.

And if the film bombs? Well, that bankroll is now gone with the tumbleweeds, along with an increased level of reluctance to look at other works in that genre.

I knew all of this all too well while I was working on mine (along with a steady barrage of reminders of that nature from those with nothing but good intentions), but it was a story I really liked and was excited about, so I wrote it anyway. Still very glad I did.

Now the script’s done and I’m working on the next one, but I’m also devoting some time to seeing what I can do with it. Contests, queries, the usual rigamarole.

As fantastic as it would be to see this story up on the big screen, the odds of that happening are not exactly in my favor, which is okay. I’m quite content to use it as my go-to calling card script. The ideal scenario: people read it, love the writing, and think I’d be perfect for another project.

A lot of writers write something with the intention of selling it, which 99.9 percent of the time ain’t gonna happen; it’s more important to write something to show, or maybe prove is a better word, that you’ve got talent and skills. Somebody reads your work and can tell this writer is somebody who know what they’re doing.

Would I love for somebody to read any of my scripts and say “I want to get this made!”? Of course.

Would I love for somebody to read any of my scripts and say “There’s no way I could get this made, but I really like the way you write. Would you be interested in this writing assignment?”

Without a doubt.


Good or fast? Pick one.

December 2, 2016
hurdles

Careful! All too easy to end up flat on your face.

As some of you may recall, earlier this year I had to get a script done in order to send it to somebody who’d requested to read it. Seeing as how I had all of eight pages written, I wanted to finish it and sent it out as soon as possible.

It took a grueling 10-day writing marathon, but somehow I managed to do it. I got a draft written, polished it up and sent it out.

It was quite an experience, and the end result could best be described as…adequate. I’ll be the first to admit the script still needs a ton of work.

My sole objective was simply to get it done to the best of my ability in as short a time as possible. Would I have benefited from more time? Of course, but at the time, it wasn’t an option.

Fast forward to the beginning of November. My goal: have a completed draft of the latest project by the end of the month. Sadly, I wasn’t able to get as much writing done as I’d hoped, so I’m heading into December with a script that’s right at the halfway point and the intention to have the whole thing done by the end of the year.

Sure, I could push myself through that exhausting process of cranking it out just to get it done, but by working with a slightly longer timeframe, I can take it slow and spend more time fine-tuning the script. In theory, this increases the likelihood the end result will be more acceptable and not require as much extensive follow-up (i.e. rewrites).

Would I love to be done with this draft sooner rather than later? Again, of course. But I’m also willing to be patient and focus on a few pages at a time. If that means it takes me until the end of the month/year to have a quality script ready to go, so be it.

Everybody writes at their own pace. Some are extremely prolific, some aren’t. It doesn’t matter how many pages you write. The important thing is that you’re actually writing.

This whole process can seem excruciatingly long at times, and we all want to produce lots and lots of quality work. But it already takes time to learn how to do it properly, let alone effectively. Patience is one of those things that gets easier the more you work on it.

There’s nothing wrong with churning out a draft in record time, but be aware that focusing on quantity rather than quality will definitely be reflected in those pages. I went through this firsthand, and definitely see it as a positive learning experience. I know I can write something quickly, but also know it’ll require a lot of cleanup work.

But given my druthers, I prefer to take my time. It’s less exhausting.


Just another gradual shifting of gears

September 20, 2016
gear-shift

Start at first and take it from there

Notes continue to trickle in for the comedy-now-dramedy spec. General consensus – solid concept, underdeveloped, reads like a first draft, still needs a ton of work, and so forth.

All of which is fine by me. I wrote it in an extremely short amount of time, which is probably quite evident in the draft itself.  It’s also the fastest I’ve ever cranked out a draft, and to me that’s still a victory in itself.

Would I have loved for everybody to gush about it and claim it truly wonderful? Of course, but that ain’t gonna happen. As long as nobody says “This is terrible!”, I’m good.

Is it at least a decent script? Well, I like it. There’s a lot of potential in it, and the quality can only improve from its current state.

So while the thoughts of “what to fix and how to fix it” percolate, I’ll slide it to the always-expanding back burner and move on to the next couple of items on my agenda, which includes notes on some friends’ specs, followed by the first draft of a long-in-development project.

Exciting times, chums.


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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