Q & A with Melody Jackson of Smart Girls Productions

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Melody Jackson, Ph.D., founder and CEO of Smart Girls Productions and Hollywood Business School, is a self-described “Marketing Person” and Entrepreneur.  After working as a Marketing Person selling to the film industry for several years, she started Smart Girls Productions in 1992.

To learn more about Melody and the services provided by Smart Girls Productions, check out their screenwriting blog.

What’s the last thing you read/watched that you thought was incredible well-written?

That question is a little bit funky for me to answer and I’ll tell you why.  Years ago I took the famous/infamous Robert McKee screenwriting course, and there was one thing that really stuck with me. In that legendary, deep gruff voice with his big scary face belting from the stage, McKee shouted out:  “I’m not doing this class to try to make you guys win Academy Awards…. I’m teaching this class to try to raise the overall quality of films that are out there.” Something to that effect.

He talked about how, when he was a young boy, he would go watch every single film that came out in the theaters near him — even as a young kid, he went to see everything.  All types of films. He just loved the medium of film.

The thing I learned from him is not to be so hung up on what is great writing, but to learn to enjoy film as a whole.  Most scripts are not going to be great or really well-written. It’s easy to critique and criticize most of them. But in that class, I learned to have a different perspective, and that makes a difference for me as a script analyst and for my clients.  

Sure I can go deep into “analyzing” structure and character arcs and all kinds of stuff. But ultimately, it’s a question first and foremost of “did this script cause me to have some kind of emotional experience? Regardless of anything else.”  Then, and only then, do I engage my left brain and start seeing how it could be made better. With better writing, you tend to appeal across a broader group of people.  

How’d you get your start reading scripts?

Prior to starting my company Smart Girls Productions, I worked for a company that was involved with film distribution — both domestic and international — and I learned a fair amount about that.  At one point, I just had to quit — no really good reason; they were great. But I just wanted to do a business on my own. That’s when I started Smart Girls.

I was actually working on an acting career at that point and need to figure out how I was going to make money.  Since I read scripts as an actress, I thought, “Hey, I could make money typing scripts.” Yes, typing! I ran an ad in the Writer’s Guild magazine and got a call right away.  The truth is, I didn’t even know how to type a script. I called an aspiring producer friend of mine who was also my mentor. And I asked him desperately, “How do I type a script?”  He told me to get some book from Samuel French bookstore and I did. It took me forever to type those first two scripts. But after that, I typed a LOT of scripts…. we still do!

Then once I learned to type a script, I took lots of classes on screenwriting. Then I began writing my own scripts. Got hired to write a couple. I got a WGA agent. I went on to get my Ph.D. in mythological studies.  And along the way, I added script analysis to my list of services and it turns out, I apparently have a knack for it. I ended up being rated one of the top 5 Script Consultants on three different occasions by Creative Screenwriting Magazine.  

Your company’s called Smart Girls Productions. What’s the story behind the name, and what kind of work does the company do?

This one is short.  When I started my company, I brainstormed a list of about 30 company names. I read it to my Mom, and she said, “Definitely Smart Girls.”  And so it was. Told you it was short.

You have a PhD in Mythological Studies. Has that helped you in analyzing scripts?

For sure. Joseph Campbell, the father of bringing mythology into an understandable form, is the one who identified The Hero’s Journey.  That’s the foundation of almost every great Western story. My studies in mythology looked at story from innumerable angles…. not just Campbell’s but many others.  So yes. It is in my DNA that it informs my analysis.

What are the components of a good script?

For me this is where the Hero’s Journey meets Aristotle’s Poetics.  The Hero’s Journey focuses more on the experience of the character and the inner transformation.  The Poetics has more of an emphasis on plot. But if you work both angles, then you’re going to have things that appeal to more audience members.  That’s the big picture.

If I had to say what those elements are, it would be something like… You need to have a character that has something he or she NEEDS to learn, some kind of lesson, some area of their life where they are misguided.

They then get pulled into some external plot in which they will be forced to confront that thing they have not learned. They will come face-to-face with it in the external plot.

Their choice and how they handle it is the big lesson for them and for the audience.  The biggest component for a good script for me is that the the main character has some kind of transformation. That they are somehow a bigger, better or wiser character by the time the story ends.

What are some of the most common mistakes you see?

The most common big mistake I see is no solid theme developed in the story. You have to have some point to telling the story, otherwise it’s a boring story about going to the store.

Gotta have some point about human nature that is revealed in your story, or what’s the point? That is the biggest mistake new writers make. I would also venture to say it’s also why more sophisticated movie-goers don’t like straight-up action films. Too many times, the focus is not on any kind of transformation, but on other fun stuff like chase scenes and explosions and cool special effects. Nothing wrong with that, but it does nothing for the soul. The soul longs for transformation, and personal development. The theme is the highest articulation of that. The most common mistake I see — actually I don’t see it as a mistake, but more like the most underdeveloped aspect of scripts I read is theme. And I say it that way, because I find that most writers have some place of meaning they are writing from; they just haven’t consciously identified what it is.

One of the non-writing necessities of screenwriting is the writer’s ability to market themselves. Seeing as how that’s one of your specialties, what are some key pieces of advice that writers should keep in mind?

You’re not going to be successful overnight or next week. You’re not going to sell your first script for a million dollars. Or even $250,000. The first person who reads your script is not going to fall in love with it and suddenly introduce you as this newly discovered gem that Hollywood has been waiting for.

Many screenwriters really have no idea how hard it is to get a deal and then get your movie made. It’s a long shot. I’m not saying you should give up, but I am saying that my best advice is to learn more about the BUSINESS side of the business. It’s far more likely that a writer will get hired to re-write a script if they’re a great writer than it is that they will actually sell their film and have it be produced. Trying to convey this idea and educate writers on this is why I launched my Hollywood Business School at HollywoodBschool.com.  My mission there is to help actors and writers better understand the business so they can have a much better chance at reaching their goals.

To boil it down to a few simple bits of advice:  Keep learning as much as you can about the business. Get great at your craft. Market market market. Follow-up, follow-up, follow-up.  Enjoy the pursuit. Be positive and be persistent. And don’t quit your day job. — BUT… do everything you can to help your career while you still have that job.

Part of your bio lists being the former emcee at the Hollywood Networking Breakfast. Could you provide a little more detail about the event and is it something screenwriters should consider attending?

My dear friend Sandra Lord is the Networking Guru of Hollywood. She was my manager for a period of time when I was acting. She started The Breakfast at that time, and she excelled at finding top level producers and agents to speak.  For the nine years I emceed that and heard the speakers, I got a deep education in how Hollywood works and what execs want.

Sandra still hosts the breakfast several times a year.  She also runs an event called “Let’s Do Lunch” and the L.A. Film and Television Meetup.  She is the first person that I recommend for every aspiring filmmaker, actor, set designer — anyone who wants to get into the business — go to her events as much as you can.  You will definitely start making connections. And it’s also not just for newbies. You’ll find a lot of working industry people there as well.

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

“Most” important?  I tend to stay away from hyperbole because how can I really boil it down to MOST important?  It’s a great question that writers need to know, so it’s not the question that’s an issue — it’s just my picky resistance to saying what is my most anything…Let me slightly modify and simply tell you what I think are some generally important rules.  Here are the three I pick for now:

  1. Learn story structure.  Study screenwriting. If you haven’t studied screenwriting, I guarantee you don’t know how to do it well. 100% guaranteed.
  2. Tap into your authenticity and write from there. In a very positive way, I think everyone has a great story to tell — of their own life even — if you find the right bits and pieces. Whatever it is that moves a screenwriter to spend weeks, months, and years on their screenplay, that tells me they have something important to say.  This goes back to the theme I mentioned above. They may not have completely identified what their theme is — and why their story is important to them. But I will also guarantee this …. if they tap into their authenticity and why they are so moved by that story, that story will have a hundred times more impact — on them and their audience.  If they get to their authenticity about it, there is deep fulfillment and satisfaction in writing a story like that. Then your passion makes it much easier for others to see its greatness.
  3. Don’t take anything you hear from a producer or agent at face value. You have to know how to read between the lines.

What story tropes are you just tired of seeing?

It’s less a story trope that I’m tired of because they can be told in different ways.  What I find hard to watch or read is when the writer or filmmakers have not tapped into their unique vision — again I would call it lacking authenticity — but then … I don’t want THAT to come across as a TROPE!  If I had to say it another way, it’s when people are not digging deep enough into their soul to get to their authentic, unique perspective.

You could see the same story ten different times and if the filmmakers or screenwriter truly tapped into their own unique take deep within, it could still be interesting. It’s like when a great song is recorded by many different artists.  Whether it’s “Over the Rainbow,” “Amazing Grace,” “Yesterday,” “Can’t Help Falling In Love” or “To Love Somebody,” when a great singer does their unique rendition, we can hear it over and over and still be moved by it. The same with a story or a story beat.  The problem lies in the lack of tapping into the truth of the individual writer.

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

Gotta be pumpkin!  I need to find a good source for pumpkin pie here in Los Angeles. Got one?

pumpkin pie

A few other writings of relevance

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Only sixteen more items to deal with and I can call it a day!

First, the good/positive news – the rewrite of the comedy spec is complete. However, at 88 pages, it’s a little shorter than I expected. Fortunately, adding in another 4-5 pages shouldn’t be too strenuous.

As part of the effort to recharge my creative batteries before jumping back in, I’ve stepped away from it for a couple of days.

From actually working on that script, anyway.

Since there are a lot of other avenues involved in getting your work out there, I’ve been focusing on some of those, including:

-got some great feedback on query letters, so revised one (along with updating a few lists of potential recipients – always works in progress) and sent a few out.

-submitting some pitches, and just about every one asks for a synopsis. Working on these tends to usually involve me putting in too much story info, then turning around and drastically editing it and shrinking it down to fit on one page. Despite how important this is, I’ve always disliked it.

-jotting down ideas for other scripts. While a nice reminder that I have these waiting in the wings, it’s also quite pleasant to take a look at stuff I haven’t seen in a while. Some are still in the development stage, and others are older scripts due for a massive overhaul.

-the maintenance and upkeep of connections with other writers and creatives. Like with the scripts, some are from the past, and some are brand new. Can’t go wrong with keeping your network healthy.

-reading scripts and watching movies. True, not necessarily writing, but definitely affiliated with it. It’s especially gratifying when the script comes from a writer who knows what they’re doing. As for the movies, that’s been a mix of the popular (Wakanda forever) and the Oscar nominees.

The point of all of this is that there’s much more to building a career in screenwriting than just writing scripts; it involves writing of all sorts for many other things. While I already dedicate a good portion of my available time to working on scripts, I also realize and accept that these other things are in just as much need of my attention.

And an added bonus – many of these things are not one time only. They’ll be done again and again, so the more I do them now, the easier they’ll be to do when the need arises.

Except for the one-pagers. I’ll always struggle with those.

One goal, lots of strategies

to do list
Step 1 – plan. Step 2 – execute. Step 3 – repeat Step 1.

Last time the subject was how we did, writing-wise, during 2017. Today, it goes beyond simply what you’re hoping to accomplish to “So what are you doing about it?”

Just a few days into the new year, and how much writing have you done? Are you adhering to the guidelines you set up for yourself? Making the most out of the time you have available? Are you saying to yourself “No more Youtube! No more (insert preferred form of social media here)! I got me some writing to do!”, followed by actually turning off that unwanted source of input and applying proverbial pen to digital paper?

Jeez, I sure hope so.

Repeat the process on as close to a daily basis as you can get, and you might be pleasantly surprised at the results. You might have more time to work with during the day than you realize, so why not make the most of it?

Long-term goals are all fine and dandy, but continuously crossing the finish line for smaller (and some might say more realistic) ones can also yield some solid results. It’s one thing to say “I’m going to write four scripts this year!” and another to say “I’m going to write three pages today!”, and you’d have to admit the second one is just a little bit more achievable.

Additionally, if you stick to that schedule and maintain the same kind of daily output, you could potentially hit at least some of your long-term goals a little sooner. Write three to four pages a day every day, and within a matter of weeks (or maybe a little more than a month), you’re the proud parent of a completed draft. Sure, it might need a lot of work, but the important thing to remember here is : YOU DID IT.

As 2017 wound down, I knew what I wanted to happen for me, writing and career-wise, in 2018. Now that we’re almost a whole week in, I’ve been making an effort to try and get something done on both fronts every day.

For the writing, it’s anything and everything, running the gamut between outlining, rewriting, editing, proofreading, or even just jotting down an idea for a scene in the under-construction outline for a story I haven’t looked at since April. Working with some very quality notes for two scripts, I’m actually ahead of schedule with rewriting one, and gearing up to dive into the second when that’s done.

For the career, it’s about finding more avenues to get myself and my scripts out there. I’m not just pitching stories; I’m pitching a storyteller as a potentially invaluable resource. There will be plenty of “no”s along the way, but all it takes is that one “yes”, right?

And once again, let’s tout the benefits of networking; making and maintaining your connections. You never know which one could lead to something.

While I’m still doing some of the things I’ve always done, there was also that feeling that new and different approaches were necessary. So as I work my way through all the assorted processes involved with writing scripts, I’m also navigating the awkward transitional phase of a few readjustments.

No matter what, the end goal remains the same. As always, fingers remain firmly crossed that this is the year it happens.

Looking back, glimpsing ahead, and a minor adjustment

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Just one more glass of champagne, then it’s back to work. Promise.

As 2017 wraps up, it’s only natural to engage in a little self-evaluation.

How many of your writing goals were you able to check off this year? Most of them? Some? A small-but-decent fraction? Hopefully you don’t need to mark the box labeled “None”.

One of mine was to complete at least three scripts. I managed two drafts, a revised outline, and one and a half rewrite/polishes (one still a WIP). Pretty solid results. A very hearty thanks to everybody who devoted the time and effort to give me notes. I hope my notes for yours were just as helpful.

Using those notes and the results of a few conversations, I think I’ve been able to up the quality of my writing a few notches. It still has a few levels to go, but it definitely seems better than it was. The next round of drafts should be really interesting,  both in terms of working on them and how the end results turn out.

I wanted to read more scripts, which actually happened, but not entirely in the way I expected. I didn’t do as much reading of scripts for the purpose of entertainment or gleaning some helpful guidance because I ended up reading over 100 scripts for several contests. Don’t know if I’ll do it again, but still glad I did it.

On the gaining representation front, lots of query emails were sent. Maybe one response out of ten expressed interest in reading the script, with each ending with a “thanks but no thanks” or “just not what I’m looking for”. A bit disappointing, but not totally unexpected. Along the way, I also worked on being more strategic about the process, researching potential recipients and re-drafting the query to (in theory) really sell the concept of the script.

And what would an ambitious screenwriter’s year be without contests? My western made it to the seminfinals of a few smaller contests and the top 20 percent for the Nicholl (not too shabby), but once again whiffed it for PAGE. I’ve become somewhat disillusioned regarding contests, so will most likely really cut back on them. Maybe just stick to the big three.

There was the most pleasant experience of going to Los Angeles to attend a table read for one of my scripts. I like the idea of doing one or two of them locally, so looking into that for 2018.

I hosted two screenwriting networking events, which connected me with some very talented writers from right here in the Bay Area. Definitely plan on doing that again at least once this year. Highly recommended, especially if you’re not in Los Angeles and want to expand your own personal network.

On the half-marathon front, I ran five races this year – the most ever in one year for me. Still averaging about two hours, which isn’t bad – for me, but the quest for 1:55 continues. Already signed up for three next year, with maybe one or two more expected to be added into the mix. Like with screenwriting, improvement takes time, effort and dedication. A good pair of socks and strong knees also come in handy, and that applies to both.

Finally, this blog. As always, a great experience doing what I can to offer advice to help other writers, recounting my experiences and the lessons I got out of it, and presenting some interviews with some truly interesting and amazing creative folks. I am truly grateful to everybody who’s stopped by to take a look, like a post and make a comment.

But it’s also been exhausting. Producing posts twice a week on top of dedicating time to write and make a career out of it has simply gotten to be too much. I still enjoy doing the blog, but want to refocus my energies. So as of January 1st, I’ll be reducing my weekly output to Fridays only, and sometimes even that might be iffy. It’ll most likely be on a week-by-week basis.

I hope you had a most productive 2017 and wish you all the best for an even better 2018.

See you in seven.

Work those writing muscles!

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Feel the burn! C’mon! Just one more page!

Earlier this month, I hosted a networking event for screenwriters from the Bay Area and throughout northern California. It was fun and I got to make some new connections as well as reconnect with some already-established ones.

(Can’t recommend this sort of thing enough. Getting to know other writers in your area helps all involved.)

Part of the event involved introducing ourselves and offering up a little background info, including our individual screenwriting- or film-based experience (there were a few writer-directors) and a thumbnail description of our current works-in-progress.

When it was my turn, I mentioned the blog and how I was dividing my time between a few rewrites. At that point, one of the attendees raised his hand.

“A few rewrites? Like, all at the same time?”

I clarified that I’d work on one script for a few days, or at least until I thought I made some significant progress, take a day off, then dive into another one.

“But don’t you find it kind of difficult to stay focused?” He also added that he was relatively new to screenwriting, so the concept of working on a script and then suddenly shifting gears into one that’s totally different was a little mind-blowing.

I explained it this way:

I’ve been doing this a while, and all of these scripts are at least third, fourth, or higher drafts. I’ve gotten to know the stories and characters for each one pretty well, so I can jump right in, fully aware of what each rewrite requires. It might take a while (along with several more rewrites) to finally get there, but I’ve found that always working on something has really helped make the whole process easier.

It really is like exercising. It’s kind of tough and challenging when you’re starting out, and takes time to learn how to do it properly. Then you figure out a pace and/or system that works best for you (with everybody having their own methods and routine). You will indeed discover that the more you do it, the easier it gets.

I try to write every day, even if I only have 30 minutes to spare. You might think such a short amount of time isn’t worth the effort, but I’d disagree. Better to spend a little time writing than no time at all. Friend-of-the-blog Pilar Alessandra even wrote a book to help you do just that. (totally unsolicited plug. It came to mind while I was writing this.)

If you go into a writing session with an idea of what you want to accomplish, it’s a great use of your time. And if you sit down, not entirely sure what to do, you’re still giving yourself the opportunity to focus, which is always good.

That’s really what it all comes down to: Want to be a better writer? Find the time to write.

And reading helps a bit too.