Do I really need an agent? And how long must I continue to hone?

There is so much conflicting advice and no definitive answers on whether one should adamantly seek an agent or try alternative methods such as networking and pitching to industry personnel in the hope that you will get lucky with a script sale.The whole system makes me wonder though. Writers create something from a death-defying blank page and the agent takes a bite out of it. So why does the writer always have to be the one to impress an agent? How about the other way round where the agent has to demonstrate how writers can benefit from hiring them as a representative. After all it is the agents who make a percentage from the writer’s talent. I have yet to come across an enticing agent with a bright enthusiastic approach. So why is it they are always looking for not only brilliant writing samples, but also a writer with an equally electric personality? Surely, it is meant to be a partnership, and I certainly would not want to be in alliance with an agent who cannot equalize my current.

I have met several agents at various events and generally they give the same advice; ‘hone in on your writing skills’ they say. I am honing. I hone regularly. I hone with reverence. I accept the honing process is an infinite task, or tragedy, depending on how you look at it. But deep down inside we all know the truth. Screenplays sold and produced did not get there because of brilliant writing honed to perfection. Success is an outcome of great tenacity, an industry connection, or being in the right time at the right place scenario. Perhaps it’s time to ease off the honing and get networking…

A link to a great article on agents by an established screenwriter Ashley Scott Meyers.

Screenwriting: Should you register copyright your work?

Yes. As writers we begin to financially invest in our careers the moment we buy the correct software for screenwriting. Then we may even spend money on attending events, hiring consultants and books. So why cut back on something imperative as copyright especially if you believe, feel and know that your script is going to be the next blockbuster. Some writers choose the age old method of posting or emailing a copy of their work to themselves. This is all fine, but it won’t hurt to do that little extra and register your script with The Writers Guild or even better the US Copyright Office. The following article explains the benefits

There is an interesting story in Ken Rotcop’s ‘The Perfect Pitch’ about copyright infringement by a well known company in Hollywood who stole a story idea. They hired a writer to pen a complete script based on a pitch. From what I can remember, the project went into production and of course the lady who had pitched the story found out and decided to take legal action. She had her script registered and without doubt was able to prove ownership. To cut a long story short, the production company settled out of court paying her a sum of around $8 million which they could have quite easily avoided by purchasing the script for much less, not even having to go anywhere near the million range.

However, this type of thing rarely happens. The studios and big boys apparently have enough dosh to buy you, and your script. The small production companies with barely enough finance to finish off a movie, well I guess it wouldn’t really matter if they stole your idea because the chances are it probably won’t materialize onto the screen.
Nevertheless, it is still a wise move to copyright your work. $20 to $40 investment is a small price to pay for peace of mind. It’s also a good idea to keep a database on verbal pitches; who, when and what you pitched, along with supporting documents, email, letters and faxes. This could prove invaluable in case you needed to make a claim for copyright infringement, but it is also a great way of keeping a record of your activities to save you from duplicating your pitch or query letter to the same production company.

“All I ask is the chance to prove that money can’t make me happy”. Spike Milligan

Screenwriting: Avoid Stagnant Screenwriters like the Plague

September 2011, at Menara Airport Marrakech on my way to a resident writer’s workshop run by Euroscript I met a man in his 50s who had been attending workshops for almost 10 years and still writing his first script. What a lemon, I thought. Needless to say but I’ll say it anyway, he was a total bore. When he spoke his words complacently plodded around in my brain, depleting my precious energy. When he asked me to read his unfinished script, I politely declined explaining that my trainee critique of his work would be of no use for a script that sounds like a masterpiece in the making. I noticed his chest inflate a few inches, and he went on to explain every little tedious detail of the story at which point I conveniently escaped to the toilet.

An event held by The Script Factory at BAFTA Piccadilly in June 2011. At morning coffee, I met a young lady around the age of thirty displaying a crushed demeanour. She had a somewhat sloppy and sluggish feel about her. When she spoke her words lacked enthusiasm and the sentences just trailed off. It turned out that she had been writing for almost three years and was almost half way through her script. Another plodder, I thought, and another escape to the toilet.

I don’t mean to be cruel, but generally these people are not screenwriters. They are dreary, mind-numbing, uninspiring dreamers that go nowhere and do nothing. Keep away or you will be exhausted.
As a screenwriter you want to be proactive and accomplish writing a complete spec script as soon as you can. And then write another one. Practice makes perfect. There is nothing better than writing stories that inspire you and in the process enhance your screenwriting skills. Sure, you can read and reread as many screenplays as you like, but nothing will teach you better than revising your own work over and over.

If you need a dose of enthusiasm then I highly recommend the following book: ‘I Will’ by Ben Sweetland – Foreward by Melvin Powers. The best book on writing a screenplay: ‘Save the Cat’ by Blake Snyder.

Screenwriting: Should aspiring screenwriters hire a script consultant to help develop their work?

Yes, definitely! If you are serious about your work I suggest you hire a script consultant at least once for at least one project. They can be costly but if you pick the right one it is a good investment. A script consultant can help you focus and fine tune your screenplay into a marketable project. It’s not just about spelling and punctuation. None of the consultants I have worked with have wasted my time in pointing out trivial detail that can be corrected via a spell check. They are more concerned with the story, structure and execution. They give valuable insight into how the story can work effectively, your target audience and genre. Consultants have a professional perspective on your work and highlight issues where family and friends would fail. A good script coach will make viable suggestions and provide clear techniques of how you can fix what is not working. Family and friends may sometimes give good opinions and alternative ideas, but will not be able to assist in how to apply them.
In order to be taken seriously by industry professionals you must be willing to listen to their feedback and be prepared to revise your work. As a writer, one could argue it’s your story and you should be able to write anything you desire. True, but as long as you are happy that your audience will only ever be your family and friends. So be clear on who you target audience are. Is it just you and your posse, or the movie boffins?
Finding a good script consultant can be a bit of a dilemma. Generally, you don’t know if they are any good until after you have paid them, received a critique and development notes. Warning! Reading what is wrong with your script is a painful process. You will hate the script coach. Here, I suggest a measure of Buddhism, a little detachment from your work to gain a heightened perspective. Then re-read the notes again and again, and you will see that the script coach is on your side and there to help, not an enemy seeking to demean you or your work as you had initially thought.
If you are interested in developing your project then you can try one of the following sites that offer script consultants services.

Screenwriting: My Work Critiqued by a Playboy Pin Up Model

Before I started to get connected with real industry people, like most novice writers I got caught up in a disingenuous web of lies, weaved by a particular Writers Literary Agency. They promise to represent aspiring screenwriters by mailing query letters on their behalf to production companies. The only requirement they have is that your work has been professionally critiqued before they can help you. They require proof that your script has undergone a development process, or alternatively for a fee you can hire a script coach via their agency.

Martha Smith was the script coach assigned to me. I was exceptionally pleased at the detailed notes she had compiled, which was a great help toward developing the script. I absolutely loved her email address which went something like this, ‘2tastyladies@blahblahblah’. Curiosity got the better of me and I wanted to know more about this lady who had a great knack for providing brilliant development suggestions. It turned out that Martha Smith was an ex-playboy centerfold girl. She was chosen as Playboy magazine’s Playmate of the Month for July 1973 issue.

Ironically, the script I had sent to Martha was based on the various levels of hell as described in ‘A Divine Comedy’ written by Dante Alighieri an Italian poet of the middle-ages. And of course, the premise of my work was sex, lust and loose women, so to speak. Why I wrote this kind of stuff then? I have no idea. Although, I must confess it was really good writing practice…

A Lesson to Remember: Don’t Argue with Hollywood

It was 9.30am and many hopefuls gathered at the Pitchmart event.  After registration I sat with other anxious writers around a table making small talk, when the quietest member of the group decided to share his experience.  He adamantly stated that Hollywood lived up its own rear and unless you are willing to oblige to its way of thinking you are doomed to fail. We all fell silent and listened intently. He went on to explain his angst.

Somewhat ten years ago when he first arrived in tinsel town he was hopeful like any other novice. After pitching his ideas to industry experts he was immediately on the defensive when they gave him feedback. He showed no sign of adapting his script or being flexible. Instead, he was argumentative and stubborn. The word quickly spread about this aspiring screenwriter who thinks he knows it all, and he was quickly tainted by a terrible reputation of aggressive behaviour.  For almost ten years he had not been able to infiltrate the industry or even get a job as a cleaner. It’s a small town he exclaimed and there is no getting away. A decade later, he hoped that no one would recognise him, or if they did, they were at least willing to forgive his past transgressions. His voice began to croak as he warned us newcomers not to get into battle with industry personnel. It will never be worth it.

I saw genuine repentance in his eyes, but I wasn’t sure if that was enough for Hollywood to forgive and forget.  Remember to put your ego aside before you embark on such a venture. If you make it in Hollywood you could always revive your ego and give as good as you get.  

However, a smart electric attitude is quite different. If you don’t get your script sold you will certainly get noticed for the right reasons, and make some friends.  Just remember that when your work is critiqued by an industry person, don’t react, instead take a moment to think, and then respond, demonstrating a flexible approach.

The Pitchmart in Hollywood

My abode at the Super 8 motel on North Western Avenue was cheap, clean with friendly helpful staff. In the evening I prepared my pitch, quite sure to impress Ken tomorrow. The following day outside Ken’s home, I knocked on the door and waited. The bark of a little dog prompted me to go and stand outside the gate. A few moments later, the door opens and it’s Ken accompanied by his lovely wife Connie. They stare at me, bemused. “Who are you?” they enquired. “Amrit Bains from London” I replied, ever so professionally. “Oh, I was expecting a young man” said Ken. Later, he explained the confusion; according to my name and the script I had written, he was expecting to greet a guy.

In Ken’s office; I sat opposite him, eager to absorb the knowledge he was about to share with me. Ken got straight to the point and asked me to pitch my screenplay to him, which I did ever so zealously. He stopped me after a few sentences, and went on to explain that the most successful pitching technique is to be able to have a conversation about your story. Instead of trying to sell, be the producer’s friend, relax and crack a joke. They need new material and talent just as much as you need them. It’s a partnership. The important thing is to have fun and make friends.

One consultation with Ken boosted my ego. With my mindset recalibrated I was ready to party. The following week I was working the room pitching to producers like it was second nature. I must admit it was one of the most exhilarating experiences. Ken was my first positive contact in Hollywood. Age wise, he is one of my oldest friends with an abundance of energy and enthusiasm. And he gives the most robust life squeezing hugs I have ever encountered. If you want to learn the art of pitching then Ken’s your man. For further information check out his website:
The Writers Expedition 001

In the Beginning…there was darkness

It was the dark night of the soul. Things didn’t kick off or should I say ‘kick me’ until I got my first rejection letter from the BBC. I was outraged and inconsolable at the lousy explanation that my story was a wonderful idea but unfortunately it was incoherent. It was like a bullet between the eyes. I could barely breathe as I hastily began to read the pages of the returned copy to reassure myself that the readers at the BBC were stupid, and that my very first draft of my very first script was nothing short of a masterpiece. Slowly but surely death was becoming me as I struggled to make sense of my…graffiti. Was I drunk when I wrote this? The characters all suffered from the Houdini syndrome as they randomly disappeared and reappeared. There was no structure; it was all over the place, a technical disaster. Everything about my script made me cringe. How did I manage to overlook a ninety page catastrophe? That night a part of me had died a shameful reclusive death.

About a fortnight later, I was a sober zombie when I got a second rejection from the UK Film Council for the same script. Embittered to the core, I was sure these people were not equipped to recognise raw talent such as mine.
The initial thought that attacked me was to do a Masters in writing. This notion was promptly replaced by a lethargic mode of imagining a boring classroom environment. Surely, learning to write for movies could not be possible in a humdrum atmosphere. After all, I knew that imagination could not be taught.

I easily convinced myself the best place to learn screenwriting would be in Hollywood. But I did not know a soul in Hollywood and I was terrified by the prospect of facing agents, producers, and pitching my ideas to them. It was one of those moments in my life where I knew I had to exercise my faith and take a leap forward…toward my laptop where I clicked onto Amazon and searched for books on pitching. I purchased the bestseller ‘The Perfect Pitch’ by Ken Rotcop. It was an enlightening read. I immediately contacted Ken and posted a script to him for coverage, and then booked an airline ticket to Los Angeles…