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Breaking into Film

One honest answer to the eternal question, “How do I break into Hollywood?”

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My Writing

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I’m vowing to really get going with my writing. I want to push my career as a writer forward. I’ve gotten several television and film scripts in good shape. Now it’s a matter of getting them out into the world in spite of the Catch-22 that producers don’t want to read material from writers who don’t have an agent and agents don’t want to read material from writers who haven’t produced any work yet.

Yikes! What’s an aspiring writer to do?

In the past I wrote lots of letters and made lots of cold calls. I had some success because I did get a few agents to read my work and did get invited to pitch for a top sitcom, but that was years ago in the ’90s pre-Internet and pre-social media. Things are different now the Catch 22 remains.

I have gotten invited to pitch to producers via Act One’s Upfront program and will submit again once they open up submissions.

I’ve also entered contests, but there are few for television writers. I’ve written some producers and sometimes it’s hard to find the addresses of producers, who do want to limit submissions. One thing I’m glad I did was use my local library to get some addresses. They were able in a few hours to get the address for Reese Witherspoon’s company, Hello Sunshine, and to PBS. Their help saved me from wasting further time. Hello Sunshine, while incorporated, just didn’t show up in any business directories I had access to. So I’m grateful for the librarian who found something I couldn’t.

In addition to writing to producers who seem like a good match, I’m going to start writing a play. Tonight I’ll start an online course on Playwriting given by the Chicago Dramatists’ Workshop. My subject is a vibrant character from Chicago’s 19th century history.

 

Masterclass with Aaron Sorkin

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I’ve just finished a screenwriting class taught by Aaron Sorkin of The West Wing, Social Network, Steve Jobs, Sports Night, etc. fame. Masterclass offers the class for $90 and I found it to be a good deal.

Sorkin knows what he’s talking about and is frank about how some aspects of writing can be taught and others can’t. Even though he’ll sometimes go off on a tangent, I found the tangent worth the ride. He admits to non-linear conversational style up front so students are prepared. He shares the classic approaches to writing and swears by reading Aristotle’s Poetics. Some of what he said in the 35 lesson course, I’d heard before, but that didn’t bother me. I was glad to hear the wisdom reinforced.

After several sessions of lecture, eloquent, wise lecture, the course featured students working with Sorkin on story development, brainstorming, and pitching. I was disappointed by the homogenous age range in the group. I doubt anyone there was over 33. Some of these sessions lagged for me, but I did appreciate how respectful Sorkin was to the students. It would be easy for him to act supercilious, lesser teachers at say UCLA Extension sometimes do, but this Academy and Emmy Award winner did not. Kudos to Mr. Sorkin.

I think the class is best for those who’re a bit familiar with screenwriting so I advise people to either take a short course (nothing expensive is needed) or read a few screenwriting books. I will say I wish he’d offer suggestions on how to overcome the difficulty in getting a script read by people empowered to buy it.

I tried watching in China and Indonesia. The buffering was awful, while Coursera, TED and Lynda.com don’t have such a problem. So if you’re overseas, think twice before paying for this course.

 

Deadline Looms

A friend and I have been pounding out a script for a writing program we first thought had a June 1 deadline, and then discovered had an April 14th deadline.

We’ve finished the first draft and are polishing now. I do like the story, but am realistic and know that other writers are probably submitting stories they started years ago.

It’s been crazier than the April Script Frenzies where you had 30 days to write a script. Here we’ve had about 24.

Fingers crossed.

Next Steps

OnceUponATimeAfter receiving feedback that isn’t “We’re dying to buy your story,” it’s easy to feel disheartened. I tend to think the answer is to come up with an action plan. It’s also good to have more than one project going.

I have started and laid aside an adaptation of book about the Gilded Age. I’ve resumed work on it and will make it into a play. I’m hoping that theatres are more open to submissions from new writers. Time will tell.

I’m also brainstorming for ways to revise my television series pilot and I’ve written two letters to see if more professionals will read and consider the story.

Fingers crossed.

Feedback

About a year ago I submitted my pilot script for an American Downton Abbey series to a well known television actor via his sister, who’s a family friend. I’m profoundly grateful to have that opportunity since Hollywood is a very closed system. To get someone to read a script you must have an agent and to get an agent you must have sold something already. There are far fewer opportunities for American writers compared to British ones who can avail themselves of the BBC’s open solicitations. (Could that be part of the reason the Brits produce such quality television?)

On Sunday I met with the sister to hear what her brother thought. I had hoped for specific suggestions that I could use to revise. I’d be foolish to think I’d get an immediate acceptance. Now like me, this woman isn’t a neat freak. (But in my creative chaos I can find stuff.) After sharing some tea and getting up to date on our families, she stood up and said, “Where did I put my notes from my talk with B____?” As I scanned the numerous piles of papers, books, etc. I thought, “Dear God, she’ll never find it.” And she didn’t. Oh, well.

However, she did remember his main comments.

  1. The writing was good, better than most he sees. That’s encouraging.
  2. Hollywood wants Star Wars — in everything. They want Star Wars plots cloaked in whatever genre you’re writing in. Oh, no. Where does that leave me since I have no desire to offer Star Wars with horse-drawn carriages, hoop skirts and top hats.
  3. While the BBC and itv have produced period dramas for decades, it’s not an American genre. B____ did share the idea with some network folks, but they thought “Period pieces are too expensive” and hence not easy to sell. Well, perhaps Mercy Street will be popular and that will change, though I doubt it. Also, Julian Fellowes is supposed to be creating an NBC series set in the past.
  4. To save money, the number of regular characters should be no more than six. I have the family, servants and people who work with the hero. I’ll cut some servants and colleagues. One friend suggested eliminating the servants completely. Hmm. I’ll mull that over and think I’ll keep a few. If I show this to someone else who wants more cut, I’ll comply. But I do like showing the differences between servants in the US and the UK.

There were one or two more suggestions, which I can work on, but this mania for Star Wars vexes me. I had heard the theory that Star Wars’ big profits put an end to the development of sophisticated films, which the 1970s was known for. Now that the latest Star Wars film has broken box office records, I can see that greed gets stepped up. No doubt it’s the buzz in Hollywood and the way to ensure your career is to find the next Star Wars or simply copy the original.

I haven’t seen Star Wars’ latest film yet. I suppose I should, though my pettier side thinks, “Why give them more money and thereby add to the box office numbers?”

 

Countdown

I’m counting down till Saturday when I’ll get a chance to pitch a story idea to a producer. It’s not something I do every day and I can’t share too many details, but I hope it’s a sign that my writing is better than average.

Prayers welcome as I prepare for this short presentation.

Fingers Crossed

I finally mailed off my American Downton Abbey script and series treatment. After lots of printing problems, it’s been entered in a script contest and sent to a producer who’s agreed to read it.

Now to wait and keep researching so I can write episode 2.

It’s takes a miracle for even a professional screenwriter to get something considered never mind on the air, so any prayers or crossed fingers are welcomed.

Jack Gilbert, 1950 – 2012

I met Jack Gilbert at Act One‘s summer writers’ program in 2012. He was on the faculty and did the heavy lifting of reading all our work and carefully writing pertinent comments that would lift our script’s quality. I still have my final projects comments.

He was a pillar of Act One as he knew all the writers better than anyone else and encouraged all of us who took on the marathons that are Script Frenzy or NaNoWriMo.  He ran a Great Book’s book club for I think 20 years, predating Act One. I was part of the online group and without this club I would never have gotten around to reading In Search of Lost Time, Kristen Lavransdatter, Moll Flanders, King LearDon Quixote (our current read), and so many others. It’s so easy to procrastinate as one endeavors to become a better writer, Jack held us accountable, made us feel the guilt we should those times we weren’t writing, while encouraging us and shining a light on the glimmers of art we didn’t realize we’d produced.

Jack had a deep knowledge of story and literature. He was a humble and sincere man, without a pretentious bone in his body.  Every time I show my students Casablanca, I think of Jack whose birthday ritual was a screening of his favorite film.

For the last week or so hundreds of Act One people have been praying and hoping he’d beat the pneumonia that took him in the end.

Here are a few of the messages people posted on Facebook about Jack:

There are men and women who do great things for vast numbers of people who they will never meet. Then there are the Jack Gilberts of the world – those who do incredible & compassionate things for people on a one to one, face to face level. I wonder how many people consider Jack’s passing last night as one of the worst moments of their lives? I’ll bet it’s in the hundreds.

I had the great privilege of being invited a little over a year ago into the book club Jack Gilbert led. I am so sad that we have lost his guidance and enthusiasm, but grateful that I had the opportunity to get to know him. He was a man of immense faith, and I’m happy that his battle here is over. He is missed already.

We lost one of the good ones today. Jack was a friend and writing mentor of mine, as well as to hundreds of others. I was lucky enough to have been able to say goodbye. He passed peacefully, surrounded by friends and family. What a way to go. What a life he lived.

Grieving the loss of Jack Gilbert. A wise and gentle mentor to many writers and storytellers, and a man who knew that all our little stories were somehow about the one big story.

I’m not the first to say this, but it’s perfect so I will. Jack, here’s lookin’ at ya kid.

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