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by Susan Royal

At last year's Hollywood Film Conference (a 4-day event held during the Hollywood Film Fest) the story analysts speaking at the "What the Readers are Looking For" seminar cautioned that a screenwriter had to capture their interest within the first five to ten pages of their script. If this year's panel is any indication, readers have become decidedly less patient lately. According to Mary Cross, a Warner Bros. story analyst, "Your first page is really important. It sounds ridiculous, but it's best if you can grab us in the first half page. Read the first four sentences of the first Terminator script. They grab you and let you know right away that this person can write." From ten pages down to one page to one-half page to four sentences. Whew!

They also reported that "RECOMMEND," which was never freely given, has become nearly extinct on script coverage. Even if a reader really likes a script, the most they will stick their neck out with is a "CONSIDER." The seminar entitled "Writing For Hollywood" was moderated by Shelly Mellot, the Editor-in-Chief of scr(I)pt Magazine, and was composed of two agents, a manager and one screenwriter: Sandy Weinberg (Summit Talent & Literary Agency); Gareth Pappas ( Metropolitan Talent Agency), Andrew Deane (manager at Gold/Miller Company) and Barry Blaustein (writer of Nutty Professor II: The Klumps and Coming to America).

The following are excerpts from that seminar:

Mellot: Do new writers need agents?

DEAN: You need some type of representation to get your material read in Hollywood. If not an agent, then a manager or attorney. It's a system that's in place because each executive otherwise would have thousands of scripts to read. That's why all of us agents and managers have been put into place as a sort of filtering system.

BLAUSTEIN: It's a "Catch-22" because agents want to represent you if you already have a job. But if you write a really good script the agents will be coming at you. If it's good, it will happen. And once you have an agent, you can't rely on agents to get all your work for you. You have to go out there and sell yourself and you have to keep writing new material. Too many writers complain, "My agent's not doing anything," and I always ask, "Well, are you writing; do you have new ideas you're telling them?" Agents aren't magicians, but they are a necessary part because studios won't read anything that's not represented.

WEINBERG: I think it's really changed recently, though. With a lot of management production companies actively seeking out new writers, with the new Web services and everything else, it's become a more open marketplace.

Mellot: But I advise everyone to be careful in checking out these Web services before you send your scripts or give your money to anyone. There are a lot of "bottom-feeders" out there who see screenwriters as desperate people who can be preyed upon and you need to really be aware of this.

DEANE: Back to the "Catch-22" Barry spoke about, I agree that's probably the most tricky and most difficult way to get into the game. If you've written something great, some tips might be to enter as many film festivals and screenwriting contests as possible -- anything you can do to make your script stand out from the pack. Winning first place in a contest will get people to read your script.

PAPPAS: There are a lot of production companies that have their staff looking at the Web script sites and I think that's actually a phenomenal new avenue.

Mellot: What is the role for the writer in the writer-agent relationship?

WEINBERG: Honesty is absolutely crucial and both sides must know each other's expectations. Also, the writer needs to stay in front of the marketplace. Keep coming up with fresh ideas. Show everyone that you're excited. I think writers should stand tall. A lot of the successful comedy writers are also excellent pitchers.

BLAUSTEIN: The only thing I disagree with is about the pitching. Maybe good comedy pitchers should really be comedians. I think the correlation between being a good pitcher and being a good writer is just luck. I don't think a writer should have to worry about being overly entertaining or funny in a pitch. Just be passionate and show that you're very excited about telling your story. Pitching is one of the toughest things to do because you feel like a shoe salesman.

WEINBERG: It's also exposing yourself to rejection in its purest form. As writers, to be rejected by someone who's falling asleep or walks out of the room while you're pitching can be devastating.

BLAUSTEIN: If you see their eyes rolling back and you have five more minutes to go, you might as well stop. I'm not that masochistic to continue that process. Let me just add, that it's very important to get a life outside of this business. Because when things are going well in your career, you're not as wonderful as people tell you and when your career's not going well you're not as bad as they say you are. Don't let what the industry thinks about you determine what you think about yourself. Develop interests outside the industry. Develop a life outside this industry and for god sakes don't marry anyone in the industry. [Audience laughs.]

DEANE: Getting back to the question about what the writer should do in the writer-agent relationship, the most important thing is to keep writing. The agent needs product to sell.

WEINBERG: Don't try to chase the marketplace, because by the time you finish writing for a particular trend, it's passed. Instead develop a distinctive voice by writing what you are passionate about.

Mellot: Let's talk about acquiring an agent via a query letter.

WEINBERG: The worst thing you can do is say you've written a comedy, an action piece, a thriller, etc., and it seems you don't know what your voice is. What we need to start someone off is a singular voice that is so clear that it is sellable to the marketplace. That voice should evoke a very visceral reaction as I read. So if it's a comedy, it has to make me laugh. I don't scare easily, so if it scares me I think it will scare other people. If I believe that writer can take that voice and continue to use it and expand upon it, that's very exciting. Try to pitch that voice dead on.

DEANE: I couldn't agree more. I'm looking for a writer's unique view or perspective. A writer who can tell a story in a unique way.

PAPPAS: In your query letter you don't want to say that you wrote 30 screenplays in the past two years. Better to focus on you as a person. Maybe describe the screenplay that you think best represents you that you're passionate about. But keep it really short. Long query letters lead to long scripts so we don't like them. Keep it right to the point and mostly about you.

WEINBERG: It's so difficult to get attention off query letters. The only times I've responded have been when the person had been in a legitimate theatre situation or if they had some very interesting publishing or journalistic background. Or maybe won some competition.

Mellot: Barry, can you give us some more tips on pitching.

BLAUSTEIN: Keep it under five to ten minutes if possible. It's hard to do, but it's harder still to hold someone's attention past ten minutes, so you'd better keep it under that. Boil it down to essentials -- what the story's about, who the characters are and then first act, second act, third act. It doesn't hurt to not explain everything, because if they're interested they then ask questions which gets into the back-and-forth that you want with them.
If they ask you who you see starring in it, don't say Steve Buscemi. Nothing against Buscemi, he's a great actor, but they want to hear Tom Cruise or Tom Hanks. You know it's really weird in Hollywood. There's this thing I call "Morton's-Hot." That means, the public doesn't even know some up-and-coming actor, but everyone is talking about him at the industry restaurant, Morton's, on Monday night. The list changes. About five months before The Patriot came out, and before America even knew who Heath Ledger was, people at Morton's were saying, "Well, if you could get Heath Ledger...." So it might pay to know who those hot names are.

DEANE: A couple of other tips, subtle little things. In a pitch meeting they tend to sit you down and say, "What have you got?" It would be wise to try to check out who this person is, even if only from what you see in the room. Where did they go to school? Where are they from? You may happen to be from the same home town or have a similar interest. Check out beforehand what kind of films they've been involved with, this can tell you about their taste and which of your stories would be best to talk about.

WEINBERG: I would add one thing: Never, ever pitch more than one story. There is something all good shoe salespeople know. If someone walks into the store wanting a pair of black shoes, and you show him a black pair, a brown pair and a white pair, he gets confused and leaves without buying any shoes. Anytime you pitch more than one story they: a) don't believe you're passionate about any one story and b) get confused.

DEANE If somebody doesn't like your story do not insist on explaining why they are wrong and that it does work. I've personally sold over 25 pitches as a producer and I've never seen anybody change their mind once they've said they don't like it.

BLAUSTEIN: If they immediately say they don't like it, they are actually doing you a favor. The worst thing is to get killed with encouragement. "Maybe if you changed this" or "What if you did this?" can lead to a lot of work that leads to nothing. Remember not everybody loves every kind of movie, and you only need to find one who does.

DEANE: This may be up for debate, but personally I believe you should not leave a treatment or outline behind.

PAPPAS: I agree.

WEINBERG: I agree.

DEANE: I believe less is more, and you want to leave them some room for their own imagination to fill in the blanks.

WEINBERG: Also, that piece of paper you leave is going to be taken into a room with five people. One is pissed off that day, one is vying for the president's job, everyone has a different agenda and your piece of paper is floating around. Do you really think these people will all agree on that? No way. That's why my clients don't leave pages.

Mellot: Are there any genres you encourage your writers to employ or avoid?

PAPPAS: The appetite of the marketplace right now is comedies and thrillers. Female-driven thrillers are big. But that doesn't get you ahead of the curve or tell you what the next big thing will be.

DEANE: I would say comedy is almost always king.

WEINBERG: I used to tell my clients, "Don't write horror comedies." Then Scream came out and made me wrong. But I do think that for a new writer mixing genres is a dangerous way to go, because studios like to make pure genre movies.

Mellot: Let's talk about what happens to your script after you get the job.

BLAUSTEIN: What's going to happen is you should enjoy that first draft, because that's the last draft that's all your creation. You're going to have six million different people telling you six million different things. Then it becomes like tarring roofs. You're dealing with studio executives and so you never know what they're going to say. I had an executive tell me once, "You know what the secret of making it in Hollywood is?" And I waited to hear his Yoda-like pearl of wisdom which turned out to be, "Know your boss' taste." One of the most disgusting things I'd ever heard.
When I get pages of notes back on my script, after my original outrage -- How dare they! (laughs) -- I think to myself, "What is good, what is valid and which of these notes will make my film better?" And some of them really do.

WEINBERG: What's the stupidest note you ever got?

BLAUSTEIN: The stupidest note I ever got -- and this was actually written out, which requires more thought than just blurting it out -- was: "At the end of the movie can the main character please find out more than just the meaning of life?"

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