A guest post by local screenwriter, Michelle Muldoon…
As a screenwriter, you need to understand the market you operate in if you want to find success. You can’t play the game and expect to succeed if you don’t know the parameters for a winning hand. The more you know, the more you do, the better your chances. Canada has its own unique set of challenges and the days of screenwriters blissfully typing away without a concern for them are over.
Writers have often been told not to worry about budget and let the creative juices flow. That advice is unrealistic. Larger Canadian budgets tend to come out of Quebec or are a part of co-productions. The greatest output of Canadian Film comes through the Telefilm Talent to Watch Program, formerly known as the Ultra-Low Budget Program. Last year’s Canadian Screen Awards Best Director Award went to the director of a film partially funded under Talent to Watch and came in with a $250,000 budget.
First-time writers have their backs against the wall regardless of the budget of the script. Why make life difficult. Get a first feature, short film, pilot or web series in the bag at a low budget because you need to develop…
If you aren’t in the game for the long haul, then you aren’t in the game. It takes time to create an identity within your film community. Work on other people’s projects in order to gain an understanding of production. When you’re ready, consider producing your own short screenplay. The knowledge gained on production processes and the accrued expenses will inform your next screenplay. At the same time, you’ll be creating an identity by starting your IMDB listing and thus proving that you can and do work with your film community. To move a feature film or television project forward, professionals need to feel confident they can spend years with you collaborating on the end goal. That belief starts somewhere.
Every screenwriter needs more than one screenplay or original TV spec script in their portfolio. It’s part of being a professional. The urban legend of the producer that responds to a pitch with, “Not crazy about that, what else you got” is not an urban legend at all. It happens and will happen to you. Writers write. A producer wants to be sure that they are working with someone who understands the process, can generate ideas and complete rewrites based on notes provided. Building a portfolio proves you have the commitment to build that career and the “stick-with-it-ness” to see something to the end.
The passion for writing fuels creativity while awareness of the business of film stokes a career. One cannot exist without the other if you want to make it in today’s market. Learn the expectations, boundaries, and requirements of a writer in today’s market, and you’ll feel more in control of the journey.
There is nothing linear about the path of a screenwriter. During the 2012 Winter Olympics, the Canadian Women’s Ice Hockey team wrote a letter to the Men’s team to be read right before the gold medal game. The most famous quote from that letter was, “The podium favours the brave.” So does a screenwriting career.
Be brave, be prepared and most of all, be ready for opportunity to come knocking by taking matters, and your career, into your own hands.
Michelle Muldoon is an award-winning writer and filmmaker living in Vancouver, British Columbia. Her films and screenplays have been recognized at Film Festivals in both Canada and the United States. You can read more of what Michelle has to say on her own blog. You can also follow Michelle on Twitter or Instagram, as well as join the fans following her latest award-winning all-female western short, Last Stand to Nowhere.
“Your work has to be blazingly good, not just really good or great. How do you know if your work is blazing? Your phone should be ringing off the hook.”
“You need a compelling thirty-second logline for yourself, both so others remember you and so agents can know they can sell you. When you have a great meeting with a decision-maker you want to make sure they have the right things to say about you.”
“The way to master your personal A Story is with practice. Practice writing it out word for word. Then practice writing it in bullet points.”
How do you recharge your creativity? I’ve spent the last few days feeling unsure of my work and my reasons for doing it. Energy is low. My writing feels flat. It’s been a while since I put down the writing guilt/pressure/drive, and the to-do’s from the rest of my life that seem to pile up endlessly. The weather has shifted and it’s cold, wet and dark. I think it’s time to refill the creative tank. Spending the day in bed reading a favorite novel sounds amazing but I’m a little worried that it would bring up an inferiority complex that I’m a bit too raw to deal with. Besides, I don’t have a whole free day coming up anytime soon.
So this is hardly a newsflash but writing is hard. Sitting down to do the work is hard. Walking around with those rattling, pinching questions about your ability as a writer and the point of doing it even if you are any good is really, really hard sometimes.
All of us creative types need to have a few tried and true recharge tricks to put into action when we need to. Mine include a few quick emergency measures: A luxurious bubble bath with candlelight and music is a favorite. There’s a local ramen joint that always cheers me up. If I carve out the time, I might treat myself to a solo movie and a walk around the art gallery. (Introvert alert.) In fact, lots of walking – that always helps.
My most decadent recharge ever was a weekend away from the family at a very nice hotel, where I focussed on writing and resting on my own inner schedule. It was a real treat. Actually it was freaking amazing. I might not be able to pull off a fancy get-away right now, but the world won’t end if I push back my errands for a nice stormy walk with an outrageously froufrou coffee. Maybe a podcast interview with a favorite writer would be a good thing to have playing while I saunter and enjoy the autumn leaves.
I hope all of you have a list of little treats, (or grand gestures?) that can refill the creative tank when you need it.
Are you still wondering how to write for TV? I am all for becomming a better writer by being a disciplined writer, even though I feel like I fail at this all the time. Today is no different. But here are two amazing youtube resources that anyone wanting to write for TV, especially sitcoms, should watch, guilt free, before sitting down to work.
Gloria Calderón Kellett, Showrunner and Co-Creater of “One Day at a Time,” recorded a whole playlist of “Hollywood 101: How to Write For TV” videos for Pero Like. You can even download the pilot for her show as a reference. Gloria covers an array of topics from starting your career, to writing your pilot, getting an agent and working in a writers room. Her wit and generosity blow me away.
I also want to point every developing sitcom writer I know toward a fantastic lecture by John Vorhaus, author of the The Comic Toolbox. Don’t be thrown by the fact that the presenter gives an introduction in Norwegian. It’s probably a hilarious intro judging by the dead quite audience, but the lecture is brilliant, it dramatically reduced my fear of the blank page when it comes to funny beats…and John presents in English. I highly recommend it.
We’re still buzzing from the excitement of our VIFF Meet the Showrunners Talk. Sera Gamble (You), Alexandra Cunningham (Dirty John), Gloria Calderon Kellet (One Day at a Time), Jami O’Brien (NOS4A2) and Jennica Harper (Jann) all arrived with plenty of humor and wisdom to share. We are so grateful for their generosity and for the incredible engagement of the audience. Thanks also to Tim Goodman from the Hollywood Reporter for facilitating the discussion. What a night!
So what do you do after the screenplay is written? This is a question we received on FaceBook this week. How do you get your TV script to a producer? Firstly, let’s clarify that you’re going to want to pitch to as many producers as possible to ensure that you find the right producer for your project. So how do you find a producer for your script? Having learned a bit more about how writers tend to connect with producers through my time at the PSP this year, my answer has three parts.
1) Study and practice the art of pitching yourself and your project. For most writers, this is their weakest link. Having a strong pitch puts you ahead. Look for training and feedback.
2) Have a portfolio with at least a few other TV projects ready. If a producer takes a liking to you but can’t use your project, you want to have something else to send them if they ask for it.
3) To get your script into the hands of producers you should enter it in tv writing contests because contest winners get “buzz.” You should also go to as many industry events as possible. Some festivals and conferences offer pitch sessions that you can sign up for if you hear about it before they fill up. Get on all the newsletter lists for Canadian festivals so you can take advantage of the pitching, screenwriting contests, and mentorship opportunities that come up. Have as many applications on the go as possible.
Leave us a comment and let us know what screenwriter pitching and mentorship opportunity mailing lists you’ve found useful!
Our PSP Director, Raila Gutman, introducing Showrunner Martin Gero and Interviewer, local writer and VFS prof, Kat Montagu.
“There’s no right way to [get into a room]. There’s a wrong way: ‘here’s a cool short play I’ve written.’ Various programs want one spec and one pilot. They want to see both.” -Martin Gero
“Make stuff compulsively…I shot a scene on my phone, and that scene aired. There is no excuse for anyone in this room to not be making stuff.” -Martin Gero
A disciplined writer needs a system for making the most of ideas, passing thoughts and creative connections. The difference between a working screenwriter and the person intending to write a screenplay someday is largely a difference in work habits. We can’t afford to be lazy with the care and storage of our stock and trade…ideas. Here are five tips for making the most of your ideas.
- Use the cloud.
Journaled ideas are of little use if you aren’t able to access them. Good ideas deserve to be safely stored and easily retrievable, so keep them centralized on all your devices by making use of the cloud. There’s no need to scramble through old journals or hard drives if you’ve tagged your ideas and saved them online. Evernote, Dropbox, Microsoft OneNote, and Apple Notes are all great programs for storing ideas. A water-soaked phone or stolen laptop won’t mean lost inspiration.
- Categorize your ideas.
Create subfolders and use tags as a matter of habit. In my case, I throw my ideas, (no matter how vague and undeveloped,) into folders marked Feature Ideas, Short Film Ideas, and TV Series Ideas. If I’m targeting a specific genre and medium for a contest entry or pitch opportunity, I can scan my files for ideas I would otherwise have forgotten about.
- Take photos of your scribbles.
Do you need the feeling of pen on paper to get your ideas out? Sometimes I do. I still carry a journal with me constantly. When I’ve made notes, sketches or brainstorms for a specific idea, I snap a photo with my phone, upload, and tag them. Evernote has a great scanning app and their software is able to recognize my photographed printing in a search. The other programs might have similar features. Even an iphoto folder would work in a pinch.
- Pause the show when something moves you.
Notes aren’t just for ideas. They can also be used for increasing your awareness of story architecture to help you craft your script with more skill and emotional power. Work to become aware of your own emotional temperature while watching movies and tv. If something moves you, scares you, or gives you a shudder of delight or anticipation…stop the show. Make a note. Note the show, scene, and even time code if you can. Think about how the emotion has been manipulated by the screenwriter. Pacing, stakes, subtext…how are the tools of the trade being used here? Flag it and come back to it for study. There’s no need to leave this magic completely to instinct and chance in your own work. Figure out how master craftspeople are actually crafting and try your hand at it. Practice until the tools you’re starting to notice (and note) feel natural.
- Start a “how’d they script that?” file.
Sometimes when I’m watching a show or film, I find myself wondering, “how’d they script that?” When I catch myself with one of these thoughts, I make a note on my running “script formatting” research list, then try to find the script online.
If you have any other strategies for harnessing your observations, curiosity, and ideas as a screenwriter, please share in the comments below!
Are you on the fence about whether or not to apply? Feeling unprepared or too inexperienced? With only a few days left before the cut off deadline, our selection committee will soon be narrowing down the pile of Scripted Series Lab 2020 applications to a very short list of people. It’s a bit tragic to me because I know so many of you are up to the challenge of shining in a writers’ room if just given the chance!
Any writer who goes to the trouble of writing an original spec pilot and preparing a submission package gets a nod of respect from me, whether or not they make it into the final selected group this year. As I writer myself, I know what a massive amount of work and courage it takes to be application ready, and I relate to the vulnerability you might feel when you send off your work.
If you’re nearing the deadline but you aren’t sure your work is at the level it needs to be, or you aren’t sure if you have the level of experience required to be considered, I would suggest you apply anyway. Self-doubt is a powerful force to be reckoned with but putting yourself out there gets easier with practice and it is part of being a professional.
“Everything you want is on the other side of fear.” – Jack Canfield
Even if you applied last year and you aren’t sure it’s worth submitting again, either with the same sample or a new one, I hope you do submit again. You never know how close you came last year or how your sample script will be received by this year’s readers.
Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up. –Thomas Edison
One of our guests to the writers’ room shared some advice given to them by showrunner Simon Barry that really stayed with me. Apparently, Mr. Barry is of the opinion that if you don’t have five projects in the works, you aren’t working hard enough to put yourself out there. In that light, consider your application to the Scripted Series Lab 2020 as just one of many opportunities you are currently reaching for.
Regardless of what happens next, stay busy! I know the work you put into your application makes you a stronger, more pitch ready writer with a fresh sample to shop around. We have such an untapped wealth of creativity and talent here in BC. Good luck, my friends! Keep writing. Keep applying. Keep going. Email the industry people you admire and ask if they’d join you for a coffee! We need you all to become industrious producers and fearless promoters of your work.
My strength lies solely in my tenacity.–Louis Pasteur
How do you get from a first draft to a finished original spec script? Before you crack open that first draft and start slashing with a red pen, it’s a good idea to put a rewrite system in place so you don’t get overwhelmed. I’ve got a little catchphrase I like to tell myself…
Getting a script from draft to done takes several rounds of rewriting like a BOSS.
B: Take BREAKS on the project so you can see your last draft with a fresh perspective.
O: Read the latest draft OUT LOUD. This medium is written to be performed and what reads well might not actually speak well.
S.S: Edit in chunks, taking multiple passes with SPECIFIC STRATEGY.
If you read through your own work you’re going to see a lot that you want to change. Add to that, if you’ve asked a trusted mentor for their notes on your work, you’ll probably end up with several suggestions from them. It can be hard to know where to start or finish. It’s a good idea to make a list and break it down. Get into the habit of going through the script multiple times with your eye on just one specific aspect of the writing each time.
Here’s a sample list of some of the big ones:
-Integration of theme in character choices and consequences
-Structure/ pacing of the main plot points
-Scene movement and purpose
-Consistency of character voice
-The specificity of place and props
-Moments of connection
-Moments of conflict
-Setup and release of tension
-Am telling when I should be showing?
I’m sure there are many more specifics you could take a pass for. Whether you make the changes with each strategic pass or let the notes add up to make more changes all at once will be a matter of individual process and circumstance. A book like Shawn Coyne’s Story Grid offers a great overview of the many moving parts in a smoothly working story.
It’s a big grind of a job to do alone, and morale can drop quickly. It’s important to break it down into manageable chunks and plod on. Try to be patient and kind to yourself and your project so you don’t get overwhelmed. And if you do start to feel overwhelmed? Your mind might try to play tricks on you, convincing you that it’s a waste of time. Keep Stephen Pressfield’s War of Art on the bedside table. Grit your teeth and do the work anyway. Chip away at your B.O.S.S rewrite list. You’ll be glad you did.