How to Hire the Right Screenwriter
An inside Look At Deal Making
Welcome to the world of screenplay writing and producing. I have divided my information on linked web pages so that you can focus on one aspect of hiring a writer to reach your goals and be produced, then move on to the other aspect. There is no one “right way” to hire the best screenwriter, but there are hundreds of “wrong ways” warnings. You want your investment of time, money, and trust to be honored and result in a winning script. While paranoia is not helpful, awareness and realism is most beneficial.
The following pages cover an abundance of useful and sometimes deal-making secret information. I wrote it for one reason: to give you a better chance at not only hiring the best writer you can afford, but also in selling your script. The topic headings might help you navigate to whatever you most urgently need answered.
The Entertainment Marketing Arena
It is hard enough within “Hollywood” to hire the right screenwriter when you have all the connections. For someone that does not make the Entertainment Industry the center of his or her universe, the challenge might seem at times ludicrous, other times frustrating and intimidating. And of course we all hear stories of people being flat out ripped off! While films on Hollywood and the various TMZ type news media could make you think the Industry is nothing but con men, sycophants, and egotists, there are actually fewer instances of betrayal (especially related to writing) than you think. The various Guilds, legal limits put on producers and agencies, and believe it or not “reputations” make most screenplay deals very standardized and simple to complete without being totally taken advantage of… well, in 95% of the deals. But that percentage is just when focusing on whether or not a story is stolen or a writer is truly “chumped” or “rolled” for his investment money. The WGA investigated only 10 script in one year out of 70,000. That puts the odds of your story being ripped off at.012%. Protect yourself by registering it with the WGA, of course, but also realize that there are plenty of stories out there that producers don’t need to steal. Your greater threat is really just ending up with a mediocre-to-bad script, or a script with no marketing value.
The various degrees of your potential frustration possibly comes from not knowing how to navigate the usual Hollywood system. It’s like any unfamiliar business world (like stock investment or the court system.) There are procedures, and ways to lose your investment. Better reps and worse reps. Agents and lawyers provide a valuable service to protect the clients – yet can turn that against newcomers or the “desperate” to structure deals that favor their other clients, and not the screenwriter or original team. Remember, they will make far more money off so being loyal to a studio or exec than to their writer, and so on a small percentage of deals there is a conflict of interest. But that is just competition and survival of the fittest. At its core, a producer’s job is to increase the value of his deal at the expense of others. He grinds costs down then splits the profits with the networks, studios, theaters, and distributors. That is why it is important to know someone who can guide you, co-write with this person if possible, and learn while you strive for a real deal.
The system by which screenplays are written, formatted, promoted, rewritten, repped, protected, and compensated formed into what it is today for a reason: each film launch is no different than opening up the biggest restaurant in town. The chef (director) and owner (producer) must please a fickle pubic with an opening night equal to building a theme park in 180 days. There is so much at stake that the system must respect the writer while protecting the investor and rewarding the public. It’s a tricky cocktail of goals, to say the least. For this reason, as many variables as possible need to be taken out of the formula. That is why contracts and screenplay format are standardized. It is also why contracts and script submissions favor the producer or studio, for they are risking the money.
In the last year, two factors materialized that changed script submissions dramatically: the Internet became a source of creative initiative and power, and Studios and banks lost their collective asses in the economic collapse. The Internet makes it possible to connect with audiences on a level that can make them part of the movie and marketing, and it enables a producer to hire crews for low budget films or television. If you plan to go it on your own, there are ways to hire your own people. Craig’s List is a hub for the Entertainment community. And searches allow producers to find locations, local actors, and also script writers that do not always go through their reps to be hired.
On a completely different level, the digital camera has made the job of filming cheaper, but also the competition ten times greater. This last year, there were almost exactly 10 times as many Indie films going after a limited number of distributors. The quality of films are down, because the audiences don’t need the beauty of Witness or Silence of the Lambs. And some micro-budget hits like Paranormal make every think they can release a super hit. These are exceptions, not the rule. You still need a script worthy of bankable actors and directors.
The producer in this case when you are hiring a writer is YOU. What follows are general factors and facts to consider when seeking a writer for hire for your screenplay or television series. While I do admit that there are exceptions to these examples, and that I do make mistakes, overall what I write will hold up as true.
The WGA presents the numbers each year on how many screenplays were registered, and how many were sold or optioned. I have seen the number of scripts registered hover between 70-105,000 per year. And the number of scripts that signatories to the Guild spent money on might number 350-1,000 any year. It might look like you have a one-in-three-hundred chance of being paid some money for your script, but the numbers are deceiving. Most screenplay sales or options are run through the biggest agencies because they have the “attachments” of actors and directors. If you are not repped by one of the Big Five, then odds against you go up. But then, there is another statistic that ends up being in your favor.
One other way to look at the chances of your script being bought is to think that there are only 40 or so companies with enough juice to really move multiple projects to production, maybe more, but the number is lower than most people think. Each company has about 1-3 scripts a day to read. In a year they move on maybe 15. So, out of 1,000 scripts, 15 new writers might be entertained. But many of these come from writers already produced and popular. Sounds dismal, eh? That is all the more reason why you need to hire the best in the business, and someone who has access or plans on marketing your project with and for you.
The truth is that most screenplays are obviously rejects by reading only the first 15 pages, and a good percentage more are almost “unreadable.” All readers will tell you that. These readers have been hired by companies to read script submissions. Scripts come in with such bad spelling, sentence structure, and logic that no one could decipher them. Many scripts feature a story that is trite and so common that it could never hold the audience attention. Other scripts seem to be written by people with a distorted view of the world they live in. Nothing makes sense or is justified. I in fact had one script come from a lunatic in an asylum who would call me from the doctor’s office when he would sweep it at night. He claimed he was the doctor. His script? Pure paranoid delusions. But most commonly, the majority of the other scripts are too boring or unoriginal to make money back or any fame for the producer.
Then there are the formatting errors. There is a very specific format governing script writing. It exists for a reason. In the proper format, and only in the proper format, the readers know how many minutes in film time passed, others can flag all the props, Line Producers schedule dates and costs, rewrites become manageable, etc. So the need to follow the proper screenplay formatting proves essential. And one more fact you need to know: often times the first person reading your script is told, “If it deviates from the formula or format, toss it in the trash.”
The final odds against you come in the form of “formula” that must be followed through the story line of the script. Screenplays, tv pilots, and Bibles for television must all follow a formula. This formula presents the heroes or main characters in a time line and manner that pleases audiences. The formula consists of Wise Old Man meeting the hero by a certain page, and many other key timing targets. It also shows the Point of No Return, Inmost Cave, and other primary turning points in a script. This all comes from a work written long ago called The Hero With A Thousand Faces. It is based on mythology stories.
Aside from that formula, there are a number of “special or secret” characteristics of a “marketable script.”
Back to “your competition”…
The good thing about the rules and the high number of scripts competing with your script isn’t to fill you with dread, it is to enlighten and then to encourage you.
If you team up with a skilled writer, he will know about the WGA, the rules, the formatting, the formula, and also how to put 80% of all other scripts far below yours, so that you really are only competing with 20 to 1 odds, or even 50 to 1 odds in getting in the door with a production company. That sure beats 1,000 to 1 odds.
In the end, you want to be confident that there is nothing wrong with your script in a “professional submission” sense. If it gets rejected it is not due to a technicality. It is due to other issues. What are these issues? Maybe the producer already has a script with a story like yours. Maybe another studio has Tom Cruise starring in a similar movie. I had one great script rejected only because the owner of the company hates any movie with a dream as a catalyst. A man going through a divorce might read a great script with a strong female lead and reject it because he is bitter. You never know. Yet you did know your script was formatted right and hit all the action points properly. So the rejection was personal, not universally damning of the work.
Now, the above are the basic things to know about the submission process, and what helps a script survive the first levels of approval.
I would like to end this chapter with one final point. There are two elements that raise the appeal of a script to the level where there is widespread appeal and competition for it among producers, stars, and agencies. These two element are: WRITING STYLE and HIGH CONCEPT.
A high concept script with a hot new hook to it, poorly written, will usually have an easier time selling than an outstanding script (say, a drama) that has no flashy angle to it or ways to put butts in seats off of the trailer. A top actor is of course one way, but they are limited. Style of writing (being excellent) is the main element that makes this script one that can sell and be produced because with luck and connections it can get to these actors. It is a harder road to travel usually because it requires a key actor or some angel investor to make it happen. A high concept script has many ways it can get “heat” that leads to financing.
Outstanding writing style in screenplays takes a blend of true talent as a writer, and an awareness of what the Industry and audience craves to watch on screen – and all this is worthless without the element of “marketing” applied to the style and scenes. It means learning what levitates a story/script up from “very good” to “really exciting or moving or hilarious.” It’s style… a talent or gift, most of the times honed by years of experience, but not always. Some first time scripts are amazing. Not many, though.
Now about that marketing angle of film financing. “How many great trailer moments jump off the page of this script?” “What is this film “about” in a Director sense of the word?” “How easy is it to cast with bankable stars?” “What other businesses might share in the advertising costs?” All these are factored in, and a top writer like myself knows how to make sure your final script has as many of these improvement points in it as possible.
As much as it’s not cool to point out wrongs or the failings of the ways you might search for a writer, I need to do that to properly warn you about many misleading practices you might face.
When you type in “Screenwriter for Hire” on Google, the same sites competing with me pop up. They fall into a few categories. 1) Writing hubs that list ads for writers along with ads for companies paying them for advertising space; 2) Companies that hire freelance writers from around the country and they farm out your work to people you might never meet or talk to; 3) Individual writers of various degrees of talent, who might or might not specialize in your genre of screenplay, most of whom do not live in Hollywood. There are only one or two sites that offer writing by a produced writer, and these writers charge close to WGA prices for their writing services (over $50,000.) There might be a few exceptions to these people that I have not studied, but overall you need some guidelines to separate the good from the bad.
Good luck in your search for a writer. It’s not easy. But, you will feel it in your gut when you click with the talented person that cares about your goals as much as he does about the money you pay him.