I dug this post out of mothballs when I was working on a proposal recently. I’ve shared it with several writers over the years and it still sums up my feelings about the business of writing pretty well. – mg
In the Sept/Oct  issue, the editor’s note lamented the lack of creative new ideas, the dearth of scripts that made you wish you had thought of the idea. The issue also explored ever so slightly why this might be the case. As a screenwriter struggling to get into the club, I submit that much of the cause is gatekeepers. I’ve been trying for more than a year to get someone — anyone — to take a look at my work in order to consider signing on as my agent. I send out query letters, and only infrequently receive a curt response that “We do not take unsolicited material” even though I had not submitted anything more than the standard query.
Most often — easily 99 percent of the time — I hear nothing in response. I have two completed screenplays and five others in various stages of writing and outlining. These are fresh ideas, not makeovers of tired-out formulas, but getting someone to let me in to show them what I can do has been impossible.
I have a friend in film school. Her screenwriting professor says if the envelope has a return address of anywhere other than Los Angeles, agencies simply won’t open the envelope. If this is true, in this age of Internet miracles and telecommuting, then shame on those agencies. No one should complain about a lack of creativity if the industry is so inbred that it refuses to let in more than a token few new writers.
You want fresh and exciting? Let more of us inside. We may not have fine-tuned the art of writing ultra-short descriptive paragraphs, but we have fresh ideas. I know I have them. I just need someone to work with me.
Paul S., Round Lake Beach, IL
The million-dollar question, as you articulate: How do I get a shot? I’ve been working with screenwriters a few years now and have come to understand that getting your script seen, like most things in life, is a combination of many factors, some of which you can control and some of which you can’t. What you can do, what you must do, is take matters into your own hands. It may seem like sending out polite and well- crafted query letters is doing just that, but it’s not. Not anymore.
The technology required to make a film is now accessible and affordable to nearly everyone. (Did you know that the documentary My Date With Drew was shot in 30 days on a camera the crew later returned to Circuit City, per the 30-day return policy?) The channels for distribution — getting your story told and seen — are right there at your fingertips and are only slightly more complex than sending an email to me. If you want to get all high-quality and fancy, send a note around to local drama, film and TV programs to see if the students will help you make a short for internship credit and/or McDonald’s value meals. (Did you know that Steven Soderbergh made a short for sex, lies and videotape in order to generate interest and gain financiers for the full-length project?) Upload the resulting short to YouTube, get 500,000 hits, and I promise you someone will be interested in listening to your pitch, because you’ve already proven you have ideas people want to see. (Did you know filmmaker Fede Alvarez created the YouTube short Panic Attack! and secured representation and a deal with Ghost House based on the popularity of the short?)
If you don’t want to make a film, how about mounting a play? You live an hour from one of the greatest theatre districts in the nation. Would any of your screenplays work on stage, gaining exposure for your work? Contact some dramaturges about their “new voices” initiatives. (Peter Morgan and Aaron Sorkin are two contemporary playwrights who now write for both stage and screen.)
If you aren’t inclined to mount your own production, contests are the number-one avenue I recommend. Only the good ones, though. Don’t waste your time or money sending your script to any “first annual” contests (unless the backers are undeniable powerhouses); don’t send your script to contests where the prize is junk you don’t need or vague promises about maybe perhaps getting your script into someone’s hands; don’t send your script to contests wherein the judges are people you’ve never heard of or can’t easily find out about. This may sound like a shill for Final Draft’s own Big Break contest, but it’s not — though Big Break is a good contest. Slamdance, ScriptShark, Austin, Nashville, Scriptapalooza, ScriptPimp — I’m just naming off the top of my head — are all reputable, have been around forever, and their judges are sincerely looking for good material. Pitchfests can work, too — at least you get to pitch your ideas to a person, which is half of what you want anyway: someone to just listen to your ideas. If the pitchee offers to take a copy of your spec, so much the better.
That brings us to logline emailing services. Some companies offer this as a paid service, others as a prize for a contest. This service may sound like nothing more than a stripped-down query, but some of our readers assure me that specs have been acquired, and deals have even been made, based on an emailed logline.
Finally, fellowships and internships are a great way to get a foot in the door, and the people screening applicants have to read your work. Disney, Nickelodeon and AMPAS are just a few of the high-profile ones available, but again you live near a major city — are there any production houses or film offices or literary agencies there? I say this as a person who had a comfy, well-paying job in an industry that reduced me to tears. I took a leap of faith and an unpaid internship in order to make the segue into publishing, because I wanted a shot.
Finally, the thing about postmarks is b.s. and you can tell your friend’s professor I said so. Agents, producers, execs of every stripe do not give a rip if you live in L.A. or an igloo … if you have talent, tenacity, and a good story they want it. But your script shouldn’t have a postmark anyway. The days of the query letter are over. Show me a person who, in the last five years, sold his or her spec based on a snail-mail query letter and I will show you a person for whom lightning will not strike twice. There are better, more effective and tenacious ways to get your work out in front of people, as outlined above.
I don’t think it can be stressed enough that films are corporations. Your screenplay is the product at the center of a corporation. A studio is going to hire hundreds of people to produce the product, market and sell it. So apart from a good idea, what are you bringing with your script? Show them that half a million people loved your short; show them you had to add two weeks to the run of your very successful play; show them that three prestigious contests thought your script was among the best they read that year. Show them there’s already an audience for your ideas, because this, more than anything, is what is preventing fresh ideas from coming into the marketplace: We continue to consume the old ones. Show them there’s room, a ready and willing audience, for your new ideas.
I’m going to liken it to a natural disaster, Paul, not to be morose, but to illustrate a point: If you are amid a sea of people, and rubble, and you need to get noticed and fast, are you going to raise one hand and hope someone sees you, or are you going to jump up and down, wave your arms, make some noise? Only you can decide, but the tools are there for you to use. If you use one or a combination of these tools and have an excellent script or idea, there’s a very high chance it will get read. That’s your shot.