David Konow contributes to Deadline.
With the Writers Guilds West and East tonight presenting their awards to last year’s most respected practitioners of the craft, it’s a perfect occasion for Deadline to examine the cottage industry of screenwriting conventions, expos, coverage services, and pitchfests. They’re supposed to help writers learn their craft and get their scripts out into the world. It goes without saying that this is a hot button issue in Hollywood. “Those who can’t write, teach seminars.” That’s what John August, screenwriter of Big Fish, Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, and Corpse Bride posted on his website under the category of ‘So-Called Experts’. As he further elaborates to Deadline, “Most seminars feel like scams, and pitchfests give me nightmares. I don’t know any movies that have come out of them. The important thing to remember is that pitching only means something when the person hearing your pitch already thinks you’re a good writer.”
Yes, the business of screenwriting will always attract shysters willing to prey on people with a dollar and a dream. Yes, there are many people who talk a similar rhetoric about ‘paradigms’ and ‘character arcs’ so it all feels like a con or cult built around scripting for showbiz. But some people must find it all useful, right?
Though it’s not clear when the industry around screenwriting may have started, but some feel it grew exponentially in the late 1980s after the Writers Strike. “The industry pipelines were dry and million dollar spec sales were the order of the day,” recalls Den Shewman, former editor in chief of Creative Screenwriting. “I still remember agents Alan Gasmer and Rob Carlson having some kind of uber sale competition, each scoring a million dollar spec sale a month.” Not to mention the big script paydays Shane Black and Joe Eszterhas which became the stuff of wannabe movie writers’ dreams. As recently as last fall, the well-known Black List launched a pay service for unrepresented screenwriters to have their work analyzed by industry professionals. Its first over-the-transom success story wasn’t: the scripter Justin Kremer (McCarthy) had previously been an intern there. On the other hand, Kremer had uploaded his script to the site and paid for a single read. When the screenplay got a high score, it was included in the site’s weekly member email spotlighting the highest rated scripts. After dozens of downloads from Black List industry members and more ratings from those who read it, McCarthy became the site’s highest-rated uploaded script. That’s when Kremer, who’d gone to NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and graduated from the Dramatic Writing Conservatory at the State University of New York/Purchase, was signed by CAA.
It goes without saying to let the buyer beware when looking for a pitchfest, coverage company, or screenwriting teacher. “There were a lot of people in early 2000, even now, who decided to hang up a shingle and call themselves an expert,” warns Jim Cirile of the script coverage company Coverage Ink. “There’s 87 coverage companies out there right now. How many of them are run by people who’ve had a studio deal or have sold anything? How many of them are run by some college kid who figures he can make a couple of extra bucks by reading a screenplay?” InkTip’s Gato Scatena adds, “Before we allow someone to come in and teach at our seminars, we do vet them out and call referrals.”
It’s believed that pitchfests, where you meet face to face with industry professionals and try to sell your idea, started back in 1996 with the Writer’s Network. The argument for pitchfests is the supposed access you get to people who can potentially sign you or buy you. “It’s one thing to send out query letters. It’s another thing to literally get in an executive’s face and try to sell them on yourself,” says Cirile. “It’s a really fast way of opening some doors for yourself, and you get an unprecedented level of access.”
“Screenwriting is one art form. Getting out there and networking is a completely different art form,” says Gato Scatena, VP of Marketing at InkTip, a networking and pitching company. “Learning how to pitch, learning how to be comfortable in front of strangers, all of these things are important. It’s good to meet other screenwriters, it’s good to meet other executives, it’s good to meet assistants.”
Erik Bauer, who founded Creative Screenwriting Magazine, says the access you get to industry people at a pitchfest “would be very difficult for writers to arrange on their own. And some writers and filmmakers make good use of that access, showing trailers for their movies, and making contacts that helped them in their careers.”
Jack Epps Jr., who wrote Top Gun and Dick Tracy with the late Jim Cash, and who also teaches screenwriting at USC, says, “The expos that are well run bring in really good people, and it allows a very wide range of the public to take screenwriting classes. And for the cost, the access is pretty good.”
So those are the pros. But the first con is the costs, which can be $200-$500 a weekend and more if you’re traveling in from out of town. The second con is that pitchfests rarely produce made movies or even films in development. “I don’t think there’s been any big spec sales that’s come from any of these that I’m aware of,” says Cirile. “What happens more often is you make connections that help down the line.”
Joseph McBride, who teaches screenwriting at San Francisco State University and authored the recent screenwriting manual Writing in Pictures, says, “From what my students report, I think screenwriting conventions and pitchfests can be useful if the aspiring screenwriter who attends them is well prepared and cautious. Pitching projects can lead to contacts and, who knows, maybe even to a sale. At the very least it can help the writer hone his or her pitching skills. All that said, I’m somewhat dubious about the pitching process in general,” McBride continues. “If you don’t protect yourself, a pitched idea can be stolen. Pitches can be frustrating and a waste of time better spent writing, and much of the pitching process depends on the writer’s skills in schmoozing and making small talk, which are not essential skills in a writer’s toolkit.”
Brooklyn Weaver, founder of Energy Entertainment, believes the writer is more important than the pitch. “I believe in reading someone before they pitch me. As a representative, I find it a little bit ass backwards hearing an idea before I know if they have the tools to accomplish what they’re pitching to me.” Weaver also feels a better way to get noticed is to win a screenwriting contest. “Any contest,” he says. “You’ve got South By Southwest, Scriptapalooza, there’s 10 non-major writing contests you can win. It doesn’t necessarily have to be the Nicholl Fellowship.”
At the same time Weaver feels that “every writer needs to be able to pitch. As a writer, you need the tool of pitching someone, engaging them and holding their attention. I think comedy is a medium that, if you have a really good idea, and you’re hilarious and great in a room, that’s a platform where you really need to be able to pitch. But that’s much more subservient to being able to execute a screenplay.”
Can a pitchfest substitute for agency representation? Ron Shelton of Bull Durham fame warns that “young writers often seem more concerned about finding an agent than learning the craft. If you can write well, the agent will find you.”
As for the screenwriting gurus, the best known of the lot, Robert McKee, began teaching at Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in 1981, and started his weekend seminars in 1983. His best-selling book, Story, became a bible for many novice and professional screenwriters. Hard to believe it was published way back in 1997. Surely, in the interim, times have changed?
One of the biggest arguments against the teachings of McKee, Syd Field, and other screenwriting gurus is that they’ve helped make storytelling too beholden to rules and structure. Says Epps, “If people try to write to marks, you’ll write a boring story because the best stories ‘happen’. They happen because the writer feels it, he writes on instinct, and his instincts are deep. Whether you have this happen on Page 25 or have this happen on Page 45, it just doesn’t matter. I don’t know a single professional writer that writes that way.”
Epps continues, “While I think there’s a point where it’s helpful to understand the patterns, if a creative person tries to write to a mark, it’s like paint by numbers. How many paint by numbers are you gonna see in a gallery?”
At the same time, many feel scripters should know the rules before they break them, and Larry Karaszewski and Scott Alexander, the team who wrote Ed Wood and The People Vs Larry Flynt, would use traditional 3-act structure to fool executives into thinking they were following the rules, while sneaking in their own properly structured but wonderfully subversive content.
“Taking a class, reading a book, or being part of a writing group allows writers to create the movie that people want to see instead of write the movie they think they’re writing,” says Bob Schultz, co-founder of The Great American Pitchfest. “There needs to be a certain amount of clarity before you spread your wings.”
McKee addressed this topic when he spoke at the 2005 CS Expo, advising the audience, “I can’t tell you what to write or how to write it. I can give you the principals of the form, and you have to figure out how to create a story. If I were teaching chemistry and one of my students is Jonas Salk, and the other is the guy that invented DDT, am I responsible for Jonas Salk? No. I taught him chemistry. Am I responsible for poisoning the world? No. The bad, formulaic movies that come from Hollywood ain’t my fault. I can teach people the craft, but if they mis-use it to sell their souls, that’s not my responsibility. I just teach the chemistry of story. You have the ethical choice of what you want to do with that chemistry. You want write something of real quality, or do you want to whore out? You just have to be honest with yourself.”
Now for the argument everyone loves to debate. What can somebody who’s never sold a script teach about screenwriting? In the case of McKee, he has written one feature title which was made: Abraham, which played on TNT in 1994. He also wrote several TV episodes (Spenser: For Hire, Double Dare), and has sold a lot of scripts that never made it to the big screen. An example of a respected teacher with no made movies is Jeff Rush, who taught Andrew Kevin Walker (Se7en) at Penn State. As Den Shewman says, “This is a hot topic that gets adults screaming like cranky toddlers. I take the unpopular opinion that someone who is not a great writer can recognize and teach great writing.” Adds Bob Gale (Back To The Future): “I love to use baseball analogies. Tony La Russa who just retired as the manager of the Cardinals has one of the greatest managerial records in baseball. He was also a lousy baseball player, and he’d be the first to admit it. But he had an appreciation and knowledge of how the game was played, and he saw it in a way other players didn’t.”
In the early 1970s, Gale took Irwin Blacker’s USC screenwriting class. (So did John Milius of Apocalypse Now fame.) Gale believes he benefited greatly from Blacker’s teachings. Blacker didn’t have the most prestigious credits in the world. He wrote a feature called Brushfire, he also has five TV credits listed on IMDB from the 1950s and 1960s, and he was also reportedly a story editor on Bonanza. “But he truly understood the rules of drama and he was able to communicate that,” Gale emphasizes and adds that if a screenwriting teacher hasn’t gotten a script produced “that’s not a reason to not take the class. I understand that there’s a class where you’re supposed to write an entire script in 4 to 6 weeks. That in itself is really valuable. Spending money to force yourself to do is like hiring a personal trainer who shows up at your house and makes you do the exercises that you don’t have enough discipline to do on your own.”
True, the industry built around screenwriting was hit hard during the recession. The Creative Screenwriting Expo went under along with Creative Screenwriting magazine last year. But Writer’s Digest put together an expo last fall. The Great American Pitch Fest is still doing strong business. And McKee grumpily marches on.