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Memo to Screenwriters: Stop Acting Like It's 1999 -- DIY and Click 'Follow'

Features
by Nancy Nigrosh
June 14, 2013 1:00 PM
39 Comments
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William Goldman got it wrong. The screenwriter’s gospel according to Goldman, “nobody knows anything,” may have been true once upon a time in an analog age, but in an era when screens are pages and stories are being delivered at an accelerated pace, entertainment is instant and constant. If anything, at this point, everybody knows a lot.

With sea change comes opportunity. What if the future of storytellers has never been brighter? The hunger for original material is spread wide across a global digital ecosystem. The opportunity for writers to reach readers has never been easier. Anyone with a smart phone can read your work.

Back in “the day” of his iconic book, "Adventures in The Screen Trade," William Goldman pierced the veil of Hollywood realpolitik by exposing its Achilles heel of arrogant, out-of-touch arbitrary thinking. Traditionally realpolitik informed one giant stakeholder’s self interest by pitting it against another’s. The Hollywood David and Goliath version is played out like clockwork every three years between screenwriters versus their employers, or, “the companies”, as they are termed by the WGA collective bargaining label that lumps together media conglomerates and the individual producers who work for them. Thirty-five years of WGA strikes and strike threats that carried out the same negative result, have financially devastated the modern studio system as well as the bank account of an average WGA member. In this scenario, nobody has won. In that sense, Goldman got it right.

But some storytellers have successfully jettisoned the traditional distribution platform altogether. Consider indie book authors' increasing reach to connect to an audience, versus decreasing ones for screenwriters. Indie/e-publishing authors know their readers directly through Amazon’s retail label, generate their own appearances at events, manage blogs or tweet, creating an impact equivalent to George Eastman’s portable ‘brownie' on the studio bound 19th century cameras powered by a gunpowder flash. 

This revolution, however, hasn’t translated at all to screenwriting. Since the 2007 WGA strike, no matter how many spec scripts they write, screenwriters are more dependent than ever on managers, agents and producers. Never has it been more important for screenwriters to become well versed about their dwindling options in the playing field of Hollywood-generated entertainment. ‘Well versed’ doesn’t refer to writing but to taking active responsibility to accrue strong, genre-driven portfolios, brush aside urban media legends, and visualize Hollywood as a competitive contact sport, with explicit levels, points, and goals. Screenwriters must be engaged players in all effective social media with the same self-taught ferocity expressed by the best self sellers.

DIY doesn’t mean to literally go it alone as these brave scribes have done. Rather it’s about letting go of the idea your reps can do all the heavy lifting to establish your worth. Get yourself directly into the hunger game competition by owning genre expertise, constantly improving your work through a beta reader network of trusted peers. Get yourself an older generation mentor (and, if need be, hire a good editor), and maintain meaningful and consistent territorial visibility. Is the script really ready? Is it really the best you can make it? 

This is what indie authors ask about their work, and an impressive number of them are finding themselves very successful. Hire a good editor? Since when does a screenwriter need to do that? Aren’t an agent and manager enough? If a script isn’t a slam dunk rocket to the market buyers’ galaxy, then yes, you do. If your work isn’t able to stand up to rigorous critique, you’re in the wrong business. ‘Stand up’ doesn’t mean you suck up devaluation, but know how to profit from feedback because you’re aware you’re solely responsible for serving the needs of your work, not the other way around.

Are you informed enough about the entertainment business to understand what daunting obstacles you might face? Does your work break the rules in the right way? Are you aware of everything that’s happening in global media? Place yourself in it not as a projection of a ‘dream’ career to be an artist but as an active, knowledgeable, valuable participant. This isn’t about hard sell, self promotion or an annoying blog. Not about Facebook. Or online marketing. It’s about uniqueness of message. Leadership. Standing for something. Finding a community who can appreciate you.

Nancy Nigrosh is a current e-book developer and consulting editor to authors and screenwriters with a 25 year track record as a motion picture literary agent (clients have included Academy Award winner Kathryn Bigelow ("The Hurt Locker"), Stuart Beattie ("Collateral," "Pirates Of The Caribbean"), Amanda Brown ("Legally Blonde"), and many others.

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39 Comments

  • Damien | June 29, 2013 11:42 PMReply

    Well said, and from a trusted, wise and experienced voice.

  • Karen Chilton | June 25, 2013 1:20 PMReply

    Terrific! Well said. Points taken.

  • Risa Bramon Garcia | June 22, 2013 7:39 PMReply

    Agree entirely for all of us! Well said.

  • Charles Freericks | June 21, 2013 12:39 PMReply

    Wonderful article, Nancy... extremely insightful and right on the edge of what it is like for writers today. There are no more guardrails, elevators, or yellow-brick roads. It's all about finding your own way today - but the truth of the matter is that opens up the path for so many more.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 22, 2013 9:06 PM

    Charles,
    Love those cinematic images of 'guardrails, elevators and yellow-brick roads".

  • Jana Sue Memel | June 18, 2013 6:59 PMReply

    Nancy, Tells it like it is. Gone are the days when writers, can sit back and wait for their phone to ring with assignments, if you want a career you have to be an active participant in creating it. If you are thinking that is why I am paying 10% to and agent and 15% to a manager, so I can do what I do best, write. True, however if no one knows you are out there writing, if there isn't a consistent buzz around your work, as there is around your youthful competitors, you will be writing to an audience of one. So take Nancy's advice its spot on.

  • Steve Adams | June 18, 2013 8:58 AMReply

    Smart, well done article for a brave new world.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 18, 2013 1:49 PM

    Steve,
    I've always believed screenwriters all wear ruby slippers, but stay stuck in the idea they need the wizard's perceived power to get home safe.

  • Jim Uhls | June 17, 2013 2:01 PMReply

    Nancy,
    This is an insightful overview of the current state of storytelling opportunities for screenwriters. I agree with everyone -- including you -- that William Goldman was referring to the fact that know one knows what "will work" in the sense of succeeding with an audience. When he defined "will work," he meant "be a hit film." Your point is that everyone is starting to know a lot more venues in which to explore stories -- and self-promote. Yes, as some have pointed out, the maverick writer-directors have always been branding themselves (Tarantino, Smith, etc.). I think your point is that this option is more open for the writers-only, by different means. One of the most interesting routes for screenwriters now is to write their stories in other media, sell the underlying rights for film with a contract that binds them to the film project. It's great gig if you can pull it off.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 17, 2013 4:04 PM

    Jim,
    Amen!

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 16, 2013 3:12 PMReply

    Jorge,
    Jorge,
    I'm not at all devaluing Goldman's admonishment to go beyond the creative boundaries of conventional wisdom and break the rules in a whole new way. "Nobody knows anything" is so true when it comes to changing the game like MAD MEN and BREAKING BAD. But I am also saying that in today's evolving entertainment marketplace, we do know quite a bit about the mechanics of game changing. And I am pointing out that screenwriters can learn something from the lead in game change that s happening in book publishing. Authors are no longer behind the scenes and no longer no longer solely rely on big house editors to connect to their audience and succeed. The translation to the 'screen trade" that Goldman talked about is that screenwriters today - as opposed to Goldman's day - can and must advance their own trade. The ways screenwriters can do that are more and more obvious such as in the many ways you so ably describe.

  • Jorge Saralegui | June 16, 2013 3:57 PM

    Nancy,

    I'm on board with everything you wrote in your comment. You covered so much ground in your essay that at times your points may have left themselves open to misinterpretation. But there is a tremendous amount there, and obviously a tremendous amount that you could have added, with more space. I was trying to both extend your points and to answer some of the more critical replies. I probably over-extended myself as well!

  • Jorge Saralegui | June 16, 2013 1:45 PMReply

    My sense is that this very stimulating essay is largely aimed at what we still call "Hollywood-generated entertainment," which, as Nancy points out, now includes multiple global variations. I can see how some responded as if it's another how-to for the DIY phenomenon. What e-publishing has done is provide a venue for more writers to get their work out there. To succeed there, self-promotion is essential - but Nancy says her piece "isn’t about hard sell, self promotion or an annoying blog. Not about Facebook. Or online marketing."

    The analogy to e-publishing applies best to awareness of expanded opportunities, which includes the extremely rare writer comfortable with a variety of hats (directing and producing as well as writing) or in a variety of mediums - not just features and tv, but the various sprouting shoots on the Internet. It's true that, for the moment at least, all bets are off in the online arena. But that fluid, stretch-the-rules writer creating webisodes is probably not the writer trying to succeed developing "Hollywood-generated entertainment."

    For that writer - the one who wants to do the same-old successful thing, or something new like MAD MEN or BLAIR WITCH or DISTRICT 9 or BREAKING BAD - Goldman's quote holds up as well as it ever did. To me, it means that no one knows why something works, or doesn't, in the marketplace. That is about as true today as it was then (although Jason Blum may want to argue the point). Nobody knew even remotely that any of those projects were going to succeed, or they would have had an easier time getting made.

    What's different today, as Nancy points out in what I think is the core of her essay, is that the traditional marketplace is more constricted than ever. Given the unprecedented obstacles a writer faces in Hollywood today, a writer's work naturally needs to be as strong as it can be. Gladwell's 10,000-hour Investment Theory of Excellence has always been true. Likewise, it has always been a good idea to have others critique your work. This may not be as evident when looking at summer-blockbuster writing, which has changed only in obvious ways over the last 10 and 20 years. But quality is more important than ever - literally - in the arena we call "cable." Informed feedback is never more important than when attempting something original, because that is when you are most likely to go brilliantly off the rails.

    The big change for the writer is the increasing need for a thorough, ongoing awareness of the global media marketplace. Why? Because a writer needs to know what the buyer wants… and the buyer in Europe or Asia is often looking for your work, but different. This is something your agent and manager can't be expected to be on top of, any more than they are about opportunities online. Like the online world, it is incredibly varied, and always changing. And like the online world, it is symbiotic enough with Hollywood that a trend in Korea quickly finds its way back here. In this sense, it behooves the writer to know the markets, because they are all open to her or him - and there are more of them than ever in the history of mass entertainment.

  • Harvey | June 16, 2013 1:00 AMReply

    Bull's eye, Nancy!
    My partner/client created an online viral hit series which was the first Disney bought and knew not what to do.
    Fine. We reserved all rights, and we are still at it, building the property ...
    It is a new era.
    Thanks for shaking it up.

  • ben | June 15, 2013 9:07 PMReply

    as a barely established screenwriter I look to my agent and manager to do their job and I bust my ass day and night to do mine as well as I possibly can. I can only suppose that an article like this is meant to be speaking to someone like me (unproduced as of yet, always one step away...) but reading this article made me want to curl up on the bed and hyperventilate. All I'm getting from this is "try harder you lazy dumbass" and those are words I can say to myself all day long, without any help from some "consulting editor"

  • Graham Kaye | June 15, 2013 6:38 PMReply

    Nancy:

    I've had the great pleasure of working along side of you and I am still in awe of the fact that you rose to the head of your agency's literary department at a time when that type of news was still shocking to most. I have seen a few other columnists attempt to discuss this topic and it always seems to come off as a lecture, you have made it informative and approachable. I wanted to thank you for several of the topics you discussed because of their relevance and how writers need to know there is an abundance of opportunity for them today. If you are determined to be a feature writer or a showrunner there are many ways to build towards achieving that goal other than mass producing spec scripts. Like Nancy mentioned, writers have so many more ways to work on and build their careers than ever before. They are discovered through blogs, comic books, short stories, and even through little antidotes they wrote in a journal. Where once feature writers and directors thought their career was over if their agent ever discussed working in television. They are now flocking to it, not only because it's lucrative, it moves quickly, but you also have the chance to work with a larger tribe of creative people which only increases the flow of ideas and energy. Viewers have now made the claim that television writing as a whole is better than the writing in most of today's films. However, I don't believe that is a fair comparison, because in television you may get the chance to refine and develop your characters season after season. You can use the beginning of hits like "Friends" and "Will and Grace" as a perfect example. those shows are the ultimate example of great writer's working with great actors to create the character that an actor can live in comfortably. I know in features I have been at premieres where I've sat beside many writers that cringe at a scene they have written, that if they were given another 3 episodes would have made that scene work perfectly. When we discuss your career let me tell you what won't work for you. Calling your agent or manager once or twice a day and asking them "what's going on" tells me you will probably be asking that same question 6 months from that time. There's not much of a difference between being a great writer or a working writer than being a great athlete. You always have to be working at improving, at conditioning, at competing at working your creative muscle. So imagine not training and losing and blaming your coach. Be heard, get your work out there, enter competitions, join writers groups, read about how successful people in Hollywood started their careers. A few years ago during the 2nd worst economy we have ever had. I was running a production company at Paramount Pictures where we had a deal. Our projects at the studio were not a priority because our company didn't create or pursue the type of movies that they wanted. We had some great material and a couple of very good books. So nobody told me to do this, and it wasn't my specialty. But I was tired of sitting around is this constant retrogressive groove. So I pursued some relationships and was able to raise over $1 million dollars in development funds so that we could work on projects internally and hire writers and directors. I share this experience because like Nancy, we both have had our share of rejections and very difficult moments in our careers. Nancy would probably tell you the one constant you will probably hear at the beginning of your career is the word no. Everyone you idolize, the person that you want to emulate, our parents, our friends, and even presidents have felt rejection and heard this word a lot. It's how you handle that rejection that creates a writer. I try to remember that every great journey starts off on the wrong foot and success sometimes comes quickly or is put together from a million little pieces but the responsibility of making a successful career begins and ends with you.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 16, 2013 3:42 PM

    Graham,
    The analogy to the consistent re-affirmation an athlete must make to stay competitive, really rings true because the entertainment business is an Olympic level, global game. Strategically looking beyond the status quo in order to succeed, seems only logical. As you point out, being dismissive - the way screenwriters in the past viewed once television for example, should give a clue to screenwriters today, about being open for new venues and avenues to go for the gold.

  • jean vigo | June 15, 2013 5:02 PMReply

    Sorry, but no one knows anything still holds court because no one knows out where any of this going and/or whether monetizing trandmedia content and new platforms will be profitable. In 5 years storytellers could find themselves broke because youtube viewers, even if they work on a subscription model, will pay enough to justify financing of the "new media maker's" work.

    You want to create a "big world" in your story? Like a "Game Of Thrones" world? Or even a slickly made zombie genre world? It still costs money. And, unless web and PDA device users are willing to accept poor production value, the industry still has to figure out what these future budget models will be. What will actors demand? What about VFX? What about locations and travel? All the same line items are STILL there.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 15, 2013 6:08 PM

    Jean, what isn't a matter of debate about what everybody does or doesn't know is that screenwriters need to commit as fully as indie athors do, to promoting themselves as valuable storytellers. My point has nothing to do with the kind of budget any given script demands or what distribution format a production of that script is presented in.

  • kevin stein | June 15, 2013 11:12 AMReply

    Relevant piece. I've noticed at recent YouTube and 2nd screen panels and confabs that these YouTube stars tend to be unseasoned in the basics of the kind of linear storytelling basics that have driven compelling content since radio. While "views" may be a good start, it's also been interesting to observe that most of these Internet "storytellers" are targeting traditional media distribution as the eventual outlet for their content. Now that the inmates are running the digital asylum, many pundits and companies are betting that the web will produce talent for other mediums. The entertainment business is hard to predict--despite Google's recent announcement that search results can predict weekend box office. Still, the average YT video is 2:46 long, so short-form is definitely king in terms of the web viewer. How much narrative can fit in such a format and does it drive sequential viewing like traditional long form? A generational shift has certainly taken place with multiple screens and hopefully will yield new storytellers. But to your point, they should have a foundation in what has made stories relevant on an ongoing basis since the fireside, rather than engage in the latest novelty. We're beyond cat videos now and the opportunities in a multi-channel distribution universe offer the amateur new ways of stepping up to the plate and potentially reaching a huge audience. A major studio just invested $30 million in Maker Studios and perhaps it will pay off. But predicting the future in Hollywood may better left to Las Vegas bookies.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 18, 2013 4:20 PM

    Kevin,
    Let's try to imagine a present and a future that includes screenwriters who expand their efforts in all evolving venues. Writers who masterfully raise a virtuoso quality bar and who embrace willingness to directly address audiences in whatever format their writing may be, have more than a fighting chance to meaningfully participate in the nexus where audience and stories meet.

  • Marc Pariser | June 14, 2013 10:23 PMReply

    Nancy,

    I agree with your basic premises. Here's how I put it in an email to a group of agents and managers recently:

    "A key ingredient of selling scripts is how it's done. The tradition is 'write spec, submit spec, wait for (hopefully positive) response...rinse, repeat'. Limiting oneself to this age-old method alone is to condemn oneself to the vicissitudes of the business.

    The new technologies afford writers new ways to market their ideas and scripts. Everyone needs to devote more attention to innovative ways to market material."

    Marc

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 15, 2013 6:15 PM

    Thanks Marc. This is all about screenwriters seeking, finding and connecting with communities of readers - professional or otherwise. The 'rinse, repeat' cycle no longer gets the job done.

  • tyler4all | June 14, 2013 8:47 PMReply

    Stop selling your scripts and just direct and produce your own stuff. Let's be real, if screenwriters really cared about the art of writing, pure writing, they'd write novels. You wanna see a movie done? do it yourself. Joss Whedon said it "if you write it, shoot it" or something along those lines. Screenplays are not finished works of art, they're the starting point for a film.

  • rrose | June 14, 2013 5:06 PMReply

    if i was a screenwriter (which i'm not) i would want nancy as my mentor.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 15, 2013 6:16 PM

    :)

  • LK | June 14, 2013 4:16 PMReply

    Welp, this is a very well written article that essentially says nothing at all.

  • tyler4all | June 14, 2013 8:44 PM

    I concur!

  • Larry Jackson | June 14, 2013 3:51 PMReply

    It's about time someone made these points, Nancy, and you made them insightfully and forcefully. Well said!

    With unprecedented access to niche targets, I think it's imperative that, without pandering to an audience, writers who have ideas to communicate decide how to express those stories and ideas in ways that an audience can be prepared to hear - or the communication won't take place. If you don't have a clear thought of how they can be reached and why they would want to hear that idea - not why they SHOULD want to, as if it's medicine that'll be good for them, but why WILL want to - months or years ahead when the film is finally available to see, it's a dead end. How many of the thousands of scripts I've read seem to have been written by someone who lived in a state of suspended animation, or worse, worked in a vacuum?!

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 16, 2013 3:58 PM

    Larry,
    Working in a vacuum has always been a problem for screenwriters. Much of the tension between literary agents and their writer clients and between producers and screenwriters can be traced back to the vacuum apparatus. Screenwriters still resist changing this when they could be following the footsteps of indie authors whose vigilance to embrace all the changes happening in storytelling tech, is turning the publishing industry on it's head- in favor of the authors.

  • Matt | June 14, 2013 3:48 PMReply

    Having "published" two books on screenwriting on Amazon.com ("Basic Basics of Screenwriting" and "Born on Wings - a Screenplay") for .99 a piece - I can tell you the response I've gotten from publishing them has been completely and totally underwhelming. After being published for nearly two years I've earned a whopping $10. And though I put my e-mail address in the books, no one has bothered to contact me, ask me questions, criticize my books, lavish praise, etc. As a screenwriter, struggling or not, you have to find ways to market yourself and get your scripts into the hands of those who can take them to the next level.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 15, 2013 6:30 PM

    Matt,
    Did you also spend as much effort promoting your books as you did writing them? If you believe in what you're writing, then keep on writing- but I also suggest you search the entertainment media ecosystem to directly connect with potential readers, inviting engagement to get the attention you are expecting or at least a debate going about your message.

  • Neal Tabachnick | June 14, 2013 3:40 PMReply

    The cheese is moving.

    Kudos to the publishing business for not making the same mistakes as the music business (ie, satisfying demand for digital content; a no-brainer at this point). Point is, the sooner you recognize that the cheese got in the car, the better your chance to catch the cheese.

    Thanks to Nancy for shining that light.

  • Chris | June 14, 2013 3:17 PMReply

    I think the article makes good points. While a DIY author has direct access to his or her readership and a screenwriter has the extra step of getting a script financed before his or or her audience sees it, the days of writing the script and then letting the reps handle it are over. I do think writers need to be more active and knowledgeable, not just about their craft but about media, changes in technology, audiences' tastes, etc. This, to me, is the columnist's main point - and it's a good one.

  • Soren Petrek | June 14, 2013 3:07 PMReply

    Nancy Nigrosh is right on track. The media landscape has changed so dramatically that artists must take advantage of every networking and promotional opportunity available to them and remain aware as changes accelerate in the global marketplace.

  • DJay | June 14, 2013 2:34 PMReply

    Until screenplays become the end-products themselves -- i.e., authored for a fan base who read it for pleasure vs. outlined as a functionary document for filmmakers to comb, then produce -- this article completely misappropriates the DIY phrase to make generic, stale self-help pointers that could be applied to worker bees of any industry.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 15, 2013 6:23 PM

    Jean,
    Why isn't being a screenwriter good enough? What's wrong with being hired to rewrite women or compose new dialogue? Are you saying that being a "filmmaker" is superior to being a screenwriter?

  • jean vigo | June 15, 2013 3:30 AM

    Spot on. Why even compare to indie book authors? They can find delivery systems to build an audience of thousands of buyers. A screenplay is sold only once. Almost every screenwriter knows the obvious - adaptability. This sort of thing has been ALREADY going on, particularly in the area of "rewrites." Send it to that dialogue specialist! Get that writer who writes women well to fix it! Fix it by hiring that writer who can make the violence even bloodier!

    The idea should be to emphasize "filmmaker" as in writer/director. DIY. Shane Carruth and "Upstream Color" is a perfect example of this. Kevin Smith has been doing it since the 90s and has succeeded immensely. Oh, and a guy named Tarantino has been making the same movie well for 20+ years. It's called "BRANDING." Duh.

  • Nancy Nigrosh | June 15, 2013 12:51 AM

    Though it's true scripts are meant to adapt to many environmental edits, that is not my focus here. For an agent a script was -and still is- always an "end product" - in that a given script represents a writer's professional skills, that the writer (and that writer's reps) can promote.

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