How To's | Screenwriting

Screenwriting Q&A

1 Aug , 1998  

Written by Michele Meek | Posted by:

Professional Script Consultant Susan Kouguell offers some tips on how to make a great screenplay and how to get it sold.

NEF: What are the five (or more) most commonly made mistakes by beginning screenwriters?

  • Do not submit your script before it’s ready. You have one shot, this is your calling card – your script must be perfect. If you’re "sick of it," put it in a drawer for a few weeks and then look at it again with a fresh eye.
  • Do not submit a script before submitting a query letter to a potential production company. And, be sure your query letter is an attention-grabber! Never send a screenplay without it being requested. When you do, make sure that it’s copyrighted and registered with the Writers Guild of America.
  • Do not submit a script with typos, incorrect format or over the standard 120 page length. This is an immediate turn-off to production companies. It shows that you’re an amateur.
  • Know what your story is about. A common mistake is for a writer not trusting their story and the result is ‘throwing in the kitchen sink.’ Know your characters. Are they viable? Is your story unique? If you can "pitch" your project in a few succinct sentences, you are on your way.
  • Know the topic you are writing about. If you are writing a project concerning medicine, for example, do your research. Talk to the experts. Your research must be correct, current and plausible. Story analysts are smart, they will know immediately if the writer knows their material.
  • And I have one last pointer to add: Always get a contract! A handshake is only a handshake. If a producer, production company and/or talent loves your work but doesn’t want to ‘ruin the friendship’ with legalities, think again. A contract will keep the friendship intact and protect your best interests.

NEF: How can someone get a script sold? What are the steps to take to make this happen?

Target the production companies, studios and talent that are appropriate for your script. Send a strong query letter. Make ‘friends’ with the receptionists where you are calling. Find out what type of projects they’re looking for. Also, for those screenwriters who have an interest in directing, making a short film is sometimes a useful ‘calling card.’ And finally: Network. Network. Network.

NEF: How open would you say Hollywood studios are to screenwriters without agents or previous scripts made?

Not very. It’s very unlikely that Hollywood studios will read a script without it being submitted by an agent. They are besieged by scripts on an hourly basis and agents are a way to ‘funnel’ work to the studios. There are entertainment attorneys with connections to the film industry who do submit scripts on behalf of their clients and this may be an option for those not having representation. If the writer hasn’t had a script produced, the odds are going to be even tougher for a writer without an agent to get their script to a Hollywood studio.

NEF: At what point should someone copyright a script? How can a screenwriter protect him/her self against theft?

Before submitting and/or showing anyone your script, copyright and register your script with the Writers Guild of America. If you are east of the Mississippi, you register it with the WGA East and if you are west of the Mississippi you register it with the WGA West. [Editor’s note: You probably should also register it with the US Copyright Office]. Registering your script is your best protection.

NEF: What makes a good script?

Passion. A unique story. Original characters. Strong structure. Knowing your material intimately.

NEF: What can a beginning writer expect to make by selling a script?

It really depends on the market, the type of picture it is, and who’s buying it: a Hollywood Studio or an Independent Production Company. Generally, first time writers are offered Writers Guild minimum for a project which can be anywhere between $30,000 and up.

And how likely is it?

Honestly, it’s like winning the lottery. Someone has to win – and in this case, some writers do sell their script!

NEF: If a script is optioned, then never made into a movie, are there steps someone can take to get the rights back?

An option agreement is usually for a two-year period. A writer can have their lawyer state in the contract that after the option runs out, the rights revert back to the author. If that’s not stated in the contract, the film can go into ‘turn around’ and/or end up in ‘development hell.’ My best advice is to find a good lawyer who will protect you from this happening.

NEF: Do you have a sense of what topics/concepts might be of interest to studios in a script? In other words, what are they looking for?

The tide is always turning and it’s hard to second guess what’s going to be ‘hot’ next year. What’s ‘in’ this year may be ‘out’ next year.

The first thing to do is: "Do your homework". 1) There are numerous resources like the Hollywood Creative Directory that lists production companies and the projects they have produced. Call them, find out what they’re looking for. 2) Read the trades. You’ll see the current trends of films being produced. 3) Go to the video store. Research the "New Release" section.

NEF: Who are some of your favorite screenwriters and what films have they written?

Jane Campion: "Sweetie" "The Piano" (As director: "Angel at my Table")

Preston Sturges: "It Happened One night"; "The Palm Beach Story" – great dialogue, strong structures.

NEF: What exactly would a consultant do to help the development of a script?

A good consultant is one who has an objective eye and extensive experience in the film industry. The consultant should have knowledge of both the Independent film world and the Hollywood studio system. The goal is to have the script ready for submission and in turn, the consultant should be able to advise the writer whether it’s appropriate to take the Independent or Hollywood route.

Rewriting is very difficult and can be very daunting. Creating a ‘safe’ and non-threatening environment is crucial when working with a writer. Giving hands-on tools and suggestions to finding solutions on problematic issues is imperative. Problematic issues and areas which consultants should focus on are: Are the characters working? Is the dialogue individual to each character? Are there dialogue irregularities? Does each scene push the story forward? Is the structure strong? Are scenes building to a climax? Is the story plausible? Is the genre consistent? Is the time frame clear? If there are action scenes, are they realistic and fall within a reasonable budget? Is the subplot overwhelming the main plot? Are there ‘pay-offs’ to the ‘set-ups’?