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Breaking In - Through Hollywood's Back Door

By David Trottier

When you write your first screenplay, the path to glory seems clear: find an agent who will get you a six-figure deal. A hundred and fifty query letters later, you're languishing at Hollywood's front gate. You've received a lot of encouragement, but, as Pauline Kael put it, "Hollywood's the only town where you can die of encouragement." Maybe it's time to try the back door.

In the film marketing business, if you lack resources but have a winner, you platform that winner by showing it to one or two markets at a time and letting it accumulate positive reviews. In other words, you build momentum. Chariots of Fire and American Beauty were both distributed in this manner.

If you've written a winner, maybe it's time to platform yourself right over Hollywood's back door and into the player's arena where you can make things happen. Your first sale may not be a blockbuster, but it could lead to one later in your career. The idea is to gather strength with each positive step you take and get in the game rather than pace on the sidelines.

Here are 21 platforming strategies that you can use to give your career momentum and direction. Success in any of these can lead to more successes until you are recognized as the next great screenwriter.

1. Write the book For the last several years, there has been a greater movement towards writing the novel version of your script, and selling rights to both the novel and screenplay at the same time. The large agencies (CAA, ICM, William Morris) and some small agencies (Paul S. Levine, Charlotte Gusay, among others) handle book-to-screenplay deals.

2. Become a reader. Almost any writer can find a job as a story analyst; that is, as a reader. It pays almost nothing, but the experience teaches you what works and especially what doesn't work in a screenplay. You will also make connections. One of my Texan students reads for local productions companies and festivals. That experience and the contacts made led to a deal to write a screenplay. The script is being produced and she is getting a writing credit.

3. Get a job. -as an assistant. If you become an assistant to a TV staff, for example, you may get that chance to write for a TV show. It is not unusual. The same is true for agent assistants, producer assistants, script coordinators, and even production assistants. You will meet people and learn about the business. Many writers and other film professionals begin this way. If you live in LA, you might try a temp agency.

4. Make a short film. Learn more about the business by making a short, inexpensive film that you can enter in a festival of some kind or even show on Youtube. The experience of producing, directing, and acting will improve your skills as a writer, plus the film might get recognized and find you valuable contacts. Hollywood types often view short films, and peruse Youtube and similar sites.

5. Network. Virtually all of the 21 strategies are aimed, at least in part, at meeting people and making contacts. Never underestimate the value of a contact. A former student and now working writer tells the story of when she was just trying to break in. She met a lowly assistant to an independent producer. This assistant went on to become a studio executive. Together, the ex-wannabe writer and ex-assistant put together a feature deal that the studio bought.

6. Learn, burn, and yearn. There are three things writers do: They continue to learn their craft. They burn the midnight oil writing. And they yearn so much for a writing career that they get out and connect with people. Consult your copy of The Screenwriter's Bible for useful writing, formatting, and selling direction. There are plenty of seminars, workshops, publications, conferences, expos, pitchfests, writers' groups and professional organizations (including online organizations) to help you meet people and continue your education. Create a profile at StoryLink.com and start networking online! And wherever you go, schmooze. Part of the schmoozing art is to remember that you have two ears and one mouth, and to use them in that proportion.

7. Expose yourself. Literary manager Mason Novick saw Diablo Cody's blog and contacted her about her work. Get yourself and your writing out there. Some established and beginning writers have created a website as a pitching tool and/or to post credits, such as Joe Lenders, Philip Daay and Spectrum Entertainment. Perhaps, when you meet someone or deliver a pitch, you could give that person your URL and a password to your secret projects.

8. Win contests. I recommend you look into two or three contests that seem right for your script and that have some kind of reputation behind them. Some contests provide notes, and some writers have made valuable connections with people associated with the contest they entered.

9. Become a hyphenate. Produce and/or direct the movie yourself; that makes you a writer-producer-director. However, before attempting this, do #5 above and get a feel for the head-banging experience putting together a film is. There are also short courses available, some only a weekend long. And don't use your own money to cover production costs.

10. Package it. You already have the script; now add talent (an actor or director) or other creative element, and--shazam!--you have a package. A client of mine added a known singer to his package, and now has access to her music. With a package, you can act as a producer and approach other producers about your project.

11. Ask Proctor & Gamble to help you. Approach corporations for funding. The makers of the independent film Film Camp received help from Pepsi-Cola and Ty, Inc. One client recently wrote a screenplay that indirectly highlights the sights of a particular city. She's contacting that state's tourism office and film commissioner for financing and production assistance and leads. To get you started, check out the Financing Films blog, which chronicles corporate and other sources for indie film financing.

12. Succeed in other writing areas. Diablo Cody, before she wrote Juno, wrote a critically acclaimed book entitled Candy Girl: A Year in the Life of an Unlikely Stripper. Prior to that, she wrote for a Minneapolis newspaper. Why not sell a short story to a magazine or write in some other area to get your career moving in a positive direction? For direction on how to succeed in 17 different writing areas, pick up a copy of The Freelance Writer's Bible.

13. Apply for a grant. There are many grants available for making documentaries and other films. You'll need to do your research to find these. Also, beware of scams. One place to start your search is Michigan State University's Grant List.

14. Declare your independence. There are about 27,000 independent feature productions every year. Many a writer, director, and actor have gotten their start with an independent film. And you don't need an agent.

15. Go to television land. Consider approaching television and cable movie producers. There are hundreds of cable channels and TV stations looking for content (movies, sitcoms, reality shows, and so on).

16. Find a true story. Get the rights to a little-known but compelling true story, write the script, and approach producers that specialize in true stories. Perhaps you are aware of an undiscovered novel that would be perfect for an adaption; secure the rights first and plunge ahead.

17. Dig in your own back yard. Acres of Diamonds is the story of a man who searched the world for diamonds and didn't realize there were acres of them on his own farm. Look at regional markets. Contact your state film commissioner (and nearby state film commissioners) about local production companies. My screenplay, Penny Promise, was produced by a Utah company. The film won "Best Feature Comedy" at two film festivals, plus I got paid.

18. Go foreign. The BBC set up The Writers Room to assist writers interested in writing for the BBC. There is a growing market for films written and produced in Spanish, if that is your first language. If you are a Canadian, realize that production companies get tax credits for producing their film in Canada and using Canadian talent, including writers. Your research question is this: who produces or is about to produce in Canada? There may be an opportunity there for you.

19. Get lost in cyberspace. Writers have sold their scripts through Internet marketing services. Try posting your pitch on Pitch Perfect at StoryLink.

20. Sell direct. Consider Direct-to-DVD producers. This is still a very large market. In years to come, Direct-to-DVD productions may give way to Internet productions. The newest version of Apple TV will allow you to download media and play it on your big screen TV. In view of that, let's look at the current Internet market next.

21. Become a writer or hyphenate for a New Media production. Atom Films was one of the first producers in this arena. Check out some of their fare at AtomFilms.com and notice that productions are paid for by ads. Online TV Series, such as Quarterlife are becoming popular. Episodes are approximately three-minutes in length. You promote your series on Youtube, Facebook, Myspace, and similar sites. The Guild has solicited donations from fans and has produced episodes from those donations. Internet productions such as these may be a place to start and get noticed.

There is one step you should take before you try any of the above 21 platforming strategies, and that is to write one or more original, feature-length screenplays. You will need them as proof you can write, and by applying some of the above strategies, you might even sell them.

Meet the Author: David Trottier

Dave Trottier has sold or optioned ten scripts and helped countless fellow screenwriters break into Hollywood through his work as an acclaimed script consultant and author of The Screenwriter's Bible, the Industry's de facto spec writing and formatting guide. He also writes a column for Script magazine and hosts keepwriting.com.