Platforming Strategies for Screenwriters: 21 strategies for breaking in and advancing your screenwriting career
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 another approach.
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 front gate where the players can see you. Your first sale may not be a blockbuster, but it could lead to one later in your career—maybe sooner than later. 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 and a bona fide player.
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. Another angle is to write the graphic novel version of your script. Screenwriter Joseph Calabrese did that with The Eyes of Mara.
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 in a screenplay. You will also make connections. Michael Arndt, screenwriter of Little Miss Sunshine, started out as a story analysis, as did Sherry Lansing, former Paramount CEO.
Apply for this position with agents and producers. A college education is a plus, especially if you majored in literature or something similar. Submit a resume plus coverage of a script for a produced movie, one that they will be familiar with. Offer to write free coverage for a script that they are currently considering. It’s not particularly important where you live, but don’t ignore local opportunities. 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 a chance to write for a TV show. Duppy Demetrius from Pittsburgh started this way. He’s now an executive story editor for The Closer. 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, such as Apple One. Studio temp pools keep resumes on hand.
Apply for these jobs like you would for any other job. Send resumes to studio or production company HR departments, show runners, networks, and so on. Get your hands on the UTA Job Board, a job list circulated among agency assistants.
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 and directing will improve your skills as a writer, plus the film might get recognized and find you valuable contacts. If you act in it, you will—at last—fully understand subtext.
Hollywood types often view short films and peruse Youtube and similar sites. Filmaka is an organization that you might find helpful in terms of networking and getting your short film noticed. Several of my clients and students have made short films and won awards. They are in the game. One example of a successful short film is The Pizza King, which has won four festival awards. Jared Hess wrote and directed the short film Peluca, which was shown at the Slamdance Film Festival. He then adapted it into the feature screenplay, Napoleon Dynamite.
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 (Max Adams) tells the story of when she was just trying to break in. She met “an assistant to an assistant of an industry pariah.” 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, professional organizations (including online organizations) to help you meet people and continue your education. Create a profile at Storylink.com.
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. Cruise StoryLink. Some established and beginning writers have even created a web site as a pitching tool and/or to post credits. Here are just two: Joe Lenders and C. Daniel Yost. Perhaps, when you meet someone or deliver a short pitch, you could give that person your URL and a password to your secret projects. That person could read or view your pitch, read your synopsis or treatment, and even read your script.
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. Consider reviewing the Moviebytes contest ratings. Some contests provide notes, and some writers have made valuable connections with people associated with the contest they entered.
9. Become a hyphenate. Billy Wilder was once asked why he became a director. His answer: “To protect the script.” If you decide to produce and/or direct the movie yourself, that makes you a writer-producer-director. However, before attempting a feature production, do #4 above and get a feel for the head-banging experience putting together a film is. You’ve heard of Murphy’s Law—if anything can go wrong, it will? Well, Murphy was a filmmaker, so you want to be prepared. There are books and short courses available, some only a weekend long. Oh, 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, or you can simply mention your package elements in a query letter or pitch.
My co-writer for Hemingway’s Twin worked as a kid for the Hemingways at their house at Walloon Lake. Based on that relationship, we secured family cooperation on the script. I also secured a letter of interest from Mariel Hemingway to play the main role and, with the help of others, Alfonso Arau (Like Water for Chocolate) to direct. On that basis, I made a deal with a producer who had a deal with 20th Century Fox, but some legal issues got in the way of a production and everything fell apart. The bottom line: I was paid, I met people, and I still own the script in case someone is interested.
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. I worked as a script doctor with the producer of a $40 million animated film. They have raised $20 million already from businesses and organizations interested in the content of the film. To get you started, the following blog chronicles corporate and other sources for indie film financing: financingfilms.blogspot.com.
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? I started out as a copywriter of marketing collateral, advertising, and scripts for business videos before moving on to more “creative” areas. 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. Perhaps one place to start your search is Michigan State University’s compiled list at lib.msu.edu/harris23/grants/3film.htm.
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. Don’t you love Jack Nicholson as the masochistic dental patient in Roger Corman’s Little Shop of Horrors? The best part of working in the indies is you don’t need an agent, and it can be a lot of fun. Be aware that the smaller indie producers may want to pay you next to nothing for writing the script. Negotiate a written and signed deal with an independent producer.
I was paid a small sum to develop a screenplay for indie producer Tanya York. I was given a long list of parameters. For example, I was allowed one outside location, one burn (where a guy is lighted on fire), one car crash of two inexpensive cars, and so on. I took it on as a creative challenge. Remember, one experience can lead to another. The idea is to get some momentum to your career.
15. Go to Televisionland. 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).
Have you considered a documentary? Erik Stahl wrote two documentaries, which led to his producing and hosting a TV show in Colorado. Another client, S.A. James, wrote a feature screenplay for the big screen and that sample eventually led to an adaptation of a Danielle Steele novel for a TV movie.
16. Find a true story. Secure the rights to a little-known but compelling true story, write the script, and approach producers that specialize in true stories. National true stores are already locked up before you’ve even thought of them as a possibility. However, sometimes you can find unknown stories about major events. Oklahoma City—A Survivor’s Story is a TV movie about a woman saved by a fireman. A few movies have been made of unknown stories stemming from 9/11. Perhaps you are aware of an undiscovered novel that would be perfect for an adaption; secure the rights first and plunge ahead. You begin that process by contacting the subsidiary rights department of the book’s publisher.
17. Dig in your own back yard. Acres of Diamonds is the story of a man who searched the world for diamonds without success and finally returned home to realize that there were acres of them on his own farm. So what’s available in your own back yard? Look at regional markets and specialty markets (such as the Christian market, for example). Contact your state film commissioner (and nearby state film commissioners) about local production companies. My screenplay The 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. Some writers have sold their scripts through Internet marketing services as Inktip, Triggerstreet, Script P.I.M.P., and PitchPerfect. I tend to favor a focused approach rather than a shotgun approach. Nevertheless, you may find these services to be worthwhile.
20. Sell direct. Consider Direct-to-DVD producers. This is still a very large market. I received a “thank you” letter from a prior student, Daniel Springen, who wrote, “I...have six films available for rent at every Blockbuster in the country.” 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 (actually, webisodes) are approximately three minutes in length, although Prom Queen features eighty 90-second webisodes. In doing research, my wife and I checked out Afterworld and found ourselves getting more and more involved in the series.
You promote your series on YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, and similar sites and/or secure funding through some other means, including via corporations and organizations (see #11). 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. Some productions have had up to 8 million views per webisode. Just recently DFDTV launched a web-based entertainment network, dfdtv.com.
Do you carry an iPod? Consider writing for that arena. A mobisode is an episode of a TV show written specifically for mobile phones, iPods, and similar devices. The production company Fun Little Movies produces “fun little movies” for your cell phone. Check them out.
The position of screenwriter or TV writer is a profession, like a doctor or a lawyer. Usually, it takes years of education to prepare for a profession; consider these 21 platforming strategies as part of your professional education.
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 and become a player in the game.
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.