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Secret To Success: The W.I.S.E. Screenwriting Method
by Michael Ferris
When it comes to screenwriting, what's going on right now in the industry is just an exaggerated extension of what's always been true when it comes to trying to sell a script, become a Hollywood screenwriter, and actually make a career out of it.
I'm not telling you anything new when I say that the absolute best chance you have of selling a script is writing something that is A: well written, and B: commercial.
Whereas just a few years ago, a high concept and well executed script would have a chance at selling, right now breaking into the industry with a spec script means getting a good Rep and turning your brilliantly executed commercial script into a calling card to get meetings, pitches, and (hopefully) assignments. While sales do happen, the odds of selling your first (spec) script have gotten much worse.
Over the last several years, with the rise of corporate run movie studios, risk taking has gone from small to nil. As you have probably noticed, sequels, superhero movies, and tentpoles abound, and if it doesn't have source material to back it up, spec scripts have been getting less and less happy endings from the hands of the studios.
To compound matters, the writers strike resulted in a backlog of specs that were bought in anticipation of the strike, and while it might have rebounded slightly, the recession hit Hollywood development budgets just as hard as anywhere else.
On top of that nonsense working its dark magic against aspiring writers, you have what I like to call "the underclassmen" to contend with. Who are they? They are the hundreds of screenwriters who sold their first script, got a great agent, were ready to take the town by storm, and years later have nothing more to show for it (except a dream unfulfilled).
So now you're not only competing with these writers (who have a few connections) in the spec market, but you're obviously also contending with working screenwriters who write their passion projects on spec as well.
So what does all this doom and gloom mean to you, the average screenwriter, struggling to achieve their dream of being a respected and working writer in Hollywood? While all of that might have you thinking of deleting that copy of "Celtx" off your computer right now, there IS hope out there - and that's by using the W.I.S.E. Screenwriting Method.
You see, if you have the proper knowledge and take the right approach (a W.I.S.E approach, if you will), I wholeheartedly believe that you can break through the malaise and noise and become what you've dreamed of and worked hard to be.
So what is this mystical W.I.S.E. I keep harping about? While I'm going to go over each acronym over the next several weeks, here is a quick summary and breakdown of what this method is all about:
The acronym breaks down as follows:
W - Writing. This is not just about being a good WRITER, it's about being a great SCREENWRITER. This includes having the talent to write crisp action lines, snappy dialogue, and have rock solid structure to your stories. If any one of these elements is lacking, you have to work on it. The sad thing, to me anyway, is that I know a ton of really good writers who just can't seem to crack what it takes to write (in script format) what studios expect and want to read on a technical level. I'll get into this aspect further, as well as other aspects of writing that are paramount in the next column.
I - Ideas. It's not nearly enough to be an amazing screenwriter anymore. You have to be an amazing screenwriter AND be able to write high concept/commercial ideas. Even though you have a much higher percentage chance of selling your script because it's high concept, that's not actually the purpose of writing a high concept spec anymore.
It used to be that "writing samples" were screenplays that were low concept but brilliantly executed. Writers like Allan Loeb wrote dramas like THINGS WE LOST IN THE FIRE and ONLY LIVING BOY IN NEW YORK, and the Mulroneys wrote PAPER MAN - and those led to studio assignments that kick started their careers (it was only years later that they got those scripts made).
Those days are falling behind us, and the question on anyone's mind while reading a spec script from a writer they dont know is "can this guy/gal actually write high concept stuff?". If you dont answer that with a writing sample of commercial quality, than you have an even bigger uphill battle - despite possibly garnering interest with your brilliant but low concept script. I will go into this much further in the following weeks.
Now, while pretty much every screenwriting book in the world covers some aspect of the first two, Writing and Ideas, these last two are not only just as important, but it?s criminal that more books don?t cover them.
S - Sales. Sales? Sales. You might be thinking to yourself, ?WTF??. I say unto you, just listen.
So, this concept is very very broad, and it will take a number of posts to cover every aspect of this that you need to succeed. For now, let me just explain a few of those aspects and we?ll go from there.
So, first and foremost, the most easily recognizable part of having to ?sell? is yourself as a writer. When you meet somebody, whether you know if they work in the industry or not, you have to ?sell? yourself as not just One More Aspiring Screenwriter. You have to sell yourself as a Fantastic Writer who just hasn?t gotten the chance to be read yet. You?re on the cusp ? if you entered a competition you would easily win it. You have to sell yourself from that confident position of strength. That way, you will A: be remembered, B: be taken seriously when you reveal your aspiration, and C: if they aren?t an industry-ite, they might know one -- and if they are, they might ask to read your stuff.
Because that?s really the key to the whole concept of sales ? you have to get people to read your script. You have to sell them on the idea that they are missing out if they don?t read your work. BUT, don?t be obnoxious or pushy or cocky or directly present yourself as the Next Coming of All Screenwriters, because that will have the opposite effect.
More on this in later weeks, as selling yourself to industry people is a delicate and subtle situation, and requires a whole different set of skills, phrases, and mindset than presenting yourself to a non-industry person.
The second aspect of sales is being able to sell your script or ideas themselves. If you?re lucky, this means you need to have the art of Pitching down cold, because if you don?t knock that pitch meeting out of the park, there are more consequences to that than you think. Now, this being able to sell your ideas or scripts also includes something as simple as being able to explain that idea or script in one or two sentences - and do it in a way that completely grabs the attention and intrigue of whoever you?re talking to. Again, how you do that and how you phrase things will vary greatly based on who you?re talking to, so this will involve future articles.
Lastly, and this ties directly into one of the biggest advantages you can get for yourself, is how to make contacts ? and this involves selling yourself as a PERSON. Earlier, we were talking about selling yourself as a WRITER. When you?re selling yourself as a person, I?m not saying that you need to become someone else (unless you?re a complete d-bag, in which case you should want to change who you are), I?m just saying you need to ?be? the best parts of yourself in front of industry professionals at all times. While it?s hard but not impossible to make a contacts at parties, or coffee shops, or bars, the easiest way to make contacts is to work for the companies you think would like your work. If that means being an unpaid intern for a month, so be it ? because all you really need is one well connected industry champion of your work to read and like your script, and you?re home free. So be yourself, but be the most pleasant, humorous, easy going, hard working version of yourself as possible. More on this type of ?personal? sales in later articles as well.
E ? Ethic. Notice I didn?t say ?ethics?, which is a whole other thing that you should concern yourself with, but isn?t 100% relevant to success as a screenwriter. No, your ethic will be one of the cornerstones dictating whether you succeed or fail. If you work hard, if you don?t slack off, if you put in long hours towards your writing, you will be ahead of the game. But this doesn?t just apply to being diligent about writing (if it did, this would be a BS part of the acronym).
I have known several screenwriters who sold a script and then thought ?great, the hard part is over? and they start to think that just because they sold a script and have an agent that everything is all set for them. Wrong.
Not only do you have to work hard and make sure you keep writing, not only do you have to make sure you write fast quality work, but you have to continue to keep acting like that hungry aspiring writer AT ALL TIMES, no matter where you are in your career.
If you slack off, even for just a few months, it?s hard to regain the momentum you had ? this applies to writers who have sold their script or gotten their work optioned or won a contest, it applies to writers who have started to get discouraged or been rejected by numerous query letters, lost contests, gotten rejection letters/emails, and it applies to writers who have sold numerous scripts and live in mansions built off the back of Final Draft.
Because being a Hollywood writer is a CAREER. And it?s a career that has a revolving door of talent to fight against for work. If you?re serious about making this your dream career, you have to treat it like a real job, and treat it like you ARE working your way up a corporate ladder of sorts.
Screenwriting seems like this big chaotic mass of people all vying individually to get their work on screen, but in reality every single screenwriter is in their own cubicle, working at the same company so to speak, trying to get as much of their work read by "the boss" as possible so that can get recognized and move their way up. The initial goal is to get a job as a low level gopher at the company, and the eventual goal is to become a part of the corner office CEOs - writers like Orci and Kurtzman - who can pretty much write their own tickets and don?t have to contend with the cubicle gophers anymore. It's a MAD MEN type metaphor, but you catch my drift. I?ll go over more about Ethic in later articles as well.
So that?s just a nutshell version of the W.I.S.E. Screenwriting Method, and it will hold the key to your success in these uncertain screenwriting times. With more and more competition and less and less spec purchases and studio assignments, it will be absolutely critical to study each of these components and put them into practice if you want to break through the many disadvantages and uphill battles so you can come out the other side with a WGA Card and a workable plan for a successful career.
As always, good luck and happy writing!
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