Besides the occasional celebrity sighting (last week, Kiefer Sutherland), one of the perks of living/working where I do is the access to industry professionals. Recently, I had the pleasure of participating in an intimate roundtable discussion with Barry Levy, screenwriter of VANTAGE POINT (2008) and the upcoming PARANOIA (2013). Barry shared some valuable insight on the realities of professional screenwriting.
He began by explaining how he got started in the business, as the assistant to the head of Nelvana, an animation company, and quickly rose through the ranks to development executive. His first scripts, mostly low-budget horror films, were all unsuccessful. The ones he managed to sell were produced direct-to-video, so never made it theaters. His early career included highs like being flown first class to London to meet a prospective director for one of his scripts, and lows like having to sue a producer to get paid for a film. His first nine writing credits totaled less than $21,000.
Frustrated with writing for others, he decided to write for himself, the result being VANTAGE POINT. It sold within 24 hours, the morning after an all night bidding war. Today his 5 year-old daughter goes to kindergarten with – and has professed love for – the son of the producer he sued. Such is the irony of life in Hollywood.
Barry then shared some basic facts that he thinks every aspiring screenwriter should know:
1. Your job is far bigger than just what you write. How you interact with people is a huge factor, and it will catch up to you.
2. You will be alone A LOT, so you better really love to write. Not surprisingly, feature writers are known for having less social skills than television writers.
3. As a screenwriter, nothing is in your control, at times not even what’s on the page. Writing for film is a collaborative experience, and not always for the better. You will receive notes from studio execs, producers, directors, actors, friends and family, and you will have to listen to these people, some more than others. You can also be fired, replaced, rewritten and/or misinterpreted. Your words can be changed on set. You could show up to a movie premiere and literally not recognize the movie that was made based on your script. You have no control.
4. You will struggle with this lack of control for as long as you are a screenwriter.
5. Striking a balance between work and life will help you deal with the lack of control. Kids and/or animals can put things in perspective and help you turn your brain “off” from work. Writing a spec script and/or directing affords you a little more control, but not all writers want to be directors.
6. Whatever you turn in should feel like your final draft. You only get one chance to make a first impression, so put everything you’ve got into making it as good as it can be.
7. Never say “No” to a note, even if it’s the worst note ever. Say “Let me give it some thought.”
8. Be aware of the “math” of writing when approaching agents. The average script by a newbie writer sells for Writer’s Guild (WGA) minimum of approximately $35,000, of which an agent gets 10%. Usually, agents work in teams of 2, sometimes 3, so they’re actually not making that much money on your sale. Don’t take it personally if your calls don’t get returned as fast as the screenwriter who sells for six figures.
9. Confidence is key. You need to know who you are, define who you are, and own who you are. When considering writers for projects, producers and executives make a list of possible candidates based on their recent work. If you write a horror film, followed by a romantic comedy, followed by a children’s movie, it will only confuse the industry. Don’t try to do, or be, too many things at once.
10. If you’re really serious about screenwriting, you should listen to the weekly free podcast by screenwriters John August (Go, Big Fish, Charlie’s Angels, Titan A.E., Charlie and Chocolate Factory) and Craig Mazin (The Hangover Part II, The Hangover Part III, Superhero Movie, Scary Movie 3, Scary Movie). They give fantastic advice and information on a wide range of topics related to screenwriting, pitching, dealing with agents, producers and more. http://johnaugust.com/podcast or subscribe via iTunes.
I found Barry to be really down-to-earth, funny and endearing. He had no pretensions or romanticized views of Hollywood. He wasn’t bitter. He just told like it is. And even though his advice was somewhat sobering, he managed to give everyone in the room hope.