Screenwriters: Don’t Be Crazy

There is a perception out there that screenwriters are nuts. Not everyone. But a good bunch.

Recently, I encountered crazy in my world, when a writer came to me with a screenplay that he wanted me to read, insisting that his 283 page opus should have no challenge introducing him to the professional market place despite industry standards because “movies are that long anyway these days.”

When I shared the story over lunch with an industry friend, I was met with the exasperated statement: “Arghhh. Crazy Screenwriters!”

Which, for the record, I hate. The statement, not the friend. I’ve worked with hundreds of writers over the years. Some of my best friends are screenwriters. Every day I go to a job I love which entails working with wonderful, talented, colorful, vulnerable unique screenwriters, and can tell you from experience that only a tiny increment of the writers I’ve encountered over the many years I’ve been doing this was anywhere in the vicinity of crazy. Which is to say… Screenwriters have gotten a bum rap.

Why is it, then, that so many people have the perception that screenwriters are unstable, volatile, paranoid, if not entirely out of their minds? 

When I interviewed her for my book BREAKING IN: TALES FROM THE SCREENWRITING TRENCHES, I asked Brillstein Entertainment Partners manager and founder of The Blood List Kailey Marsh her advice to writers. Her answer? “Don’t be weird.” Don’t get me wrong: Don’t be weird is important. It’s definitely a good one. It means: Know the etiquette. Conduct yourself professionally both in industry meetings and professional exchanges. Understand how the industry works. Don’t be paranoid. Don’t behave as though you are your manager’s only client or your producer’s only project. Be the person whose calls they are happy to return, the kind of writer they want to hang out with. So I like, “Don’t be weird.” But some might say that “Don’t be crazy” is just as important. 

It doesn’t take long to realize that the actions of a few unstable and potentially unhinged writers have sullied the impression of many. Those writers who are prone to mistrust, who refuse to sign basic industry release forms, who are convinced that no one in Hollywood has any integrity, who avoid talking about their ideas out loud anywhere outside of their homes in fear that someone would steal them, who have decided that they have figured it all out but have no desire to learn how the industry ACTUALLY works are the very writers who have essentially made it harder for REAL writers (and by that I mean 99% of writers out there) who are not out there playing victim, to make their case should anything ever go south as far as their career is concerned. They are the reason that agents, managers and executives are so quick to cut bait at the first indication of possible crazy red flag. 

So… How do you appear less than crazy? Here’s a quick breakdown of some the behaviors I’ve run into and heard about over the years that might deem an entirely stable writer suspect in the eyes of the industry : 

Don’t automatically assume that release forms are put there in order to give the recipient of your material carte blanche to do with it as they please. Release forms have been put into place to protect the entity receiving your script; they do not want to open themselves up to litigation should they be developing (or have developed in the past, or will come to develop in the future) a project deploying similar characters, world, themes or plot points. You are not being asked to sign a release form in order to give others permission to steal from you; you are being asked to sign a release form in case the recipient is working on material that would make receiving your script in some way a conflict. If the Release Form appears in any way unlike the standard, by all means, have a lawyer look at it before you sign. But as a general rule, know that these forms have become fairly standard. 

Get used to sharing the logline for your latest project, be it a TV pilot or screenplay, in public places. Of course, this doesn’t mean that you should stand on a street corner and spew it for anyone to grab, but within reason, if asked in a party, a coffee shop or a restaurant what you’re working on, you should be comfortable sharing the information if the person across from you is vetted.

Especially at the outset of your screenwriting career, your job is generating interest for the work. So many industry meetings take place in restaurants, bars and coffee shops. You need to be able to talk about your work with ease and confidence.

Quick story: A writer once told me that she would refuse to meet with prospective managers or agents at coffee shops because she didn’t want anyone to overhear what she was working on. Therefore, she intended to instruct any rep who wanted to meet with her that she would only meet with them in the privacy of their office. Guess what? The writer never found representation, and left the business after some time. And yet another anecdote: Another writer – unknown and unestablished – once told me he would not share his screenplay with any reputable agents, managers, studios or production companies unless they signed HIS release form, because he felt his idea was so entirely unique. While I absolutely agree that every writer should protect their work (that’s why we want to always have a paper trail) it’s important to remember that screenwriting success is all about execution, so it’s not just the idea, but also what you do with it when it comes to the page. 

Don’t assume the worse! Which is to say… Don’t assume that it’s personal. If your agent or manager doesn’t call you back right away, if you haven’t gotten feedback on a draft you turned into executives, if a producer you handed your script to isn’t getting back to you… don’t freak out! At least not in the short term. I know it’s nerve-wracking to have material sitting out there or waiting for responses, but this is an industry where everyone is chronically over-extended, so don’t assume the worse should things not happen at the pace or with the urgency you would like.

Now, if your agent or manager systematically doesn’t call you back or read your work, that’s a whole other problem, but I’ll reserve that for another blog post at another time. 

It is true that in the industry you hear back from people a lot less than anyone would like, which can be incredibly frustrating. In fact, someone once said that, in Hollywood “No is silence over time.” And I am in no way justifying the industry’s bad behaviors. However, if it takes your rep a few days longer then usual to get back from to you, if you’ve yet to hear back from your development executive on the draft you sent, assume that you will hear from them shortly, that there might be an illness or vacation, and, if they haven’t yet, they are working on whatever it is you are waiting on. That said, if this behavior becomes consistent, especially with a rep, you want to explore potentially having a conversation in an effort to help the relationship course correct. 

Really learn how this industry works. The first sign of crazy – or in the very least ignorance – is a writer who thinks he knows how it all works, but really doesn’t have a clue. It’s okay not to know everything – it’s not okay to believe you know everything when your knowledge and understanding of the business is not up to date. And as someone who works in the industry every day, I can tell you that there’s still plenty for me to learn, much as there is for everyone else. That’s why industry execs do breakfast-lunch-dinner-drinks almost every day: To stay sharp. To find out about new titles they should watch or read. New people they should meet. New companies that are sprouting up, and what new, innovative business model they are exploring. 

So do your research. If you’re a writer just starting out, dig in and explore why, for new writers, getting an agent right off the bat is often useless, if not impossible (not sure? start with my blog post BREAKING IN: HOW TO GET A SCREENWRITING AGENT). Get to know why it’s usually manager first. If you’re in the feature space, know how much is selling (sadly very little), what genres are getting tractions, and what packages are; understand whether you can expect an option or shopping agreement, or if you’re going to be expected to dive into notes and development long before you start getting paid. If you’re a TV writer, understand why it is you need to be in Los Angeles, and know whether it’s unlikely that as a new writer without a credit to his name you will be able to sell a pilot outright (Not sure? My Possible/Probable series can shed some light! CLICK HERE for breaking into TV, and HERE for the installment that’s all about breaking into features). 

From experience I can tell you with absolute certainty that most writers reading this blog post are not crazy. After all, you’re digging in and doing your research. My guess is that you are thoughtful, curious, hard-working writers, who inevitably have to contend with a perception not of your making. And, for the record, I fully understand with the anxiety that this industry can create and assure you that my not-crazy writers have to deal with it every day that their script goes out there, that their pilot is shopped, that they have a bit pitch meeting or run into challenges running a show. 

The good news? Perceptions are blown to bits when real people are involved. When relationships are forged, preconceived notions are thrown out of the window. So be professional. Thoughtful. Reasonable. Know how the industry works. What is a reasonable request, and what that is being asked of you is unreasonable and unacceptable. Don’t be weird. Don’t be paranoid. Let the writing do the hard work for you, and you will see the concern about crazy dissipate – at least as far as you are concerned – and people line up to read you, work with you, and plant themselves firmly in your fanbase.